Dunedin, New Zealand, my city - my people

Monday, February 27, 2012

Doing jobs

Just doing my job.
I have a friend who is ex-military and a bit of a red neck. He often sends me emails with a military/ God-bless-America flavour to them. Recently I have seen three videos of real time war action. The first was talking about exploding bullets for snipers and gave footage of a sniper taking out another sniper in Afghanistan. It was to show the power and effectiveness the weapons. A Taliban sniper was behind some rocks some distance off. With powerful scopes the US military sniper lined up this shadow and fired. The poor enemy “target” was blown to smithereens, with body parts clearly seen falling down the bank. There was loud, impressed rejoicing by the soldiers. The second video was again of some soldiers coming under attack by an enemy sniper. You could hear bullets ricocheting around the soldiers and expletives about how close they were. (I would be swearing too!) The soldiers were trying to pin point where the sniper was. “Behind that f…ing date palm over there.” They had a mean looking machine gun/piece of artillery and let fly with several long bursts of fire at and around the “f…ing date palm”.  There was no chance of survival for the sniper, and much rejoicing among the troops. Somebody praised the shooter for his success and he replied, “Just doin' m' job.”  The third video was much safer. The scene was a cubicle in America where a normal looking pony-tailed woman (looking like a secretary in an office) looked like she was playing video games with a big screen and joystick in hand.  A man in another cubicle supported her and they could communicate together via headsets. They were not playing video games; they were controlling a “Drone” thousands of miles away that was on a mission to destroy a Taliban “target”.  An enemy leader was expected to drive out of a house and down a road and the armed drone was to fire at and destroy the vehicle. In the video you watched and heard the whole thing. You saw the woman push the button to fire the rockets at the vehicle. The man counted down, then you saw the vehicle (filmed from the drone) travelling down the road suddenly explode.  “Wow. Well done! Good job!” the man yelled through his headset to the smiling ponytailed woman.  The heading above the video was “Kill a Taliban leader, and go home for lunch.”  I found watching these videos disturbing. I guess each person was “just doing his or her job” but somehow I felt guilty being entertained by watching this. The sniper blown apart, the guy behind the “f…ing date palm” and whoever was in the vehicle was somebody’s son, father, husband or brother. They were not just “a target” but real human beings obliterated by other human beings.  I sensed as I heard the dialogue in each that the people doing the killing had somehow “objectified” their targets, so they perceived them as less than human. I guess if that’s your job that is what you would have to do. I would find it hard to be a soldier.  In the words of the old song “when will we ever learn?” War really does cheapen all of our lives.  There has to be a better way? 

My job today
Today we bought a new ladder, one of those fold up “34 ladders in one” type. When we were doing our wills last week I had said to myself that I would not buy any more tools, that at this stage in my life it was time to be cutting back on possessions, not adding to them. My wife, however, was keen to buy this ladder. Our old ladder has seen thirty years of service, is a bit loose in the joints, and does not reach far up the tallest part of our house. So we purchased this ladder with a “life time guarantee”. I joked that it did not have to last long! I set my new ladder up (I even read the instructions!) and cleaned out the spouting around the house. It certainly made the job safer and easier. On the old ladder I used to stretch out in scary ways. This ladder meant I could reach places more easily. It is one of the jobs I loathe, but I was pleased to get it completed. Autumn will refill the spouting with leaves.

Dreaming of a Samaritan service doing jobs.
This dream started while I was playing table tennis at the drop-in centre last Friday night. As I was playing and having the “sacred moment” mentioned in my previous post, I got to thinking about my life and my retirement. I have decided that I do not want to be one of those ministers who keep on preaching forever. I look forward to not having to be up front. I expect that by January 2014 I will be retired. I got to thinking that since I no longer fit into the Habitat for Humanity scene, maybe I could start a new ministry doing odd jobs for needy people. I have been stewing on this in spare moments since. When I was a young man in North East Valley, Dunedin, the local churches had a “Good Samaritan group”. We would go do a garden for elderly folk. I recall cleaning out a house for an elderly lady and painting a fence. I moved overseas and I understand the group never lasted but it was a great idea. I think I would love to start such a group in my retirement. Solo mums or elderly folk who could do with somebody to clean their spouting, cut down a tree, paint a fence, move some furniture or whatever small job necessary could contact the group and we could have volunteers willing to assist. I think such a group could increase a sense of community, express love in action and give me something to get my teeth into. I have been thinking that I have all this handy-man type experience, a whole stack of tools and power tools and I should use them for service. They are wasted just sitting on shelves in my workshop. Anyway it is a dream that may evolve in time to come. It could be fun doing jobs for others.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Reflecting on the sad and sacred in the week.

Earthquake memories
On Wednesday Christchurch held a big memorial service for those killed in the big earthquake exactly a year ago. We had people in the Space2B area at the back of the church and switched the TV on to listen and watch the ceremony.  People chatted among themselves until they started to read out the names of those who lost their lives. There was a reverent quietness right through the two minutes quiet time scheduled for 12:51, when the earthquake struck a year ago. I could not help but think of my memories of going up to Christchurch and seeing the devastation in the CBD area. Also later talking with Christchurch people in their homes while door knocking with the Salvation Army. I had some sad memories and knew again that my perception of life had been changed by that experience. I know of people still having to cope with injury and loss after the earthquake.
Warm People encounters
In the course of my week I meet a lot of people. I am so often received with warmth and good humour. I am intrigued that I cannot walk two blocks down town without stopping and talking with people. I have enjoyed friendship, good conversation and lots of warmth while meeting people.  While I do like being by myself, and could be a happy hermit, I have appreciated the people encounters of the week. Relationships are a sacred part of life.
Sad diminished people
In this morning's sermon I talked about Satan. I said Satan for me was a mythological character who stood for those forces, values and perspectives in our midst which stunt, distort or diminish human life. This week I have talked with people on drugs, addicted to alcohol or who have had shocking childhoods. I have seen distorted and diminished human lives. I continue to find that so sad and get angry at the causes. I turned on my cell phone late on Saturday morning only to find that one of our drop-in centre characters had texted me at 1:30 a.m. with "Are you awake Dave?" I caught up with him and found he had experienced strife at his accommodation with the police being called. I spent most of the afternoon with him. At one stage we called at the night shelter and made a cup of tea. We raided the fridge making some sandwiches. He eagerly scoffed these down, because he had not eaten since the night before. I was rained on while moving his stuff. I drove all around town looking for possible alternative accommodation for him. I spent a long time talking with this anxious young man as we drove.  I was tired when I finally got home after 7 p.m. walking in the door declaring to my wife, "It is no wonder sensible people do not get involved!" I had reserved Saturday afternoon for putting my rough thoughts on my Sunday sermon together, now that was relegated to night time hours, and inevitably early hours of Sunday morning while I struggled to sleep. Sad distorted people are always a part of my life and I regularly take on board some of their anguish and confusion.
Sacred moments
On Friday night we had over fifty people through our drop-in centre. Let me tell you of some. (names changed)

  • Bill is a mid-thirties guy who comes with a carer. He has trouble controlling anger impulses so his carers often stick close beside him. We have never had trouble with him. He arrives and always greets me warmly giving me cheek. He has been dropping into our Space2B also lately. He helps me mix cold drinks when ever they run out, its a special thing we do together. (I tell him he is "an expert stirrer") He told me that his carers had been so impressed with him lately, he had not caused any trouble. He treats us like we are parents and always gives us a hug when he leaves.
  • Phil is a guy with a checkered past because of involvement with drugs. He has attended on and off over many years. We had a pool and table tennis rivalry going and he used to call me "Dad". He now has a partner, is more consistently in good shape and they care for a little boy. When he comes now he always greets me with a warm respectful handshake. He was there with his little boy and his partner, playing pool.
  • Ted is a profoundly deaf guy who has lately been supplied with hearing aids. I notice he seldom comes "half-full" these days and dresses more smartly. He is in a better place.
  • Sally is a little busy body who talks non-stop (Asperges sufferer) and often is prone to sharing gossip, which inevitably has been exaggerated. She runs around making guys hot drinks, bossing people around, playing cards and sometimes plays chess. I tease her and sing "Sadie the cleaning lady" when she starts doing chores and cleaning up the bench.
  • Dick is a keen pool player but seems to have an emotional age of an eleven year old. He gets stroppy when he is beaten and sometimes flies off the handle. He refuses to play with Fred and they sometimes argue. Once or twice he has waved his pool cue at me threateningly, but thought better of it, backing off under the power of my "look".
  • George is an overactive chinese young man who will play me in hours of fast paced table tennis. In the process he is slowly relaxing with me and sees me as a supportive friend and guide.
  • Two seemingly hard "nuts" found a box of children's toy lego type bricks. They sat there like little children building houses, quite spontaneously, and with pride showed them to us. 
  • I could go on. Elderly alcoholics. Stressed out mental health patients. Paranoid men not taking their medication. Two boisterous young girls. A man who cannot stop himself from collecting rubbish. Another man who most often snarls at people. etc. etc. 
My sacred moment happened while playing table tennis. I always play down one end so that I can keep an eye on what is going on in the room. If need be I can stop or divert trouble brewing and I can welcome people coming in the door and farewell them if they leave early. I was playing table tennis and surveying the scene. I saw a room full of this motley collection of people, but there was a buzz of warm conversation. People were laughing with each other, not at each other. People were enjoying games, food and drink. There were heaps of smiles, laughter and good humoured teasing. People were relating to us as if we were important in their life, with respect, warmth and humour. I suddenly found myself thinking, "This is a miracle of love! This is 'of God'! It is creative, life giving, loving and beautiful." It felt like God was there and he was smiling as he looked on his children. At that point I felt proud, privileged, humble, close to those people, and close to the sacred. It was a spiritual loving moment, as I tried desperately to smash the ball back at my chinese opponent. Unfortunately most of my church people would never get to experience it, understand it or see it as sacred... but it is!
Drop-in centre last year not long after opening time. The sausages & pies are served on the table tennis table. This is the view I have while playing table tennis, 

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Footloose and fancy free

I have a friend, Tom, who is a fisherman in Alaska. He has been successful with quite a big boat with seven of a crew, but recently has "downsized" to a smaller one-man craft he used to have based in NZ. For some years during Northern winters he would visit New Zealand, and we met on a Habitat for Humanity site where he volunteered. He now has a cabin in NZ for his annual visits and says he only does "retirement" fishing in Alaska now. He is, I think a touch younger than I am. Well he called through town yesterday, on his way to Queenstown and a tramping trip in the hills around the Dart River. He just showed up at my office and we caught up over a cup of tea, and later for a short time at Space2B.

I have just arrived at the office on one of Dunedin's murky misty days. My mind went to Tom wandering the hills, free to do whatever, whenever. My mind moved on to the poem "Clancy of the overflow" and the lines, "Clancy's gone a droving and we don't know where he are." and "I am sitting in my dingy little office, where a stingy ray of sunlight struggles feebly down between the houses tall,". (not in Dunedin today)
 The last verse goes...
And I somehow rather fancy that I'd like to change with Clancy,
Like to take a turn at droving where the seasons come and go,
While he faced the round eternal of the cash-book and the journal --
But I doubt he'd suit the office, Clancy, of `The Overflow'.

Tom, I don't know where you are, but today I'd like to change with you, while you faced the "round eternal" of chaplaincy visits, sermon preparation, and ministry duties. I am especially envious since with my knee the way it is, I doubt I'll ever get to doing a tramp like the Dart river. Oh well, the brewery wants a chaplain there today on the anniversary of the Christchurch earthquake. I'll do some sermon/service research, visit the Newspaper chaplaincy and spend time with people at Space2B. It will be good... but I still wish I was with Tom tramping! ... maybe in two years time?

Sunday, February 19, 2012

A question for a scientist. I want an answer!

Part of the soil has gone into trees. The trees have gone overseas. Is the hill getting smaller?
I have posed this question before on my blog but nobody responded. It baffles me and I would love to know before the will I signed today is activated. (good grief... got a sore hand from initialing every page and signing several times over!) If you know a scientist could you please pass this on to him, I want to know the answer. The photo above is of a hillside (Mt Kettle I think its called) that I can see from "my" mountain. As you can see it has had trees on it. Those trees have been cut down. Now my question...

Those trees grew by nutriments and minerals rising out of the soil into the tree, feeding it, causing it to grow. The trees after 25 years are cut down and the main trucks are shipped overseas, either chipped up or as several logs. There would have been tonnes of these logs taken off this hillside. My question is, the tree has material out of the soil as part of it, does that mean that the hillside is smaller now? The other question is that from many many acres of land in New Zealand tonnes and tonnes of logs are shipped overseas. Does that mean New Zealand is getting smaller? If not why not?

A similar situation. Grass is grown in many paddocks throughout NZ. Again nutriments and minerals out of the soil go into the grass. There are sheep which eat that grass and grow biiger, are killed and become lovely NZ lamb or mutton. There are tonnes of this mutton refrigerated and sent overseas. Does that mean that New Zealand paddocks are smaller? Is the amount of substance in NZ paddocks smaller because it has become sheep meat and is sent overseas?

In my weird sense of humour I can envisage New Zealand shrinking ever so slowly, and eventually disappearing. I want to know if it is? Why isn't it? Anybody PLEASE give me an answer! There must be somebody somewhere in the world able to work this out.

I eagerly await a response. :-)

Sorting out a "Last Will & Testament".

I climbed off my bike to have a drink on the Roseneath Hill on my way home (into a nasty head wind) on my bike ride.   I appreciated the plants opposite. They are the result of a lot of work "Beautifying Highway 88". 
I recall when one of our sons was quite a young boy we got talking about some stuff that happened before his birth. He asked "Where was I?" We replied with something like "It was before you were born. You were not around. You were not here." He became very upset, "Yes I was! I must have been! How can I not be here?" He was quite stressed about the whole concept that there was a time in our family life when he was not around. It was impossible for him to conceive of him "not being". When you think of it, it is the same at the other end of life. We have spent some time updating our wills and sorting out enduring power of attorney etc.  Our last will was done in 1987. We sign our update tomorrow. It was quite a funny feeling discussing with the lawyer what we should include, what we want to happen when we are no longer around.  We talked of things like "cremation" and "What do you want to happen with your valuables?" (what valuables?) I thought of my shed full of tools. They will outlast me? My books? My kids will dump most of them. But most of all I began to realise that at 63 it is a relatively short time at best before there will be no "David Brown" around. The world will go on without me! I hope it is a while yet, but it has been an interesting thought process.

It is a good exercise to remember your mortality. It makes you value your life and the moments of it. I have often thought that Churches with grave yards around them are a good reminder. As you walk the path to church you are reminded of your mortality and how precious life is.

I love two pictures in a Michael King book.
- One is of a coral reef. The beautiful coral reef is made up of thousands and thousands of dead bodies of little sea creatures. They have lived their life and their bodies contribute to the beauty of the whole reef. So each of us lives our life and contributes to the beauty of the society/community/family we leave behind. In that sense we are never gone, but are artists and co-creators of life.
- Second one is that history is like an ongoing conversation in a bar. At a certain point in time we enter the room and join the conversation. We listen to what has gone before. We join in the to and fro of the conversation and learn. We make our contributions, speak our mind and tell our stories. At a certain point though each one of us has to excuse ourselves from the conversation and leave the room. But the conversation goes on and people will build on our contribution. We are gone, but we have been a part of the flow and in a sense we still are.

Tonight I went for a bike ride. I do this to keep my body as healthy and as fit as I can while I am living. I do not intend to die yet... but it has been instructive having to think of the prospect. Maybe too, we take ourselves too seriously and we should just lighten up and learn to "be"? Perhaps "we" are not that important?

Friday, February 17, 2012

Using what we have

This morning I have helped a man move from one flat to another. I know this man through his coming to our Space2B and our Church drop-in centre where I play heaps of table tennis with him.  He is an intriguing guy. I have been amazed that even in winter he wears jandals (thongs, flip-flops) or bare feet. One day he mentioned that he had bought on line a new pair of basket ball shoes, but I began to think that the poor guy could not afford to buy shoes. Well today as I loaded his boxes into the back of my old Nissan I discovered he had boxes and bags of different varieties of basket ball shoes and most of them looked like they had never been worn! He loves basket ball and often spends hours shooting hoops etc. He would have enough shoes to last a lifetime, there were boxes of them. I think he enjoys the fun of buying bargains on line! It must be almost like an addiction. ... I guess people collect pens, spoons and Dinky toys so why can't he collect shoes?  The irony is that you hardly ever see him wearing shoes! I have seen him with snow outside, still in his jandals!

I got to thinking as I drove home that we are all like that. I recall a line that said "Most people are like riders of ten speed bikes - they still only use one gear." We often do not use the abilities we have, or our full compliment of creativity. We prefer to stay within our comfort zones and never extend ourselves. We have heaps of potential stored in boxes which we never wear. I also got to thinking about "spirituality". We religious people get involved in organised "religion" but often never truly "wear" our "spirituality". In theory we have lots of "shoes". There is a heap of spiritual wealth in the Christian faith, many connections and deep insights. In our living, however, they are like this man's shoes, stored in boxes, and they never truly become a part of who we are. We prefer to store our "truths" in tidy religious boxes, than "walk" in the truths we say we value.  They are part of our "religion" stuck on the edge of life, rather than our spirituality, in the core of our being. 

Just thinking out loud. It was interesting to see this barefoot man's collection of shoes.

Monday, February 13, 2012

I just have to tell you...

First story. Years ago I was in discussion with a fire fighter. "Marriage" he pronounced, "was an outmoded institution. You do not need it." He claimed to be an atheist and loved to tell me that he would never be getting married. According to him the nasty life inhibiting Christian Church inflicted marriage on people. I said to him that one day, one day I think he will find a woman he will want to marry. I joked to him that I would remind him of his assertions then, that I would turn up at the wedding and go "na..na...na, na na!" in the back seat. "Never going to happen!" he asserted. "We'll see?" I would say. I actually really like this guy, he has a beautiful nature, and a great sense of humour.

Tonight I was sitting chatting at a fire station. He came in early for work. We greeted each other and there was general chat for a while. Then he strangely said, "Do you want a bit of a giggle Dave? I have a story to tell you." Others said, "Have you got a joke?" "Nah" he said, looking sheepishly at the floor. He hesitated, looked at me and said, "I've gone and done something strange. I've... I've..."  I burst out laughing, pointed at him with glee and yelled, "You've got engaged! Is  that right? Woo hoo, I'm going to that wedding!" "Yes" he said, with a big grin on his face. We laughed together.  I did sincerely congratulate him as he said, "After the mirth died down."  As I went he said, "It was disturbing how readily you came to mind when it happened." So cute... he will be a good husband to the right woman. He has a great nature and for him to have taken this step he must really love her.

Second story. Just now I have received an email with stacks of photos of a Mustang fighter plane. This guy had to retire from one of my chaplaincies because of his ill health. He had said to me several times that he wanted to go on a flight in a restored Mustang fighter plane. It was a bit like a bucket list wish. Well he has flown from Wanaka to Taieri and back and sent me the photos to share the joy. All he wrote basically was, "Mission Accomplished!". So neat that he thought to tell me about it.
I do have a great life sometimes, I get to rejoice with people when they rejoice.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Monday mumblings.

New is not necessarily better
Today I needed a car jack to lift the front of an old caravan. I have a selection of jacks taken from cars that I have discarded, but I have a favourite one I seldom go past. It is an ancient screw type jack which I think came out of a 1930's Austin. It is simple to adjust, simple to operate and has never let me down. I know there are hydraulic jacks but inevitably they leak fluid. (I have thrown a number out) There are scissor type jacks found in many modern cars but they often get bent out of shape. This old one just keeps plodding on. New and complicated is not necessarily better. (Sometimes this is true with computer programs too.)
Sad emptiness
Whitney Houston has died at just 48. I loved a number of her songs. She was a beautiful lady with a great talent. It is sad that people say "it comes as no surprise" because of her drug and alcohol use. You hear of so many of these celebrities abusing drugs and alcohol. Amy Winehouse, Michael Jackson, Waylon Jennings, Charlie Sheen and the list could go on. Why? Again and again they lead to early death or a life of chaos. Us normal folk long for enough money to buy a decent house without a mortgage. We want some sort of financial security and maybe a nice looking reliable vehicle. We think we would be happy with such things. These celebrities are gifted, they have fame, they have all the material wealth and more than we could possibly hope for, but still do not find happiness. Their abuse of drugs points to either deep stress (why stress.. if they stopped work they could live comfortably forever?) or deep insecurity or other sources of inner emptiness. We say that money can't buy happiness, but do we believe it? These sad cases are proof of that. I still think Jesus is right when he said, "If you lose your life, you will find it." Happiness and fulfillment are a by product. They are the result of living life for a cause bigger than yourself. They happen when we give ourselves in service and love to others. I feel really sad for Whitney. I loved her voice, and at her best her presence and musical presentation were superb and moving. Her songs I will always love you and The greatest love of all will remain a couple of my favourites.
"Real" flavours - "real" people.
My wife and I were discussing the lack of salt in our diet. My mother, as part of a different generation, always added salt while cooking vegetables. Her soups were very salty. She argued that it brought out the taste of the food. Because of the publicity given to the bad impact of salt on arteries we very seldom add salt to anything. We have come to love the saltless natural flavours of the vegetables. We enjoy the occasional spicy Indian food. It makes a change  and we have a favourite Indian restaurant. (Little India in Dunedin) But we would not eat Indian food all the time. Why? Well because the spices mean that you do not taste the natural flavours of the respective vegetables. A carrot, lettuce, cabbage, turnip or silverbeet fresh out of the garden is superb. The natural flavours not ruined or distorted by over cooking or added salt and spices are simply beautiful. I got to thinking about the sort of people I am drawn to. I mix with some very intelligent people, but also some very simple folk. I know some rich people and lots of poor people.  But across the board, rich, poor, beautiful, ugly, intelligent or simple the people I am drawn to and enjoy spending time with are the people who are comfortable just "being themselves." I get really sad with poor people or simple people trying to be other than who they are. The poor get themselves in trouble by trying to have what they cannot afford. The simple come across as stupid know alls when they try to impress with their knowledge. Others are frustrating because you can know them for years, but never really know them. Some people spend a lot of energy trying to be religious and look godly. But I just love spending time with people who relax and just be their open, loving selves. They are worth knowing. Their beautiful natural flavours can be tasted and enjoyed. Like my food, I like people natural and not trying to be different. "Rela-a-a-x ... you're OK, there is no need to add salt and spices, you are beautiful just as you are." There are so many people who I would love to say that to.
Does religion sometimes distort people?
I often find that long time church goers seem more uptight and less relaxed than others. They appear to think they have an "image" to keep up. Sometimes I have said that I feel "more at home at the mess in the fire station than at the cup of tea after church". I often find that the newer people at Church seem more "real" than long standing members. (This is a generalisation and not always true) If I understand the impact of Jesus correctly, he seems to say, "Relax, you are loved and accepted as you are!" It is a shame when the Christian faith has the opposite effect.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Ships that pass in the night

You can see the cruise ship near the top of the picture in the open ocean.

The small wooden ship the Monarch in the centre of the picture, heads toward the Dunedin wharf. Probably full of tourists having some thing to eat and drink. 
This evening I went up to the top of "my" Mount Cargill. As I surveyed the scene I saw two ships. One was a cruise ship already out of Otago Harbour, in the open ocean and headed South. The other was a considerably smaller ship. It was the Monarch which takes cruises up and around the harbour. They must have past each other at about the entrance to the harbour. It was getting on toward 7 p.m. and I thought of that saying we have, "Ships that pass in the night." I think it refers to short friendships in life. Is that right? I got to thinking about the people who have been and are in my life. Sometimes you can be briefly and intensely involved, but later you move to other parts and lose contact. It is sad, but inevitable often. Anyway I have been up on top of Mount Cargill hundreds of times and I never fail to enjoy the view. The first five minutes up the organ pipe track is very steep. I was just chugging along and was surprised when I found myself at the final steep stairway. I had not stopped to catch my breath and it had not seemed difficult. I must be getting a measure of fitness back again. It is good when you feel some progress.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Compassion and anger

Exploring the Rangitata river bed while stewing on life and ministry.
We have at least 40 people come to our Friday night drop-in centre. Many are mental health patients. Nearly all of them are unemployed and possibly unemployable. I talk with them, play pool and table tennis with them and generally mix and mingle. Some of their life stories are horrendous. I looked at one guy, a 70 something alcoholic and saw just a wasted life. I see illiterate people, emotionally injured people, deeply paranoid people and people who just can't seem to think straight. We often encounter smelly people and again and again we see people not coping with life and heading down hill in their appearance, their state of mind and their overall well being.  I often find myself feeling deeply sorry for them. At the same time I get angry. I get angry at the sort of society we are where we just spit so many people out of the backside of our systems! (education, economic, health, justice, family life, even their own life choices and the culture that encourages these ) It is a funny mixture of compassion mixed with anger. The same could be said with my encounters with people in chaplaincy and church. I often feel deeply sad for their circumstance. I ache for the distorted, hurting lives of the people, but I am angry at the values, perspectives, choices and culture that brought them to the difficulties and sadnesses. "If only they had..." I scream to myself in frustration.

I have been studying the passage Mark1:40 - 45. A man with a rough and scaly skin disease came to Jesus. In that culture such a disease would mean he would have to live in isolated places, away from family and society in general. He was considered "unclean" by religious authorities and there would even be those who would ascribe his condition as some punishment for sin. This man came to Jesus and it says in verse 41 that Jesus was "moved with pity". Now the original Greek words could be also translated that Jesus was "moved with anger". In some places the same words have been translated as this. Which was it here? Jesus in verse 43 Jesus spoke "sternly to him". Maybe he was angry with him?

I, with the backing of some scholarship on this, want to suggest it was both "compassion" and "anger". Jesus felt deep compassion for this man's physical, cultural, social situation but at the same time anger at the values in a society and the religious mindset that made this man's life worse than it need to have been. It was compassion with anger.

That is helpful to me. I am often filled with compassion and love for people. As I mix with people I relish the love, warmth and the sense of "worthwhileness" in the relationships I share. I find deep fulfillment and happiness in the people-work I do. At the same time, however, (and you will know this if you are a regular reader of my blog) I am often filled with anger, frustration, depression and want to quit at least once a week. These feelings are not negativity for the sake of negativity. They are not me wallowing in self-pity. (though sometimes they are) They are anger and frustration because in the first place I love and yearn for people's circumstances. I am angry at people, systems, values and perspectives which keep people down. This can be frustration at Church baggage and traditions. This can be frustration with people who I think should know better. It can be anger at our society's destructive values that we all buy into.

Anyway it helps explain how I can say that following Jesus brings to me happiness, satisfaction and fulfillment, and yet often I can come across like a misery guts! (Woe is me - life is hard)  Like Jesus, I am moved by compassion AND anger. That Greek word which can be translated with two meanings has real depth to it and rings true in human experience.
Post Script:I drove into town to my work for today with a country music tape blaring on the car stereo system. Being country music there was a fair proportion of "Oh lonesome me" and "She done me wrong" type songs. I got to thinking, "It would be easier not to love in the first place!" This is true of all love. If you love or feel compassion, you are going to hurt. You are going to be sad at some stage. As above compassion often leads to sadness and anger.  If you don't want to be sad, don't love... but then miss out on the essence of life.
The other thing I decided was that I should more often, where I can, deal to the things that make me angry. For example: I am angry at the waste of life that alcoholism does to a person. As well as caring for and supporting the person, like I often do, I need to be attacking our society's attitudes to drink and its place in our culture. Funny how country songs prompted thoughts. 

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Connections.. We are one.

In my last post I mentioned that as I understood it a Kiwi theology would address four issues.

  1. Consumerism, materialism and capitalism
  2. Meaning and significance
  3. Connectedness, solidarity and world citizenship
  4. Sustainable lifestyles.
As I walked my mountain yesterday I got to thinking that a summary statement would be the theology would explore a sense of "connectedness" with our inner-selves, other people and creation. This was rolling through my mind. It is a deep recognition that we are connected to others and the whole of the universe. When one hurts we all hurt. Last night I did some tidying up of my study. I found an old Christian magazine. I used to be on the editorial committee of it and had written an article dreaming of the future for the church. This was a way back in 1994. As part of it I dreamed of a church which would encourage a deep and growing spirituality. In brief terms I used M Scott Peck, and James Fowler's words to describe a mature spirituality.

  • People able "to see the cohesion beneath the surface of things...."
  • People able to "to see connections between men and women, between humans and other creatures, between people walking the earth and others who are not even here..."
  • People with a "powerful vision of universal compassion, justice and love that compels them to live their lives that way...."
It seems and feels to me as if we are spiritually mature when we take the trouble to have a deeper look at life and see and perhaps more importantly feel connections, consequences and links between ourselves, others, and the world at large. In some ways it is a loosening or opening up of our own individuality and seeing ourselves linked with, and a part of the whole. This "whole" encompasses human society, animals, plant life, creation, the past and the future. It is a deep recognition that we are permeable... others' lives flow into us, our life flows out of us impacting the world about us. We realise that we cannot really live as isolated individuals, essential links exist.

Anyway the nature of thinking about deep things is that there is mystery and an open-endedness about any of our words ... all we can do is evoke feelings and perspectives.
We are one! (A good song that describes this)... That's been bubbling in my head and heart as I start another year of trying to lead a church, be a minister and a chaplain.

Today's experiences have made me feel like a bit of a failure and more than a bit frustrated. I have not been all I should have been, I have found things frustrating and at present struggle to see light at the end of a tunnel. But I'll be OK tomorrow. 

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Thinking theology.

I had a drink and some fruit sheltering behind these rocks on top of "my" Mount Cargill tonight. You can vaguely see the base of the radio communications mast through the fast blowing mist.

On my walk I stopped to "relieve myself" and looked up and saw this shrub.

Some other hanging flowers on my mountain. I do a lot of thinking on my mountain.

"... there can never be a final theology." 
While on holiday I read a great book by Desmond Tutu called "God is not a Christian". It really is a collection of sermons, letters and speeches from this very amazing man. Bishop Tutu was a champion for justice and a just, non-racial and democratic South Africa during the apartheid years. There was incredible injustice, suffering and mistreatment of black South Africans and as I read the book I could not help but be impressed by the courage of this clergyman. He has also been a speaker throughout the world campaigning for justice, reconciliation and peace. In one article in the book he speaks about "Black Theology". He says this....

"Black theology makes the proper assertion to which Anglo-saxon theology at least pays lip service: that there can never be a final theology, for theology changes as various ingredients in the mixture change - the life experience of the particular community, its self-understanding, its manner and categories of expression. Anglo-saxon theology tends to lay claim to a universality it can never properly possess. This is because theology is an attempt to make sense of the life experience of a particular Christian community, a community conditioned by time and space, and all of this in relation to what God has done or is doing and will do - the fundamental reference point being the man Jesus."

I like this emphasis. I get so frustrated with reading "old western theology" which seems so irrelevant to where I am at. The way I see it is that our theology keeps on changing. I have a filing cabinet. When I was a brand new minister I put folders in with a whole list of categories. "Christian Education", "Spirituality", "Family & Marriage", "Church Growth", "Churches of Christ", "Discipleship", "Prayer", "Peace", "Poverty" etc. etc. The intention was that in those folders I would gather articles, quotations and references related to that category. These days I seldom open the cabinet! The categories that I see as priorities now are different than the categories I listed off back then. My theology has changed. My world has changed. I am at a different stage in life and ministry. The Church has changed. The issues have changed. In the same way, for the same reasons no theology is final. All I can say is this is how I see it currently. Books that claim finality in areas of religion are misguided.
Black Theology in South Africa during apartheid.
Black theology which Desmond Tutu talked about tended to emphasise God as liberator. The Exodus stories were important. The concept of a God who was on the side of the oppressed was highlighted. A God who demanded justice, was at work for justice and whose will could not be thwarted was a precious picture for an oppressed people suffering injustice. There were other elements to a black theology too. The mention of a black theology and the recognition that a theology reflects the expressions and experience of a particular community got me asking the question "What would I see as elements of a Kiwi theology?"
Four aspects of a Kiwi theology (Well I guess "My theological thinking")
For me there are at least four life issues a New Zealand Theology would address and emphasise.

  1. Consumerism, materialism and capitalism. I believe a big issue in the world and in NZ at the moment is our addiction to consumerism. Whether we are rich or poor we tend to think the goal of life is to spend, to have and to use; that happiness is found in this way. The negative impacts of such values gives us cause to critically question them. The poor are bitter. The rich often find their riches do not bring the satisfaction they thought. I have seen so many bitter breakdowns of friendships, marriages, families and partnerships all over money and possessions. In the present age such values do not lend themselves to due care of the environment. We are in the midst of a fragile world economy and we must, I believe, find an alternative to blind capitalism, regularly it fails us. The gap between rich and poor gets larger with all sorts of consequences. A Kiwi theology must affirm that we "cannot live by bread alone". It must explore deeper reasons for being and address the issue of money's place in life. For me, the purposes of God, the way of Jesus invites me to live with a certain freedom from materialism, not dependent on riches. I can be free with a light attachment to "things". A relevant kiwi theology would explore this.
  2. Meaning and significance. A number of people in chaplaincies have said something like, "Life is a shit sandwich. You are born, and then you die, and what is in between is just shit." Now they are overstating their point, but that is how they often feel. A man once almost screamed at me, "Why do I live? I come here and work my arse off every day, to earn money. My ungrateful wife and kids spend it as fast as I earn it, and that's my life! Why?" People's expectations about life are often low, even of their marriage. The suicide rate in NZ is quite high, particularly amongst young people. Things like vandalism, abuse of drugs and alcohol, destructive violence all point to a deep lack of meaning and purpose in life. Life for many is lived in a superficial way, with little sense of significance. Victor Frankl called it an "existential vacuum". Because of my being a follower of Jesus, I have a deep sense of direction and purpose. I am driven (though not always in touch with my inner-core) to want to be a loving person and live in such a way that I help bring wholeness to myself and others. A Kiwi theology will address this issue of ultimate meaning for life.
  3. Connectedness, solidarity and world citizenship. We live in a very small world. I do not have many skype friends on my computer, but even I can easily link to people in the UK, China, Hungary, Poland and Australia. I once found myself "counselling" a young Muslim man in the United Arab Emirates after his Grandmother, who he was looking after, died. He had to make decisions and we talked it over via skype...It is a small world. There are wide gaps between rich and poor nations and people. In NZ we are becoming increasingly a cosmopolitan country with many ethnic groups walking our streets. There are scary responses made to this situation. Some build walls around their "tribe" and see only the "otherness" of others. So there has evolved a dangerous tension between "Muslim" and "Christian". Often religion is used to encourage this intolerance. In places in NZ there is a racism against "those Asians taking over our country". In some circles there is a tension between Maori and Pakeha. (European New Zealander)  But a true relevant Kiwi theology would emphasis the deep truth of the essential unity of the human race. It would challenge the walls that divide and encourage a sense of world citizenship. It would encourage a sense of solidarity between rich and poor and all the different "divides" that separate us. A Kiwi theology would see the essential sacredness of all, recognise the "great Spirit" who is bigger than our various religious definitions, and encouraging a sharing of resources with a desire to breakdown walls that divide. It would encourage a mutual servanthood and "community".
  4. Encourage a sustainable lifestyle, caring for the planet. A relevant Kiwi theology would recognise a deep need in this day and age to care for the environment. The current lifestyle we are living is damaging our planet, resources are running out and imbalances are occurring. We are one with creation. One of the creation myths in Genesis has humankind being moulded out of mud. We share this planet with other species of both plants and animals and we are called to a proper stewardship of the world we live in. There is a form of "Christianity" that claims our right to do what we like with creation. A true theology would have us caring for that which God cares for. It would explore the theological roots of a sustainable lifestyle.
Anyway that is my "off the top of my head" thinking for now. I did enjoy Desmond Tutu's book, it prompted lots of my own stewing.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Old things and wasted lives

The other day I chopped up parts of some old furniture of ours. When we got married in 1969 we bought ourselves a bed and then bought kit-set bedroom furniture. It was mahogany veneer, a headboard (which we still use) bedside cabinets, and corner drawer unit. These pieces have traveled with us all these years though when we moved back to Dunedin they got damaged in the train carriage. After a time we stopped using most of them and they have been sitting taking up space in the workshop. I decided it was time to get rid of the drawers and turn them into shelving units for some of the "stuff" I have in my workshop. As I retrieved the handles and broke up the draws for firewood I thought that if these things could talk what would they say about our journey together? I remembered assembling them with my new wife, and how much care we put into it, sanding and varnishing. They were a special project early in our marriage, it seemed a shame to be destroying them, but the time had come.

Many years ago I assisted an alcoholic friend move out of what was his father's cottage. He had bought it off the estate and had not been able to keep up the mortgage payments. He was a hoarder, worse than me.  The whole house was full of junk, with just a path to a lazy boy chair where he ate, slept and lived. The sheds outside were packed with junk. I helped him move and he threw out some a of his hoarded treasures because they would not fit into his new flat. He still had boxes of it over so I said I would store it for him, and took a van load to our place. I have had them sitting in my sheds for years. We have thrown some out, but today more went to the rubbish tip. The scary thing is there are real treasures amongst the junk. My wife was loading boxes onto the wheel barrow, trying to avoid my looking into them. I did find some treasures. There were tools probably belonging to his father that I thought we should not throw out. I was sad for him as we discarded these prized old car parts, bolts, household junk, magazines and all sorts of assorted hardware.
Just some of the "treasures" I rescued from being thrown out. Maybe my kids will have to discard them?
This hoarder whose junk it was, attended our Drop-in centre last night. He is now in his seventies. His eyesight is not good. He shuffles along the road with a shopping trolly to collect things in. These days he lives in an old rented house full of "treasures", with no electricity and once again little room for him to move. I suspect before too long his old body will give out and he'll be found dead somewhere. I have known him for over 20 years. I looked at him as he sat in a corner devouring our sausages, sandwiches and coffee. He had tomato sauce dribbling down his face, his eyes were bloodshot, clothing disheveled and conversation was limited. He was once somebody's precious child. He had been a car mechanic, but most of his life he has drifted around hooked on booze, gambling and hoarding. He is basically a nice guy, but here before me was a wasted, rotting life. It is so very very sad. There was another young man we have known for several years at drop-in centre. He was wearing a tee shirt that had emblazoned across the back in bright coloured letters, "I've done my time at the Milton Hilton".  The "Milton Hilton" is the nickname people have given to a big new prison south of Dunedin. This young man has so little in life that is good that he has to boast about having been in prison. Another wasted life. Another guy said when invited to read something, "Oh I can't read... er... I've left my glasses at home." We discover so many of our younger drop-in friends really cannot read. Why is it in this day and age, in the midst of a relatively rich developed country that there are people in this predicament?  Today I have felt sad for lives that are a way short of what they could or should be.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Good People

I have just come into my office for my fourth day back into my work. Yesterday as a part of my day I did 6 hours of chaplaincy. In total I have done eleven hours in chaplaincies so far this week with more to come today. The thing that has hit me as I have returned from holiday is the warmth in the reception I have received. People have seemed genuinely pleased to see me. I end up my chaplaincy time feeling quite tired. It is tiring listening actively even though there have been no dramas. But I have appreciated reconnecting. I feel I have a great privilege to know so many good people.

As I walked up the road to one chaplaincy site the other day a van from one of my other workplaces drove by. The driver wound down the window, waved enthusiastically and yelled friendly abuse. "Get a real job!" he said. Sometimes when I am sitting yarning with people, riding the fire engine, learning about printing, newspapers, brewing or ambulance work, I pinch myself and say, "Am I really getting paid to do this? Is it a real job?"

"Thank you God for the people I am privileged to know."

Three ten hour days done, today will be thirteen. I have people ringing up asking if drop-in centre is open tonight, they have missed it. One of my "spare-time" jobs this week has been getting the drop-in centre tidy and ready to operate again. I better go and fix that pocket on the pool table.