Dunedin, New Zealand, my city - my people

Sunday, January 30, 2011

It will soon be Christmas.

Today is the last day of the first month of 2011. I looked at my calendar on the wall and noted that I have exercised for at least an hour on 16 of the 31 days, which is not bad. Unfortunately it was mostly low key exercise and the majority of it concentrated in the last couple of weeks. But it is better than nothing. I think my knee is improving.
On Saturday I walked the organ pipe track up Mount Cargill. I was faster to the top by three minutes than I had been earlier in the week. I got there and moved down to sit among some rocks and go over my Sunday sermon in my mind. Pretty soon I was verbalising the sermon, but felt quite safe because I was quite a distance from the main car park/mast area. At one point I heard a noise behind me and turned around to see a young woman, who must have thought she had encountered a mad man. She went scuttling back over the rocks toward her car. That convinced me not to go out the way I came in. I looked down the steep ridge of rocks that eventually ended near the track. Years ago when I was a plumber I went walking with an older guy who was a keen mountaineer. (I was 20, he in his 30's) He was training for mountain trips and we would go very early in the morning, so I could get back to work for an eight o'clock start. On one of these trips I recall, just to make it interesting he branched off the normal track and we clambered up this rocky ridge to the top of Mount Cargill. If we could get up it, surely, I thought, I could get down it. So I did. I clambered down the rocks and did some bush bashing to end up back on the track. I nearly got blown off at one stage. A little later I slipped in mud and came down with a thud on a sharp rock on the right cheek of my posterior. (I am sure it is badly bruised but I cant see it.) I really enjoyed my time though. I felt like a ten year old boy again. As a ten year old I used to disappear on family picnics and climb the nearest hill. I got lost in bush. I once got stuck on a gravel slide on the side of a cliff. But as a kid I loved these lone adventures. On Saturday I was that kid again, a little boy adventuring in the wild, pushing the limits.
Winds of life...
Tonight I went up there again. It was a nice walk but as I got close to the top I could hear the wind screaming through the framework of the radio communication mast. When I arrived at the top I could not believe the strength of the wind. It was difficult walking into it. I took my glasses off because I imagined them getting blown off my face. I was afraid to go toward the edge of the bank in case I tumbled down the hill. The other thing about the wind was that it sucked the heat out of your body. I was only in it a few minutes, but I very quickly got cold. I could not help thinking that sometimes the events and people in your life suck the heat and energy out of your living. Another experience of the moods of my mountain.
Sunday sermon...
The reading for Sunday was Micah 6:1 - 8. Verse 8 is one of the well known verses in the Bible. "He has showed you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God." But the first part of the reading intrigued me. Micah paints a picture of a court case - God verses the people of Israel. God outlines his complaint and the people respond. But the interesting thing for me is the judge who hears the case. The first verse says, "Arise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice." The judge is the "mountains and the hills"! They have been there looking at the journey and history of the people of Israel for generations. They are a reminder of long term consequences. They watch the interactions, wheeling and dealing of people. They see the changing fads of society. They are the judge in this imaginary court case. I like this picture. The mountains and hills by their permanence ask questions of us. What is their perspective on the things I think are important? What do they think of my small minded arguments? How do they perceive my short sighted reactions to issues? Mt Cargill has been looking down on Dunedin for years. She was there long before Dunedin was. She was there before I was, she looked down and saw my childhood. She will be there long after I have gone. It's permanence (the Bible says "the foundations of the earth") challenges me to have long term thinking. It's reality asks of my life, "What am I doing to leave Dunedin a better place?" Its a reminder to recognise long term consequences in the way I live. The "mountains and the hills" take me out of my own little circle of concern and have me looking at the wider picture. It does us good to look up to the mountains and ask ourselves in our imaginations, "From their years of watching human behaviour, from their years of just being, what is their perspective on our living?" "Plead your case before the mountains."

Thursday, January 27, 2011

"Elderly"? Blah!

I was in my gym pedalling my wind trainer bike this morning. I was watching the Breakfast show on TV. The young presenters were talking about the Christchurch earthquake and saying, "My sister had some elderly people living in the house next to them. You know, they were 50's to 60 ish people...." and he went on to talk about the impact on them. 50's - 60 ish "Elderly people"? .... Come on!

To you young people let me tell you from a 62 year old, I am NOT "elderly"! It may take me all night to do what I used to do all night! A romantic weekend now may be one "active" night and one night to get over the active night. I may have a sore knee, and may never again better my personal best time in a half marathon. I may need some help with sussing out the computer from time to time, but don't you dare describe me as "elderly"! What people do when they describe people as "elderly" is basically say, "You know... those people passed their used-by date." People think that elderly people are just sitting around waiting for God. That they have no valid opinion to offer, no good perspective on things. It is ironical, you bluff your way through life and just when you think you may have a little bit of wisdom about life, and know a little bit about what is important, this world which values youth so much, has stopped listening and written you off!

I have to chuckle. I have mixed recently with young people who are on the sustainability bandwagon. They express opinions as if it was their new idea. I sit there and think that we hippy-minded people of the late 60's, early 70s were saying the same sorts of things back then with the same youthful enthusiasm! In many ways they are re-inventing the wheel. But good on them.

Anyway, if you are going to call me "elderly" at least don't write me off. I am still dreaming dreams and looking to grow, and wanting to take on more challenges. "Blah!" to "elderly"!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Changing habits

I have had a good day off. I put together a TV ariel and mounted it on the chimney. I did some other repairs to the fire flue and tidying up in the workshop. I then went for a great walk up "my" Mount Cargill. I came home and helped prepare the evening meal. Eggs from our hens, turnips, potatoes, carrots, silver beet from our garden. Bacon was the only thing from the Farmers Market.
But what I want to write about is habits. A man told me that I lead off with my right leg therefore place extra burdens on my knee. So during my last couple of walks up the mountain I have tried to lead off with my left leg. I thought if I led with my left leg I will lighten the load on my sore knee, particularly walking down the steps on the return trip. So I tried, I really tried. One step, two step, then three... I concentrated hard....but no, always I ended up swinging the right leg through and stepping down with it, jarring my knee. No matter how hard I tried I could not break a habit of a lifetime.

I got to thinking that is so true about a lot of "habits" in life. I grew up as not a very confident boy. There are a lot of reasons for this that I am not going to list off. When I played sport as a teenager, I actually was average, sometimes good at some things, but I never had the confidence needed to be really good. I never broke free, always was hesitant, and in sport those who hesitate lose. When I was a plumbing apprentice, I kept wondering when I would be really confident, but even though I was once second in NZ in my exams and always excelled in both practical and theoretical exams, I never became a truly confident plumber. It has been true all of my life. As a student I was well above average often, but still was never confident and often I procrastinated on assignments, scared to put pen to paper. These days I am nervous meeting new people. Before every Sunday I have a lousy Saturday night's sleep. I visibly shake when I conduct a wedding. I pace the floor before a funeral. I am not a confident minister, no matter how positive the feedback I get. It simply is hard breaking a habit of a lifetime. I have realised that I have to live with my lack of confidence and steel myself again and again to make sure it does not hinder me doing what I need to do. There are heaps of habits that are difficult to break. Ways of coping that may be destructive. There are sometimes ways of handling conflict situations that are hard to break. My experience of trying to lead with my left leg reminded me how difficult it is to break habits of a lifetime. I guess that is true for the people whose lives I wish would change for the better.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Week's end.

Knee problems
I have this sore knee after I run. You can feel grating sensations when I flex it. I have tried to rest it, but it has not recovered. I finally went to the Doctor. He looked at it, felt the grating sensations, pushed and pulled the leg, then told me to go for an Xray. What got me was that he said, "Probably the beginning of osteoarthritis. We wear out you know, it is part of the aging process." It was like he was saying, "What else do you expect at your age?" But I don't want to wear out! I have to wait two weeks till I get the Xray. I have reconstituted a home gym in my garage. I have a home built weights bench I welded up, a push bike on a wind trainer, some free weights, a punch bag and gloves my son left behind, and another couple of exercise machines inherited from children. I will use these rather than run regularly to manage my knee pain. I have installed a TV and my first session happened when I was watching the evening news yesterday. It makes sense, catch the news while exercising for an hour. I need to be disciplined and get out there regularly!
I come to the end of the week aware that I have still left some things undone that I should have done. I just have not been able to fit everything in. I have been hoping to have some flexible time at this time of the year, but already I seem to be able to fill my days. I think I am going to have to make adjustments, but what to cut out is very difficult?
Winding back the clock...
During January I have decided to spend Saturday mornings doing some repairs around the church building. We have had a cistern above the urinal that has often failed to shut off and has wasted water, flowing for hours. I have generally just given the cistern a big thump and it has come right, but most people are not as innovative as I. Yesterday I took it off the wall, pulled it all to pieces, cleaned every part, straightened everything up, put it back together and replaced it and it is going fine now! I also changed a washer on a tap. I decided I enjoy plumbing. Next week some spouting.... why did I give up being a plumber? It is quite enjoyable simply problem solving physical, mechanical things. People are much more complicated.
Jesus is like iron filings.
Last Sunday when we turned a corner on our run some graffiti on a wall read, "If we are all God's children, what's so great about Jesus?" .. I think there was an expletive there too. (I went back to photograph it on Tuesday and somebody had painted it out.) My running friend saw it first and turned to me and said, "What's your answer Mr Minister?" I fobbed it off, but here is the way I see things. I guess the writer was saying if we are all sons and daughters, what is so special about calling Jesus the Son of God? I agree we are all children of God. Here is how I see Jesus. He came and lived his life. People listened to his teaching, spent time with him, saw his values and lifestyle and sensed that there was something special about him. Marcus Borg suggests that there are "spirit people" whose quality of life enables us to see the sacred, and that Jesus was such a "spirit person". In Hebrew religion and in Greek religion there were traditions of calling special people "sons of God". Hebrew kings were referred to in this way, emphasising their role as representatives of God. In Greek mythology and in Roman thinking "Son of God" was often used for special people... emperors and such. The disciples of Jesus and the early church in trying to describe their experience of Jesus as a "spirit person" picked up the term "Son of God" and applied it to Jesus. It was the highest term they could think of, because for them, Jesus seemed to show them what God was like, and most truly represent God. When I call Jesus "Son of God" I am not thinking in "genetic terms", I am using a metaphor to say that for me, Jesus encapsulates what I sense the sacred to be.
Let me give an illustration. If I have a magnet I see the metal bits. But there are unseen force fields buzzing around those metal bits that are important. They are there. I can see their impact if I put a pin near them. They are important in electric motors and so many other things, but I do not see them. "God" for me is like those force fields. Not stuck in heaven, but an unseen reality in the midst of human life. He is the ultimate truths that tug at our heartstrings. He is the perspective and wisdom that guides people, groups and nations. He is the "collective conscience" that is a part of society. He is the compassion that wells up inside of us and the urge for justice. Etc. etc. With a magnet, if I get a sheet of paper, put the magnet on the other side, and sprinkle iron filings over the paper, suddenly the patterns of the force fields are revealed! These otherwise unseen lines are seen clearly. For me, Jesus is like iron filings. He reveals to me, not a God up in heaven, but the "force fields", the directions, the values etc. of the unseen sacred layer of reality that is a part of life. I look at Jesus and somehow I sense "the sacred", the "eternal" or "God" in life. Somehow I sense God addressing me in Jesus. The ancients experienced the same thing and said, "He is the Son of God". The modern man like Marcus Borg says "He is the 'spirit person' I choose to follow".

To finish I leave you with a quote from Albert Schweitzer. I love this quote because it describes my experience. Somehow it is when we respond that Jesus becomes "real" and an unseen partner in life. I used this quote in worship this morning.
He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lake side, He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same word: “Follow thou me!” and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal Himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is. (Concluding paragraph, Quest of the Historical Jesus.)

Some pictures from my walk up Mount Cargill on Tuesday. I got soaked but I loved the moods of the mountain.
And a picture of iron filings revealing magnetic force fields.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Recipe for a long life

I had news just on Christmas that an old college lecturer of mine had died. His name was Gordon Stirling and he was well into his 90s. I posted about him then. Yesterday I was looking through some resources and found a speech he gave at his 90th Birthday. I received a copy of it, so I am thinking he would not mind it being passed on. He called it "The Recipe for long life."

Many people have asked me in recent times how I am very fit and well in spite of my 90 years. So at my birthday celebration I repeated the sort of reply that I often give.

1. I enjoy life.
2. People, all people, fascinate me. I have never yet met any one I couldn't like. If ever I do I will be fascinated to find out why they are like that, or why I am like that!
3. I eat good food, especially plenty of fruit and vegetables.
4. I exercise daily and also do a lot of walking.
5. I have favourable genes. My mother lived till 96. A second cousin died the other day at 100. ... and we are a family of incurable optimists.
6. A long time ago I started learning something about life that for me is basic. I have been learning it ever since and am still learning it. That is that the secret of real living is living joyfully with God, and living for people. Maybe an explanation will help.

My God doesn't live above the solid blue dome, sitting on a throne for ever and ever, watching people hurling their crowns along the glassy sea in front of him. How boring for God! There is no place where God isn't. He is with every one whether they know him or not. He is creating in all who are open to it, love, peace, compassion, wisdom, insight, health and comfort, whether they know him or not. He is healing through healing teams, dedicated researchers and others, whether they know him or not. I can share this creative work with him, and it is exciting. He knows me better than I know myself and still accepts me "warts and all" and works with me towards my potential. He doesn't promise to exempt me from the rough stuff in life, but he does promise to give me what it takes to handle it well. And so far he always has, and really I don't want any more than that.

And the "living for people" bit? It is satisfying and fulfilling, and it's fun! And the opposite of that lifestyle is "hell". People who live for themselves have a terrible existence. Nothing really satisfies them. They get hurt easily. They get upset when they can't get their own way. They are often in conflict. And they are often way down in the downward spiral of self-pity. Some get so far down they can't get up again.

Well that's my recipe. There is no patent on it!

I think there is quite a bit of common sense in that bit of writing, I thought I'd pass it on. He was a good guy who did a lot for a lot of people. Gordon is the guy seated on the right in the photo above. He was into his 90's then and still going strong.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Wrong Mrs Palin

I think Sarah Palin's "blood libel" comment was unfortunate. I would not say that she has contributed to the tragedy of the shootings, but I do think her cross hairs map is very unwise and ill considered given the culture and times in which she lives. But I do want to say that her statement about the culpability for the crime "begins and ends with the criminal" is wrong! (Why was she so so defensive?) There are lots of contributing factors to crime, and somehow the ethos, the economics and the values of the culture contribute to crime. While that person is culpable and should be held responsible for the crime, it should be a spur for society as a whole to ask, "What is there in our culture, ethos and values that sets the scene for such things to happen?" It is a dangerous and irresponsible individualism that does not acknowledge that there are wider contributing factors to crimes. Studies have shown, for example, that where there is a wide disparity between rich and poor, then crime increases. This is true also even if the person is classed as mentally ill. Why is it that we spit so many people out the back end of our society who cannot cope with life in "normal" ways? (I ask this regularly as I share in our Friday night drop in centre.... so many distorted, twisted up and wasted lives! How come? What are we doing wrong?) This is something we in NZ need to take on board also. Headlines last week suggested our drinking culture is a national disaster. The various statistics relating to health problems and numbers of problem drinkers are staggering. We need to be asking questions about values and ways such irresponsible drinking is encouraged and reinforced. Another issue is why there has been such an increase in violent crime? Why do we have such a poor record in terms of domestic violence? Of course the perpetrators need to take responsibility, but as a wider society we need to re-examine the way we think and do things also. We will not find solutions by burying our heads in the sand and just blaming the individual, we must look at the wider picture.

Sorry Mrs Palin, I think you are wrong, you would not get my vote.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

"Gracefully surrendering" ... get stuffed.

Stupid Knee...
A couple of months ago I was running well. I could run the 11k home easily and feel all the joy of running freely. But now I have a sore knee. I have rested it hoping that it would come right. Even when I went for a walk up the mountain the downward journey would make it sore. When I bend it and touch the outside knee area, you can feel a sort of grating. When it was really bad you could hear the grating sound. I was talking to a man who does sport massage and massage therapy on Friday and he poked and prodded and told me that I need medical help. He warned me that unless I had some treatment I could end up needing a walking stick in two years. I went for a bike ride yesterday and it was "OK'. Today I went for a run/walk and apart from the grating feel, it seems OK so far. But what is ahead for me?

Is it time to give up running? I have been too busy to go on serious tramps thinking "when I reach retirement age" I will do these sorts of things. But will I be able to then? My son wants to go tramping with me in February, will I handle 8 hours of walking?

The Desiderata says;

...take kindly the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth.
Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress your self with imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

Well I say get stuffed to the "gracefully surrendering the things of youth"! There is nothing graceful about the way I feel. - I must admit I could be "distressing myself with imaginings".

I have often talked with people who have had life changing injuries and wondered how I would cope in the same situation. I have not got major injuries but to be frank my stupid knee depresses me. I would be a difficult patient with something profound. I hope I will learn grace, because if not now, then sometime there will come a time when I will be limited... there is nothing surer. One thing that annoys me is that if it is really bad I will have all those people who have said, "You should not be running, running is bad for you. Especially at your age." gloating at me and telling me, "I told you so!" ... I think I would have to leave town. I think I have to take my knee to a doctor. Watch this space.

The week that was.
  • Monday - (my normal day off) led a funeral, received phone calls about another death and extra work.
  • Tuesday - chaplaincies at fire service and St John Ambulance. Started to sort some things out for the year ahead. Initial reading for Sunday's service.
  • Wednesday - Morning I was called in to another industry to support a CEO as he met with one of his managers to talk over serious issues. Saw a man aching about his reputation, his job and his whole future. In the afternoon, amongst other things, began to sort out the addresses and letters of appreciation to go to people after the Christmas Dinner. More Sunday service preparation.
  • Thursday - four hours were spent at Allied Press catching up on people. Choosing songs for Sunday and exploring other elements for the service.
  • Friday - chaplaincy work with Fire and Ambulance staff. Some people at the Ambulance are going through job changes so this will be issues to talk through in the week ahead. A syndicate there won First Division in Lotto a few weeks ago. While the eventual amount to each member is not big, it is big enough to cause interesting lunch room discussions.
  • Saturday - In the morning I got out my old plumber's tools and fitted a water filter under the sink at the Church. I enjoyed doing it, though my knee did not like the kneeling. In the afternoon and evening work toward today's service and an enjoyable bike ride.
  • Sunday - Final preparations and presenting the Sunday service. I went for a run, catching up on my running friend who has been in Australia since before Christmas.
In amongst all this there have been countless conversations with people visiting the church or in chaplaincies covering all sorts of topics. As I said to someone today, "In my job I am never bored!"

Friday, January 14, 2011

"faith" .. what is it for me?

It isn't...
In my last post I talked of "faith". But what do I mean? Let me waffle on this subject, again thinking out loud! Sometimes, because I am a minister, people assume that implies that I "believe" certain things. These can be miracles, some weird prophecy they think is in the Bible, that creation happened just as it is in the Bible etc. etc. Or sometimes they assume that I "believe" homosexuality is wrong, that it's Ok to run down Muslims, that lawbreakers should be severely punished etc. It is assumed that being a person of "faith" involves holding to certain "beliefs" or "moral positions" (usually what you don't do) as in intellectual ascent to abstract statements. I do not like using the words "beliefs", "believe" or "believer" to describe what my "faith" is or how it impacts my life. When I am at a church service where they recite one of the creeds I refuse to recite it. Apart from the questionable abstract concepts and the total lack of the word "love", (describing a God of love???) it just is not who I am as a follower of Jesus.

What it is...or my attempt to describe how I experience "faith".
"Faith" to me is much more of a dynamic experience. Rather than believing certain dogma in my mind, it is more relational, more like falling in love, and being again and again confirmed in that love. When we fall in love there is something deep inside us which is attracted to something deep inside the other person. There is what we sometimes describe as, "chemistry", a responding to each other. It has a rational side to it in that we seek to ensure we really do know the other if we are going to build on that love and deepen it, but it is some deep inner "recognition" that seems to come from outside of ourselves. We then want to merge with that person and become an "us" and in a sense we allow ourselves to be "possessed" by the other. There evolves an intimacy and partnership so that person is just "there" with us and in us as we travel through life even though we may be separated by distance. Now, I may be balmy, but that virtually word for word describes my ongoing experience of "faith".

As a young boy as I heard stories and teachings of Jesus there was something "in me" that "rang bells" and I was simply smitten because he "made sense". That "smitten experience" has kept me attempting to walk with him, even though I stray regularly. That has never stopped happening and "he" is just "there". Sometimes I hear a bit of his teaching (e.g. The Good Samaritan parable or a simple saying like, "Those who live by the sword die by the sword") and the truth in it "possesses" me, and its implications and relevance explode in my mind. His teachings are demanding and seem idealistic, but as such I cannot help but be drawn to them. But it is not a matter of worked out "intellectual ascent" or "belief" but rather an experience of "deep" calling to "deep". There is an inner authority that is hard to describe, but harder to deny. (I often think that people's arguing about religion or Church services or "hypocrites in Church" etc is people desperately trying hard to block this inner voice calling them.) Very often too it is not words that smite me but experiences. I recall visiting a lady who was dying in hospital. I was scared shitless! What if I get it wrong? What if I say something stupid? But I had traveled with that lady for a year or two and I wanted to be with her. I sat beside her bed and tried to be "with her" mostly in silence, just holding her hand. I came out of that hospital thinking "now that was real!". This giving yourself to another is LIFE! It is "truth"! Like "wow.. nothing can top that deep closeness"... I recall coming home and seeing TV adverts about fashions, smelling nice and gadgets and thinking "what absolute meaningless crap!" That is "faith" to me, being possessed by truth and experiencing it. I have seen it happen to people volunteering for Christmas Day dinner. I encourage them to respect the people, enjoy the people and give themselves to people. I go up to thank them and they say, "No! ....THANK YOU! That was great! That was the best Christmas Day I have ever had!" One lady who openly said she didn't like religion, walked passed me once delivering meals to her table saying, "Wow! This is unconditional love in action! I LOVE it!" They have experienced TRUTH. I have seen it on Habitat sites, people carried away by the experience of giving in the way Jesus gave. "Faith" for me is this being smitten by ultimate reality again and again. It can be in closeness with another. It can be being forgiven by another. It can be deep anger at some stupid evil statement or injustice. It can be in a sentence you read that makes you go, "Yeah!" It often is in love shared, grace received and an experience of life at depth. Maturing faith is that deep sense of journeying with the sacred and with others, people around me and those who have gone before. Now, and you will know this if you have read earlier posts, this is not always ecstatic experiences of truth, and blissful joy. Sometimes it involves deep, difficult and seemingly silly choices. I struggle with the frustrations of ministry in an old established church. But try as I might, I am smitten by a deep "call" to keep trying to work out a relevant expression of the Jesus way. These experiences of being smitten are to me what "faith" is.

"Faith - living in the currents of God"
One time when our families were young my brother and I and our families were picnicking beside the fast flowing Clutha River. The kids were paddling in the shallows but we two went looking for more adventure. Both of us loved swimming and could swim reasonably well so we were confident in our own ability. We went away upstream and found an outcrop of land that went out into the river. We jumped in and rode the rapids, racing down the river through all sorts of twists and turns, bumping over rocks yelling at the top of our lungs when we could. (I recall racing past our families with our wives looking suitably shocked at our immature behaviour) When we were able to swim out of the current we did so and then walked back up the bank to repeat the performance. That is my experience of faith. It is being swept along by the currents of God, (that flow of life that was there before me, and will continue after me) but that will take me on a journey with all sorts of twists and turns and is the ultimate ride of a lifetime. There is a deep sense of being "in the current" but it is nothing like intoning...
(imagine a solemn nasal voice) "I believe in God, the Father almighty,
creator of heaven and earth.
I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord... etc etc."

It is more like....
"Wow! Wahoo Whoa! Watch out! Oh no! Let me out! Oh yes! .. gulp! gurgle... splash.. Wow!"

Faith is jumping into the currents of God and letting them take you wherever they will!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Myth, history and faith?

Anthony made a good comment about my last post. There was something he said in passing that got me thinking about the way I view the Bible.

"Myth" in the Bible... I believe there is a lot of myth in the Bible. That does not mean that I think the Bible is no good to us, just that a whole lot of stuff becomes more meaningful when we read it as myth. The nature of the story telling is more like mythology than it is history and we have to read it in that light. One commentator I read recently writing about Luke's account of the Christmas story said something like, "Luke is not writing history. He is writing theology in narrative form." If we depend on the New Testament to be historically correct we come across all sorts of dilemmas. In Luke's birth accounts to try and workout the dates when various people were in authority and a census was taken and to reconcile it with other historical data is very difficult. What I believe, is that when the Gospel writers wrote the gospels they are writing back into their story of Jesus the evolved faith of the Church... so much of what Jesus is reported to have said he may not have said. There are scholars (e.g. the Jesus Seminar) who try to work out the "historical Jesus" from the "Jesus of faith". These days I explore their writings and the writings if thinkers like Marcus Borg etc. I think many people who have chucked out the "faith" because of the difficulty of believing literally everything in scripture would find new freedom and meaning in such writers.

Anthony said... In the midst of his comment Anthony had these words... ""IF Jesus Christ really existed, and IF he was as described in the book and IF he is your role model..." and he goes on to make his really valid point. The first two "IF"s got me thinking. Does my faith have to depend on the fact of Jesus existence and upon the fact that if he existed he lived as is described in "the book"? (Now before all you good Christian people consign me to hell I do believe Jesus existed... then again does "hell" exist? I digress.) ... but to illustrate from an Old Testament story. I don't believe that God took some mud and made a man. I don't believe that he then took a rib from that man and fashioned a woman. (gorgeous creations though they be) I do not believe Adam and Eve and the crafty serpent existed. I don't think there was a naked couple who "walked in the garden" "ate the fruit" "clothed themselves with fig leaves" "hid from God" etc. These are mythological stories that describe truths about life, God and the relationships between all "this". Now even if I do not believe in their historicity, I can say I choose to live my life by the truth of that myth. That is my "faith", the deep truths that these stories point to.

In the same way, it is possible for someone to have real difficulty in believing that Jesus actually existed, but to still choose to say of the writings about him, "I will live by the deep truths these stories, this character point to... I believe those values, those insights and those purposes to be 'ultimate truth' (i.e. God)".

Now I don't quite fit into that category. I believe there was an historical Jesus. I believe that the Gospels give us insight into his historical life and teachings. But I do believe the gospels express truths about Jesus, God and the relationship between the two in mythological type stories and using mythological type picture language. In my living then, I choose to listen to the truths and testimony in the stories and to live by the deep truths and values they point to, without having to get too hung up about exact historical detail.

My old father-in-law was a minister. (though I did not always agree with his directions) I remember going for a walk with him at the time when Lloyd Geering, who was principal of a local theological college, was raising questions about the nature of the resurrection. (1970 ish) My Father-in-law said, "If someone could prove to me that there was absolute proof that there was no resurrection, I would still say of Jesus, 'My Lord and my God' " ... Well I think I would have to say something similar. If someone could prove that Jesus never existed, I would still say that the character in the stories, the truth and values he taught, the insights into the sacred the stories give, are worth living by, they would still make my life a better life, they would still make a real difference in the world... He would still be for me "My Lord and my God". (Both terms are pictures, metaphors anyway?)

Anyway, I am very much thinking aloud, sparked by the passing comments Anthony made... thanks Anthony. Probably I have offended a lot of good christian people... sorry. ...

Monday, January 10, 2011

Monday update..

My "day off"....
  • We Skyped with my son in Poland and caught up with him, which took a bit more time than I had anticipated. It was good though to see him.
  • I set to work preparing for the funeral which I had to run at 2:30 p.m.
  • The phone rang and it was a man from one of my chaplaincies who described the death of his sister's ex. As he talked I realised I knew the man. He wanted to know if I was available later in the week for a funeral if need be. The dead man had been addicted to alcohol... it is very sad. I received a further phone call about this and was to get a call back later tonight.
  • I continued working and while having a bite to eat before heading out to conduct the funeral, there was yet another phone call. A chaplain. A very awkward issue had come up in her chaplaincy where she needed an extra chaplain for a meeting on Wednesday. Would I be willing to come along. I talked it over, finished my lunch and headed out to take the funeral. I was to get a further phone call about this later also.
  • I conducted the funeral and actually enjoyed it. The lady who had died sounded like a real gem of a woman with a very talented family. As they with love celebrated her life I felt privileged to be a part of it. I kept pronouncing her name incorrectly... I hope they will forgive me.
  • I went to the fire station to get a phone number, and talked with two men about family health issues they were having.
  • I came home and we had a cup of tea then went shopping.
  • I received my phone calls. I do not have big responsibilities with the man who died. I will continue to support the man who rang me. I will however be spending time with the CEO of a firm supporting him through a difficult issue on Wednesday.
That was my Monday "day off". Life is never boring and I began to wonder when the phone calls would stop. I do have a busier week ahead than I had planned. I thought I should report to any faithful readers that in spite of my grumpiness, I enjoyed conducting the funeral. There are rich rewards in my job that I need to remember when it seems difficult.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Sunday sillies...

First - A selfish grump... Ministers are people too!
I often enjoy this time of year to catch up on planning type stuff, do some housekeeping in and around my office and just blob out or have some quieter home life in the evenings. I should learn not to expect such luxury in my job. Let me resort to selfish grumpiness for a while...
  • My wife's brother is quite ill in Christchurch hospital. (5 hours drive away) I have a brother-in-law who has been given a sad prognosis living in Christchurch. A son, we have not seen since we were in London also lives there. We had planned to leave church today (Sunday 9th) and drive to Christchurch, arriving back in Dunedin early on Tuesday morning so that we could catch up on all three people. I arrived home on Wednesday night from work and began to prepare for a night in. The phone rang and it was a funeral director who said a lady had died in her 90's. Early in her life she had Church of Christ connections, her funeral was on Monday and would I lead it? I hesitated. The funeral director talked some more about the lady's early Church of Christ connections, and asked again. I hesitated again. "Are you on holiday?" the funeral director asked. "Well no!" I replied honestly. "They have it pretty well worked out, so it won't be too hard for you?" she insisted. I remembered one of my elders telling me once that I should not be driving to Christchurch on a Sunday afternoon, that it was still one of my working days, that I should be available in Dunedin for it.(Though I hasten to say that is not the majority view) ... I got guilted out and agreed to stay home and take the funeral. Then I got grumpy about it for a while. I knock off work, am at home trying to relax and they ring me, stuff up my evening, (I had to break the news to my wife when she got home) and stuff up my plans... What right have they to do that? They don't pay my wages? Even if they pay me for the funeral the going rate for ministers is about $130... I was talking to a nephew-in-law who charges that for one hour's consultancy work! - Funerals take six to eight hours at least. It is a pretty low charge out rate..... I could feel under valued. They planned it for Monday before they asked me... Monday is my day off! It would have been fairer to check with me first... I will have no day off in this next week. I preached a sermon on being a servant today so I am being inconsistent. I am doing the funeral and will feel OK, but I am allowed a moment of selfish grumpiness.
  • On Friday night we were at home enjoying an evening of comedy on the TV. The Drop-in hasn't started so we were in relaxed mode, enjoying our freedom. My wife had been on the phone and after that we checked the messages. One of our drop-in guys left a message, saying he wanted to talk to me about something that happened at drop-in a couple of months ago, and demanded that I ring him back. I had just talked with him that day? Again it stuffed up part of our night. He would not do that to his social worker. He would not do it to his Doctor. Why is it OK to disturb my night about something that is not urgent?
Now I am being selfish and selfishness leads to grumpiness. Very often though, I have cause to feel that ministers, because they have to be nice, are treated with less consideration and respect than would be given to others. I could give heaps of examples but I'll stop now. Yesterday I was under the Church's borer ridden floor making some repairs with my wife handing me tools. The Pastor and wife of the Korean congregation which meets in our buildings arrived, dug out the vacuum cleaners and began to clean the building. The Korean congregation have said they will do this, in a sense it is part of their rent. But I have noticed it is the Pastor who is left with the task. Perhaps he too could get grumpy... but maybe he is more Christian than I?

Nice to be active again..
I have had a sore knee, so while my running friend has been away in Aussie, I have not been exercising, hoping the knee will heal. The weather too has been grey or wet, and not conducive to outdoor adventures. Yesterday, however, I climbed my mountain. While on top I encountered a couple with an older woman I took to be one of their mothers. They initiated conversation. At one point I said, "I think they should make a decent road up here, not that corrugated dusty one, so that more tourists could enjoy that view." They looked stunned. "That road is OK!" said the man emphatically. His wife grinned and said, "We live in Uganda, and for us that road is luxury." It is all relative isn't it? With clear skies the view was stunning. Today in warm but very windy weather I went for a 9k jog (I could not call it running) My knee suffered a little, but it is nice to be active again, I get kind of stir crazy when I can't get out and about.

Ding's piano..
We have this delightful Chinese lady coming to Church who had bought an old piano. Her room in the place she lives is upstairs, and she asked if there was a group of us who could move the piano for her. It was a significant stairway with a U-turn in it. After Church this morning a group of us went around and moved this heavy monster up the stairs. We skinned our hands, grunted a lot and raised a sweat, but we did it. I was quite pleased that I could still carry one end of a piano, by myself when there was not room for two of us. Ding was so grateful she handed out beers to us. John is an older guy who has been coming to church since coming to the 2009 Christmas dinner. He climbed into our car as we dropped him back at the library. He laughed as he polished off his stubby of beer. "Someone is gonna ask me what I have been up to. I'll tell them - 'moving a piano and drinking beer with the minister' - they won't believe me!" Ding thanked us profusely, but it was simply good fun being in a group of friends doing something for someone else.

1. "Through the eye of a needle"... A big cruise ship leaves Otago Harbour. It is a surprisingly narrow channel for such a big ship to go through.
2. Lying in the grass I took a photo of the tower on top of the mountain. In 1969 (I think) I was working as a plumber on the adjacent building and watched the tower being built. My guess is that they would never have guessed it would have so much attached to it and play such an important role in communications as it does now. Cell phones were not around then!
3. Blueskin Bay North of Dunedin, from the top of the mountain. There is a shellfish industry based there. Warrington beach is the white strip to the right. It is apparently called Blueskin Bay because there was once a Maori Chief there whose face was extensively tattooed, his skin was seen as being blue.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Last words...?

When I was going through the drawers of my desk I came across an article I wrote some years ago. As I recall it the Bible reading for the day were words of farewell from Paul about his life when he was in prison expecting to be executed. He wrote about how important Jesus was to him. I pondered what I would write if I were in the same situation. Here roughly was the letter I came up with....

Dear family, friends and acquaintances,

I have traveled part of life's journey with you
What a rich variety of people there have been.
  • Managers and mental health patients;
  • Saintly people of faith and argumentative atheists;
  • Emergency service workers and brewery workers;
  • Plumbers and preachers;
  • Young and old;
  • Church people, sports people, teetotalers and drunkards;
  • Sinners who thought they were saints;
  • Saints who thought they were the worst sinners.
Thank you for being a part of my life.
I have mixed with all sorts and watched how people live.

Often we drift through life like a boat with no motor or rudder, adrift in currents, and winds and waves. We go with any cultural fashion, or whatever values that come along and do not become the person we could become.

I have seen many people make wrong lifestyle choices. Sometimes these have been dramatic choices that sink people into addictions or destructive lifestyles. Others have been just less than constructive choices in the hum drum relationships and values in life. When we consistently do this we are like a ship choosing a dangerous sea passage. A passage with rocks, shallow seas and tough winds. They can get beached or wrecked or just find life forever going from crisis to crisis or feeling empty.

While I have never been all that I could have been, I have been lucky in life in that I was introduced to a focal point and a guiding light which has helped me navigate the journey.

Jesus is that light and focal point.

I share three things that he has done for me.

First - for me he is an expression of that "Great Spirit" which is bigger than all our religious interpretations. Jesus enabled me to be aware of that unseen presence. He described "the presence" as a wild wind, or the energy in a growing seed or plant. In short, Jesus put me in touch with that reality we called "God". We are not alone, he is at work in history, in human society and in and through us. I sense that presence in the movements of history, in the people around me and in me.

Secondly - Jesus has held up for me his great principle of altruistic, unconditional love. I have fallen very short of the ideal but he has held it up as something to aim for. I have tried to give expression to this at various levels of relationships. When I have strayed Jesus' example and teaching have pulled me around again and again. He holds up before me in my relationships this high ideal. I believe it is more powerful than evil. It has given my life meaning, direction and motivation. He has helped me to be more generous, responsible and caring. I am far from all that I could be, but I have lived a better life because of this ideal.

Thirdly - Jesus has reminded me that at the heart of the universe there is a love like that of a loving father... or parent.. forgiving, accepting and affirming. I have experienced life then, knowing all the dignity and worth of being a child of God. This has enabled me in my best moments to see others as brothers and sisters and to have a global understanding of the human family.

Jesus has done these things for me. Even if my living has been a poor advertisement for Jesus, let me in my passing commend him to you. Whatever my life has been it has been better for his presence. Thank you for sharing the journey with me.
I have to go now... David.

In August last year I had an old friend die. Apparently he was aware of what was ahead and he rang his grandchildren and said his goodbyes and final words to them. In the same way he talked to his family around his bed. Then with dignity and courage said he didn't want to go, but had to.. "So I'll just say good night" and drifted into unconsciousness and death. I have wondered what I would say to my kids and friends in that situation. I think I would like something like the above to be part of it. Jesus has made a difference in my life.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Life is a journey...

I began my day looking for a file folder. As I looked I became convinced I needed to do some sorting out of the drawers in my desk in my home study. (It wasn't till quite late in the day that I discovered the file I had lost) It has been a real adventure, often nostalgic, sometimes sad, sometimes joyful as I pulled all sorts of papers out of the drawers.

I discovered a sort of contract I had with the probation service for supporting a man who had issues with alcohol, drugs and violence. We had come to know him through one of our Christmas Dinners and he began to attend our church. He had earlier in life been convicted of murder. I remembered there were a couple of times when I made him angry by challenging his behaviour and I felt a little vulnerable in my office. He was a big guy! My mind went to all the ups and downs of my journey with him. I discovered too a pile of letters I had forgotten I had written, when I budgeted for a couple in town here. Once again all the demands of that task came flooding back. I discovered too my dog eared and dirty looking certificates, diplomas etc from the various stages of my life. Plumbing qualifications - University- Theological and Ministry training - Social work - and various other courses I have been involved in. I found letters and cards relating to the medal I received a few years back. I found letters in which as a disgruntled minister or chaplain I had expressed my opinions and complaints to higher authorities, and even letters of resignation that were not accepted. Old articles I have written or articles I have thought worthy of keeping have emerged, some of them I thought were quite good. It has been an interesting day recalling my Dunedin Journey. (After a conversation in a phone call I made to another centre today I began to wonder if I shouldn't move cities in the next year or so.)

I have been reminded that - LIFE IS A JOURNEY! I guess there is nothing new in that, but as I have reviewed my "treasures" I have discovered that some things I once thought were important, I now don't see as a priority. There are opinions I once had, things I thought worth battling over, I now no longer hold. Articles I have kept because at the time I thought them great, I now feel like my thinking has left them behind. Once at a ministers' refresher I heard a man waffling on eloquently and enthusiastically about "keeping alive your first love" in marriage. (Misquoting a biblical passage) I remember thinking at the time how it is so wrong. That is static living. In marriage my relationship and love for my wife changes, deepens and has different dimensions. It now, after 41 years, makes my love when we married look like "puppy love". The same is true of our spiritual journey. We have to keep growing, broadening, expanding, focusing or we lose touch with life and it becomes an irrelevant part of life for us. A Sunday School faith is no good for adults! While we still may go to church, it no longer is a major formative factor in our living.

Hold on lightly to your opinions.... If life is a journey then we need to be mobile in our attitudes, opinions and knowledge. If we live a mobile lifestyle we need a bus, or tent so that we can easily up sticks and move. I think this is true of our personal/spiritual growth also. We need all of the time to be ready to re-draw our maps of reality! Sometimes we can hold positions that need to be changed, but we have become too dependent on them for who we are, so we cling to them and don't want to change. Keith Miller was a Christian writer of many years ago, but I still remember one of his pictures of "faith". He pictured a trapeze artist swinging on a trapeze. To reach the next one he has to let go of the old one, and the audience holds its breath till he grasps comfortably the new one. But he must take the risk of letting go, so that he can swing further, and make progress. We too need to express our opinions in the conversation of life, but also be listeners and reflectors, holding onto them in such a way that we can let them go when truth and life demands change. We sometimes erroneously think the faithful person is the one who holds definite opinions and doctrines. They, we think, are "the strong ones". But I believe true people of faith journey with God and are all of the time letting go, and leaping forward. ... journeying with God they are willing to change.

I was talking to an ex-member of our church recently. One of the reasons he left us was because he did not agree with some of my stances back then. We met by chance and he immediately launched into conversation in which he was questioning what I suspect he knew were my opinions. Indirectly he seemed to be expressing questions about my journey. But as I listened I suddenly thought to myself that it was not me he was trying to convince, it was himself! As I listened to his demeanor and tone of voice, I began to suspect his reading and reflections had led him to question his dogma, but he was scared of the questions. In front of me he was busy repeating arguments to convince himself that he could stay secure in his present faith. The thought hit me, "You are scared to move!" and just my presence had raised the questions his "soul" was beginning to ask. This was why he had so quickly raised the topic. I listened as a friend, I did not try to change him, but I hope for his sake he will change when he is ready.

In my spiritual journey I now believe little institutional dogma. Much that once seemed important no longer registers with me. What I do "believe" (It seems the wrong term for my relationship to the sacred) runs much more deeply in my life and provides me with "life", focus and meaning in a powerful way.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Sunday night again...

Good hearted clapping..
All our songs in our Church services are on power points. My daughter usually prepares these prior to Sunday morning and it usually all goes smoothly. I announce the song and look around and it is up on the screen. This morning I announced a song and looked around and found a different song on the screen. (The hassle was that the opening words were similar) I urgently stared at my daughter operating the computer as the organ cranked into the introduction, and eventually she clicked onto the mistake. I paused everything and my daughter desperately went in search among the computer's "brain" for the right song. She tried inserting it and in her haste hadn't managed to do it right. She came up with a different solution. All this time the organist, bless his heart, played the tune quietly, and the congregation watched her desperate searches through the "hymns" file on the big screen. She found it and screened it. I was thinking that this older congregation would be sitting there scoffing at this new technology and thinking ill of our preparation. I was so wrong. When my daughter finally (and it wasn't a long pause really... it just seemed long.) got the right hymn up on the screen the congregation burst into spontaneous good humoured applause in appreciation of her efforts. It was all OK and even helped the warmth of the service. I can be so wrong in my reading of what people think.
Goodbye Jeff... I am an old softy!
I have had my old Australian college buddy Jeff and his wife Ruth, staying with us since before Christmas. They shared in our Christmas Day dinner. We went on an adventure to Milford Sound together. I walked on my mountain with him. We saw in the New Year together and he and I walked the dog last night. Today we said our farewells in the church car park after church. I was going to a picnic with my wife's relatives so I had changed and purposely put on a jumper that belonged to Ian, the third member of the college trio who died in 2009. Jeff had been wearing a jacket which was Ian's and so we stood together in the car park for a photo, very much aware of our loss of a friend. (In a way Ian was "there" with us) Then we said our goodbyes. We hugged, two grown men and I choked up!? Jeff didn't help it by saying, "We don't know when we'll see each other again, if ever!" It has been good having them. Jeff and I slip into an easy companionship like we have never been apart. But I didn't expect to be that emotional when saying goodbye? As I have thought about it I guess it is because I have few close friends. I have lots of friends I enjoy, but few close ones. That I think is a combination of me not trusting myself to people and also me not taking the time to establish friendships. Anyway, it has been nice having him around.
Other friends..
In Church this morning there were another couple. She is a minister and in her training worked with me for six months. We got on so well, theologising for hours about life and ministry. Her husband too has been working in School chaplaincy, but they have been in the North Island. It seems every time I encounter them we all slide easily into conversation and feel an affinity with each other in the ministry journey. Today was no exception. We shared hugs, had a brief conversation but fell into real sharing quickly. I won't see them again for a while and there is always a feeling of "I wish we could spend more time together!" But life does not work out like that. It is nice to know that they are "out there" on a similar journey with similar values and passions.

Top and bottom one: Jeff and I in Ian's jumpers.
Middle: Jeff outside the Chinese Gardens in Dunedin.