Dunedin, New Zealand, my city - my people

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Sunday Summary- "If the Church were Christian...3"

The fog came in as the sun was setting when I was on top of my mountain last night.
Exercise is good 
From last Sunday until yesterday, Saturday, I have exercised on four out of the seven days. (Sunday,  Monday & Saturday - walks up Mt Cargill. On Anzac Day, Wednesday I went for a bike ride.) Tonight with questionable weather on the horizon I spent just over an hour riding a stationary bike, rowing and doing some weights in my garage. I was visiting hospital the other day and a woman was telling me of the death of a friend of hers. This friend apparently was an exercise buff, who went to the gym, played squash and generally kept herself fit, but she still died at a relatively young age. The woman summed up with something like, "So you see it doesn't matter what you do. If you are going to die young it happens." I have lots of people saying that. When I was running regularly people said such things. In other words it is a waste of time exercising trying to prolong your life. That's not really why I exercise. Of course studies show that it does increase your chances of a longer life. But exercise is good for its own sake. I have noticed that since I have been climbing my mountain on a reasonably regular basis, the climb is getting easier. I find when I exercise I can work more energetically. This week my exercise has helped me cope with depression issues. I exercise on a Saturday afternoon often. I go up my mountain and having done some work on my sermon, my mind brings it all together while I am walking. I often sort life out biking, running or walking, life gets back into perspective. People say to me now that I have a tricky knee - "See you shouldn't have been running!" If I became crippled tomorrow, I would still be thankful for all the enrichment my running has brought to my life. If I died tomorrow, I am still glad that exercise, running, walking, swimming, gym, bike etc have been in my life. They have enriched my existence in a big way. As I walk up my mountain I often think of all the people in the houses below me veging out in front of idiot TV programs, and I'm glad I am where I am.

Sermon Summary...
The chapter in Philip Gulley's book that we bounced off today was "If the Church were Christian reconciliation would be valued over judgement." 
Judgement in the Church...
When I was a little boy at the North East Valley Church of Christ, one thing we did as kids in the Church service was to look up the number of the next hymn. We would turn to the right page in the family's hymn books and sit them open, face down on the ledge of the pew in front of us. Once when we did this the old man behind us reached forward and closed the book and whispered grumpily, "Don't do that!" At the end of the service he castigated us and our parents for mistreating what he called "sacred books belonging to the Church." We looked at my Dad who just winked at us during the tirade. At home he discussed it passionately at the dinner table with my mum. "My kids are sacred too!" he exclaimed. We moved where we sat from then on. We did not sit in front of this old man. I had a student ministry at the Tootgarook Church on the Mornington Peninsula near Melbourne. We grew a youth group there with about thirty kids coming to it on Saturday nights. This one time we had the kids come to a Sunday evening meal and then to the Church service. We had a film showing in the service. The lights went out and one teenager settled back and put his arm around his girlfriend. ... just a friendly arm, nothing else. The old Christian gentleman sitting behind leaned forward and removed the arm and told the boy off. The elders and I received a complaint about "young people carousing in Church!" They were "In Church" ... that's pretty good! In one of my ministries a young man in the youth group got his girlfriend pregnant. The youth leader at the time wrote to me and the elders saying that before the young man shared in communion again he should be brought before the congregation and made to confess to his "sin". Of course I never allowed that to happen. (If we did that I would have made us all confess to our sins - Would have been a long service - just with my list! ) About twenty five years ago I was working for a builder as a plumber on a spec house he was building. During a lunch break I got talking to the painters who were painting the house. I told them I was a church minister taking a break from ministry. (One of my attempts to leave this job) They immediately told me of their experience. They had painted a house for a guy who was a pastor at a local church. They sang his praises, saying he was a lovely guy who did a lot of good for people. While they were working at his place it was discovered that the pastor had got a little too friendly with his secretary. So the pastor had been summarily sacked from his job. Over the months the poor guy was still unemployed and had no hope of being reinstated. These painters who never went to Church, were not impressed. They thought he should have his job back and stated quite logically, "I thought that Christianity was all about forgiveness? These guys can't even forgive their own?" In my present Church we have an AA group using the halls the same night our women's teas are held. I heard of an incident on one such night a number of years ago. The Alcoholics Anonymous people that choose to smoke take a break outside to have a smoke. One of our women saints was leaving to go home and walked past them to her transport. She chose to castigate these people, she did not know for their smoking habit! .... Of course from burnings of people at the stake centuries ago, to the moral right thumping pulpits, story after story could be told of Churches, Christians and judgmental attitudes and actions. It seems to go along with religion. We hold certain beliefs and moral stands and want to inflict those on others. It is not just the domain of conservative or fundamentalist christians, liberals can be just as enthusiastically judgmental. I know because I am a judgmental liberal! It is also true of other religions, probably also of ardent atheists too. 

Jesus said...
When we look at the history of the Church in this area of being judgmental... burning people, excommunicating, banishing etc. ... and compare it with the words and actions of Jesus we see clearly how distorted the Church can get. How can an institution who has Jesus as its founder do such things? Jesus said things like;

  • "Judge not, that you be not judged"
  • He told the parable of "trying to take the spec out of your brother's eye, while you have a log in your own". 
  • He said;  "So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother  sister, and then come and offer your gift."
  • He instructed his disciples to forgive "seventy times seven" (forever) 
  • He forgave and reinstated people.
  • His picture of God was of a forgiving, loving, welcoming Father. (e.g. Prodigal son story)
  • He mixed with people others judged.
Jesus was all about reconciling, keeping loving relationships going, bridging gaps and breaking down walls that divide. When we adopt judgmental attitudes we often generalise ("All drinkers are bad!") and often tend to only see the fault in the other person, blinded to the goodness they may also possess. Judgmental attitudes also shut the gate to ongoing constructive relationships. I shy away from people who I know will judge me. I know, when people think that I as a minister might judge them, they do not welcome contact.

There are some times when space is needed...
At our drop-in centre we have a lot of people who are not skilled at socialising all in one room. Sometimes they drive each other crazy. Sometimes we say, "Look you sit here and you sit over there and do not talk to each other!" Sometimes in life we need to step away, otherwise we are being mistreated or will mistreat others. Jesus when he sent his disciples out on a mission, advised that there are times to move on if you are not being received. Not being judgmental does not necessarily mean being a door mat and being walked all over.

Ways of reconciliation leave the gate open for relationship.
There are at least four things that help when there is a difference...
  • Respect... A willingness to still respect the other person, though their actions and values may be different. I have had "superior Christians" treat me as if I was dirt because I, for example, have a beer and they don't. I believe we are still called to value and respect people, though they differ from us. "Honour all people" the Apostle Paul wrote in Romans.
  • Understanding... One of the tactics of mediators is to get the opposing sides to state the case of the other, to the satisfaction of the other.  In other words it is important for us to seek to understand why this person makes the choices he/she does, from their point of view. Constructive listening is important.
  • Tolerance for people's mistakes... We ALL fall short of what we want to be. We all make mistakes, we are human and it is important to cut people some slack. I remember this when I am driving. "That "B" who is changing lanes at the last moment deserves a blast from my horn.... no wait... last week I did the same thing when I was having a bad day!"  
  • People change... I often want to blast a young person who is sounding off, correcting them for their thinking. But then I stop. "He is young. If I come back in ten years I bet his position will have changed." I have often found that a person who once annoyed me when I meet them again, has changed and we are close again. One example is the youth leader I mentioned before. He came to me at a function nearly thirty years later and mentioned how "looking back he appreciated my ministry, more now than he did earlier."
If the Church and we followers of Jesus were Christian (truly following Jesus) we would value reconciliation over judgement. We have so often distorted and misrepresented the way of Jesus. So often in my experience, people think "Church" and immediately associate that with "Judgmental attitudes". It is a sad distortion.

That's my burble for tonight.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Funny old thing called depression.

We have an ex-All Black (Rugby Player who played for NZ) who talks on TV about depression. He suffered from bouts of depression. John Kirwin was a magical winger for NZ and always gave 100%.  I don't suffer like he did but there are times when I have to battle depression. I try to analyse it, but it is not always tied to things that are happening. This week I am battling with depression. It does not worry me in some sense because I have been there before frequently, but it tends to drag you down. John Kirwin speaks of being in the car and having crazy thoughts of self-harm he would like to do, but he says, "you never do them". Tonight I was driving home from Port Chalmers and the thought went through my mind, "I'd just love to drive over the bank and have no more responsibilities!" Of course, like John Kirwin, you never do it, they are just bottled up emotions coming to the surface. I keep going and know that some time I'll emerge. (Though I suspect that scratch the surface and there's always a tinge of depression there.) This morning I spent most of the morning listening to people at the brewery, at Space2B and two lunch time meetings. I then was interviewed by the social work student (Angela) we have working with us. After that I went down to the office to check emails and have my first cup of tea since breakfast. (It was around 3 p.m.) I found myself reading the emails then blankly playing solitaire wondering what I'll say on Sunday. Anyway, I am lucky my bouts are not debilitating. In the link above John Kirwin speaks of it being similar to an athlete's over-use injury. I suspect that is where mine is coming from. My mind and emotions are always being taxed and my "work" is never finished, there are always more things I could do or some deadlines waiting. Sometimes I suspect my inner being just says, "Enough!" It is not really because I am over-worked. I think perhaps it is because my abilities are not up to the tasks I try to demand of them. A more gifted person would find my life a breeze.

Today I was interviewed by Angela, our social work student. It was very difficult to give answers. Any eloquence I thought I had disappeared. (She was recording it!) "Why did you get into ministry?" "What do you hope to achieve?" "Where will you be five years from now? Will you still be doing similar things?" I answered logically enough, but inside I found it hard confronting the fact that some of my dreams will never come to fruition. I became aware that while I have done some good stuff, I really had not made much impact on making the Church really relevant in the community, which was the heart of my "call" to ministry back in 1970. I always seem to live with the feeling that "someday" it will all come together. Today in the interview I was reminded that the "somedays" are about run out.

As well as this some of the medical symptoms of old age have been making themselves felt this week. There is nothing drastic, but just some things that I know are never going to improve, its just a fact of life.

There are some good things happening and I continue to relate with lots of really good people. While I am not rich, I don't think I owe anybody any money. I eat well and have a loving family. What more can one ask for?... now I have to stop this introverted navel gazing and choose some songs for Sunday. Wish me luck!

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Anzac Day reflections.

The name plaque where Dad and Mum's ashes were buried.
Dad bought me an old second hand bike when I was nine years old.  Its his fault I still enjoy biking.
These people too are part of who I am.
 Search for ways of peace
I have an ambivalent feeling about Anzac Day. Don’t get me wrong I recognise the commitment and sacrifice made by those who went to serve overseas and those who gave their lives. My dad went overseas just after he got married. He was away at war four years, serving in the desert and in Italy.  He ended up in the highest non-commissioned officer’s rank. Shortly after he left for war my mother gave birth to her first child who never survived the birth. I cannot conceive what it would have been like for them as a young married couple to be separated for so long, to live with the tension of possibly being a casualty and then to re-establish a relationship when Dad probably came home a very different person.

My ambivalence is that the older I get the more I hate and despise war! I believe that there MUST be better ways to sort out issues. I have talked with people from the middle east and have heard how many of the terrible events in that area are a result of decisions made after those conflicts. The more wars I hear about the more I see that the troubles do not stop when the fighting finishes. There seems always to be ongoing sad consequences for generations after. I get a bit fearful that the way we mark Anzac day tends to glorify war. If it is ever justified, it must be the last resort. I am convinced that more effort, thought and money should be put into ways of peace. 

My Anzac Day thanksgiving
I spent a lot of Anzac day still sorting out the mess we made in the backyard and workshop while renovating the bathroom. I has become one of my Anzac Day traditions to hop on my bike and ride out to the Andersons Bay cemetery visit my parents’ plaque and look briefly at the rest of the cemetery. I mentioned this to a friend and he said that such visits were not part of his routine, reminding me that they, my parents, were not there at the cemetery. I can understand his position, which basically is where I am at too. But I visit the cemetery to remind myself that I am not a self-made man. My parents brought me up. My Dad, a plumber, lived such a good life that his example still challenges me and calls me to be a better person.  My mother and I often clashed, but she gave herself completely to her task as a mother. She was left a widow in her early 40’s and had a tremendous task to guide her five children to adulthood.  I am who I am because they fulfilled their role as parents and people diligently. But while at the cemetery I look at other rows of gravestones and recognise we have the community we have, because these people lived the lives they did. They contributed to my life to. So on Anzac day I do not just remember soldiers, but I remember ancestors who contributed to who we are today. I take a little time out to say “thanks”. 

My Anzac day challenge.
Years ago I took my oldest son to schoolboy cricket. I mentioned to the coach that I was going to the game if anyone needed transport. He gave me a gear bag and another team and asked me to take them to their game and coach them. I did this and for seven years after that I coached the section two team at schoolboy cricket at North East Valley. I was not a good cricketer at school though I enjoyed the game. I should not have been coaching those kids! But they kept telling me “Parents will just not volunteer. We can’t get a suitable coach.”  I was deeply involved in Habitat for Humanity. We sometimes had great volunteers, but often it was the same small crew every Saturday, week in and week out. I am on the night shelter trust in Dunedin. We have tried to get a good number of volunteers to help run the shelter. I guess my challenge to all the people who front up to Anzac ceremonies, the service people you remember served their community and their country. It cost them heaps. There are heaps of groups and causes who are crying out for volunteers. Follow their example and where you can and how you can serve your community as a volunteer. Anzac day, reminds us of people who served and the ongoing need for all of us to serve in our community. 

Monday, April 23, 2012

The diamond is LOVE... or lov-ing.

Congratulate me!
In doing up my bathroom pulled out of my bathroom a whole lot of hardboard, some wet-wall board, a toilet cistern and a vanity unit top. Now many of these things were still OK so normally I would choose hoard them for some future time when I might need them. All this rubbish was lying on the back lawn and I began to look through it to see what was redeemable and where I would store it. Then I stopped. Would there be a time in the future when I needed them? I already have hoarded too much stuff - "just in case"? I decided that a trip to the rubbish tip was called for. I loaded it all into the old Nissan. I then went through a couple of cupboards and pulled out three old heaters I had kept, "just in case", stripped some screws and wires off them and threw them in. Two old lounge chairs minus the wooden bits (free firewood) also went in. Off to the rubbish dump we went. Some good stuff went to the shop there, the rest got chucked. At my age it is time to begin cutting down on keeping stuff. Congratulate me for the personal growth involved.
Last post's "Diamond"
In my last post, my Sunday sermon outline, I said that truth was like a diamond with different aspects or facets to it, and one needed to "see" the whole and not just focus on one facet. I got to walk up my Mount Cargill again today and while walking was stewing on "truth". I had an "ah ha" experience! Truth is not a set of dogmas. It is not a set of philosophical statements about life or religion or philosophy.  Ultimate Truth is love, mysterious, indefinable and expansive. So the diamond is in reality "Love".   Love has different facets to it. Sometimes love requires forgiveness. Sometimes love calls us to affirm people. Sometimes love is seen in comforting people. At other times love is seen in challenging people and disturbing them. Love is essentially valuing people, and treating them as very important. But love has different ways of expressing itself, depending on the needs of the people. These are the facets of "Truth". Sometimes that will mean challenging or confronting people. That is where it may be the loving act to remind people of their "sin".  But love has a broad range of expressions through which one values people in action. The call of my faith is to live in such a way that I value people as being "a little lower than God" or "made in the image of God". (So Jesus could be reported to have said "as you have done it to the least of these.. you have done it to me.")
Truth is a verb!
As I pounded my way around the mountain I had another inner "ah ha" thought. I would want to say that Truth is not so much some abstract ideal named "love", but rather Truth is "loving"... the verb ... truth is not discovered in philosophising, in theologising or intellectualising.  Truth is "known" in the activity of loving. So John who wrote the letters of John could say, "The person who loves knows God". When you are in the activity of loving somehow a penny drops in your "gut" and you "know" ...  You might say to yourself something like ... "Wow! THIS is REAL!" ... or just sense the sacred.

I have mentioned this story before. A reporter once asked a ballet dancer to describe what the dance she just did meant. The dancer replied, "If I could describe it in words I would not have bothered dancing it!" Its the same with ultimate Truth. Words don't cut the mustard. Words, dogma etc cheapen it! The truth is found not in talking or writing about love, but in dancing the dance of unselfish, generous loving and living. And ..... "the Truth sets you free". 

I don't expect you will understand this burble... that's the nature of ultimate truth. You dive deeper into "mystery"- that which cannot be defined. Words scratch the surface of it, and I am certainly not eloquent enough to do justice to this train of thought and experience. Anyway that was where my mind went as I puffed my way, at speed, up and down the mountain. I have had my "day off" and part of my work tomorrow is to talk with the representative of the residents' committee from the locality where the Night Shelter is. There are some difficulties he complained about in a phone call. I have to work out how we can love the local residents and still love the homeless? Nobody said love, or involvement was easy! ... I know a man who got crucified doing it!

Sunday, April 22, 2012

"If the Church were Christian.."

I am taking a series of Sunday services bouncing off the chapters of a book by Philip Gulley called “If the Church were Christian.” The first service last week centred on Jesus as a model for living, rather than somebody to be worshipped. The second, today, was titled …”Affirming our potential would be more important than condemning our brokenness.”  I have decided to share the basics of my sermon with you.
“ALL have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”… Yikes!
This verse from Romans 3:23 has often been drilled into Christian minds and hearts. I recall attending Christian Women’s Temperance classes at my Grandmother’s home. (She would spin in her grave if she knew I was chaplain to a brewery!)  I was about 8 years old and this one day she had a special guest who showed us a slide show of “the gospel”. He had a little projector and numbered slides which he displayed and talked about. The first said, “ALL have sinned … etc.” and he told us about sins little boys thought about and got up to. His next slide was a picture showing the burning fires of hell with the devil silhouetted off to one side. The message was straightforward – You are sinners and could end up in hell!  When I was a teenager attending youth camps and “Youth for Christ” meetings again and again I was told, “ALL have sinned …” I thought those speakers must have read my mind and know all my questionable thoughts…. for teenage boys have lots of questionable thoughts.  When I began training for ministry I talked with an uncle who was a minister and he offered advice. He said to me, “You have to convince them that they are sinners then they are open to the gospel!” He also told me that the good church people had to be reminded that they were sinners so that they truly appreciated the gospel. So this has been the message of the Church for many years.  “You are a sinner!” has been said in various ways time and again. We sing the song “Amazing Grace” then continue with “that saved a wretch like me”. We are told again and again that we are sinners in our songs, dogma and liturgies. But is that a true picture?
Life often reminds us that we are inadequate.
Many of us already feel inadequate without the Church telling us so. If I were able to watch films of the lives of people coming to our drop-in centre I would guess that in most I would see an over bearing father or mother or other significant others, who told them again and again in different ways that they were a failure.  When they come to Church they are told they are a sinner! I recall a man once sharing with me that his girl friend had dumped him. His wife had dumped him three years before. His self-esteem was so low. We often spend a lot of effort trying to fool others we are adequate when inside we feel inadequate.  There is much in life that can tell us we are failures, no good and inadequate. Yet the message from the Church just reinforces this feeling of inadequacy. Is this God’s “voice”? Is this in line with the priorities of Jesus?
Truth is like a diamond.
There is much of the Church’s teaching that relies on this “sinner” model. We are sinner’s who need saving… sometimes it is said, from the “wrath of God”. It is true that in scripture there is an aspect of truth about this emphasis. The ultimate truth however, includes other aspects. Truth is like a diamond. There are various facets or aspects. If we look at only one, it is a distortion of the whole. The Church for a variety of reasons has tended to concentrate on this “sinners needing saved” aspect. Apart from anything else, if we keep people feeling inadequate we can control them. But there is a different way of looking at human beings in scripture, which gives the totally opposite feel. Lets look at a few passages celebrating the positive.
From Creation to Jesus… we are special.

  • ·      In the very first creation story (I see these as myths pointing to deeper truths) in the first chapter of the Bible a positive picture of human beings is given. God decides to make human beings, male and female and he makes them in the image of God. Interpreters have argued about what exactly that means, but whatever else it means, it means that we are pretty special! We have divinity built into us. Then when God had finished creating on the sixth day, “God looked at everything he had made, and he was very pleased”.  Does this feel like we are low-life sinners?
  • ·      In Psalm 8 there is a celebration of creation. The Psalmist extols the wonderful creation then asks the question, “what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them?” He answers his question with “Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honour.” It seems we are not the slime balls some preachers make us out to be? When the Church sees people as inherently bad and evil it runs counter to this life-affirming, humanity affirming strand in scripture.  
But we must turn to Jesus and have a look at his outlook. I pick up four stories to illustrate, though there are many more we could use.

  •  In John 1 when Jesus meets Peter he says to him, “You are Simon son of John, but you will be called Cephas.” (This is the same as Peter and means “a rock.”) Now if the stories of Peter in the Gospels indicate the sort of man he was, we find he was impetuous, time and again he had “foot in mouth disease", and he denied Christ. So he was far from perfect, but Jesus could see in him “a rock”.  Jesus saw his potential 
  •  In Luke 19 Jesus meets Zacchaeus. The crowd around him saw Zac as a betrayer, because he worked with and for occupying forces. They saw in him a little traitor, sinner and thief. But Jesus looked at Zac and saw his potential and invited himself for a meal. He reached out in acceptance. “Salvation (wholeness) has come to this house today!”  he said.
  •  In Luke 7 there is the story of the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears and kissed them. Again the people at the meal only saw a sinner, a woman with a bad reputation. Jesus saw a woman filled with gratitude, love and promise
  • In John 8 there is the story about the woman caught in the act of adultery. The people saw a sinner. Jesus saw a woman who he believed could change. (“Go and sin no more”)
As I think on the Gospel accounts, you do not see Jesus pointing at people and saying, “You are a sinner!” He is angry with religious people, but his anger comes with deep sadness at their distorted understandings. When the Church keeps saying to people “you are a sinner”, or “You are inadequate” or “You are a wretch” it is running counter to the way, values and perspective of Jesus. It is true that we “miss the mark” but the “voice of God” sees not our failure, but our potential. (Now I am aware that the historicity of these Gospel stories, and the words ascribed to Jesus could be challenged, but they give a consistent message of the way the early church remembered Jesus.)

·      You have the divine spark within you.
·      Your potential is more important than your “sin” and inadequacies.

Michelangelo said this: “In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it.”

That in a nutshell is how the Bible pictures God’s view of us. Not primarily “sinners” but people with potential. The “hewing of the rough walls that imprison” happens by the power of love.

(Below: Photos of my walk tonight)

My reward when I reach the top of Mount Cargill. My wife makes a nice drink with cold tea, and elderberry flower cordial.

My friend Jane compares Perth clouds to Dunedin clouds in very anthropomorphic ways. Here are the clouds over Dunedin today.

As I descend the "mountain" the sun is setting, sending me home before darkness catches me.   

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Good people continued

Tonight I chaired a Night Shelter Trust meeting. We had quite a number of curly issues to talk through. I wanted to get the meeting over quickly because since I have taken over as chair the meetings have been long. I knew there was a big agenda but had thought through how I could speed things up. There were a couple of extra unexpected things thrown into the mix as well.  Tonights' meeting unfortunately, was the longest yet. I was disappointed, but I don't think it was my lack of chairing skills.  As I sat with these people and shared in the discussion I could not help but be impressed with the quality of the people and the dynamics. People differed but they worked their way through the issues. There were various issues and the variety of gifts and life experience of the various people came out and all contributed to the process. I loved their attitude, their patience, and their willingness to work. They were willing to dream but also to face reality. They are part of the Trust because of their compassion for people. They are quality people. It is a secular trust but most have links to churches. The majority are Roman Catholic folks. I could never be a Catholic, their belief system does not gel with me. (and I am certainly still too horney to be a priest!)  Somehow they must do something right though. Don't tell them, (they may get swollen heads) but the bunch of Catholics we have on the Night Shelter Trust are magical people and I admire them as individuals. We also have a lot of humour at our meetings with lots of smiles while the serious work is being done. They are good people who enhance my experience of life. I am grateful for them.

Some there are who by their living lift us to a higher plane,
finding joy disclosed in sorrow, healing hidden in their pain.
They are drawn by brighter visions, glad to give all they possess
for a greater good, discovering holier depths of happiness.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Bathroom, "Jesus thoughts" & good guys

Bathroom renovations
We have had a very busy week taking every possible spare moment to work on renovating our bathroom. The job has been difficult, because it is an old house with lots of problems. We had our first showers in our new shower this morning. There is still lots of finishing off work to do, but we have a functioning bathroom again. We are so lucky. Our daughter and son-in-law live in Dunedin and we have assisted them with alterations, so they come and assist us. We do seem to work well together. They are experienced at doing up their old house so they give us a bit of confidence and vici-verca.
Last Monday still pulling out old pipe work.
Shower and vanity unit installed on Saturday
"If the Church were Christian..."
I normally face the discipline of leading our services based on the readings of the Revised Common Lectionary. I find it important to have to wrestle with different passages and it can help keep me from flogging my favourite issues. But I have started a series of topical sermons to pass on some important messages before I retire. I am bouncing off the chapter headings of the book by Philip Gulley entitled "If the Church were Christian." As I explored today's subject (... Jesus would be a model for living rather than an object of worship.) I was reminded of something that I have held for some time.  Jesus did not intend to establish a new religion in his name!  That was one of the points I wanted to make in my sermon this morning. I found myself saying that very sentence out loud in front of my congregation. I went on to explain that "Church" is only mentioned twice in the gospels and that these instances are thought to be the author writing back into Jesus' words the situation of the christian groups at the time he was writing.  I admitted out loud to the congregation that I did not believe Jesus intended to start the Church as we have it, that he saw himself rather as correcting distortions and lack of integrity in the practice of the Jewish faith about him. Like the prophets before him he was a voice for true faithfulness.  The funny thing was that as I was speaking these words a whole lot of implications came into my mind. If Jesus never intended the Church... the church has no right to speak about who is in and who is out as it does with things like baptism and communion. ... the church has no need to be exclusive trying to say "Jesus is the only way".... The church which follows Jesus could even be a movement within another religion??? ... if Jesus was not interested in "religion", that is setting up an institution, could the Church (which means essentially a gathering of people for a purpose) be a religionless movement? .... and so my mind raced even as I was speaking. The whole concept blows my mind. It frees Jesus from all the creeds, dogmas and doctrines that lock him up in "religious mumbo jumbo land". He is a teacher and example encouraging authentic living, true mutual caring and connection to the love at the heart of the universe. There are all sorts of implications when you change your thought patterns from assuming that Jesus intended to form a new religion.
All that to say that as I tackle and do my own fuller exploration of the topics suggested by the book, I am excited yet scared about where it might lead me. I will enjoy the challenge of putting into words, defining for myself and others, concepts that are half-thoughts and hunches in my mind. I will be preaching to myself.

Good guys
I have been mentioning good people in my life. Today I pay tribute to the Dunedin Firefighters. They have been so good to me over the years. I began as their nervous chaplain in 1994 and we have journeyed together over the years. I have taken funerals, weddings and naming ceremonies. I have had endless conversations with lots of laughter over cups of tea and a scones. I have been there when things have been going well, but also there have been times of industrial action and tension. Anyway they have been generous toward me as the photos will show. I love the way they look after one another and appreciate that they accept me into their group.

Since about 1995 fire fighters have assisted with our Christmas Day Dinner

Two years ago they cut down two big trees at our place. And chopped them up into disks ready for splitting.
This mountain bike was a gift from a firefighter.
While we were overseas in 2010 they painted our house.
In 2001 they passed the hat around and bought me a van.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Talking and listening

Today has been Friday. On Fridays I go into the office at 9 a.m. and leave after the drop-in centre some time after 10 p.m. It is a long day. As I look back on today I have not done much except talk with people. I have a friend comes in early on Fridays for coffee. I spent time talking with him and another couple of people who joined us. I went down to the office and did some looking up readings and emails for a while but then had a visit by two folks from out of town. I talked with them and then with some people who had gathered in Space2B.   I went over to St John and shared in conversation there. I paid a brief visit to the office, did some work toward Sunday, but at 3 p.m. headed to the Fire stations for over two hours of talking and listening. Back at the church I caught up on life issues with helpers gathered for the drop-in centre. At 6:30 we opened the drop-in and I had people talking "at me" all night. Some of them had mental health issues and I had to listen and tolerate things like endless repetition or people upset by others' behaviour. I ran two guys home and they talked or ranted on. Finally I have come home to rest. Fire fighters are concerned about their contract negotiations. They feel they will lose money in what is being offered and the let off steam about that. Some people talked about ongoing health problems. Another man had his position disestablished and faced uncertainty because of having to apply for a new job. Another man with mental health issues told me of relatives who ran a business. "They are very religious people. They don't want to know me. They don't want mental health patients in their family!" Another man said, "Sex is bad. I hate it! It is only good if you want to make babies."  "Is that so?" I replied but disagreed with him in my head. Another was upset because an opponent was serving illegally in table tennis. Somebody else was annoyed because somebody had sworn at him. Another man kept asking if it was bad luck to get a hair cut on black Friday (13th) "Yes or no?" he demanded. When I said, "I didn't think it mattered." he would not accept that. In the end I said, "It must have been good luck. You get to spend time with me!" Tonight I go to bed frustrated that a lot of preparation, administration and paper work has not been done. I also go feeling drained emotionally from listening. But I have a sense of privilege about being personally involved in people's lives.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Bathroom "do up"

Daughter & Son-in-law paint ceiling.

Old lead waste pipe for the bath and dodgy framing timber.

I have bashed an awful lot of concrete! Sore on hands.

Heavy old bath! Out it goes.

New shower tray installed. Long way to go.
I have been trying to pinch some spare time (That I am sure I am owed) to do up our bathroom. The old comfy bath came out and we are putting in a flash new shower, a new vanity unit, cupboard with mirror, new ceiling and a toilet cistern. (Eventually a repaint and new vinyl for the floor.) Pulling things out revealed major concerns with the basic structure of our old house. We also had to do a lot of chiseling at the concrete floor to make space for the shower waste. Nothing is straight or square so it is taking longer than we had hoped. Tonight we got some wall board up. Tomorrow night we should complete that and maybe have the vanity unit installed. By Saturday maybe we'll be able to shower at home again... maybe! Watch this space. Interesting going back to plumbing, its a bit hard when you do not have the full range of gear any more.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Good People continued... Kensington Lights

Three good mates. Jeff, me and Ian Corlett. We trained together and stayed friends on life's journey.

Curly Corlett on the left with my wife.

High rise public housing.
Visiting friends in Melbourne years ago, the lady of the house came to me with a little baby and a bottle of milk and said, "Here you... Feed this!"(with a good humoured twinkle in her eye.) I sat on a couch and began to feed the baby, the little daughter of a very depressed solo mum visiting the house. A partly drunk alcoholic woman sat down next to me, leaned over me and cooed at the baby. She smelt so bad that my nose twitched. Where was I? What was happening? I was at Ian and Curly Corlett's home in Kensington, Melbourne. They had a house near the high rise public housing flats of Melbourne. There they lived with their family of four kids. They had an experimental ministry to the community going and their base was their family home. If you visited you never knew who your fellow guests were going to be. There was a sort of "open home" policy operating. 

The Kensington area was an area where there were great needs. Ian and Curly became involved in the community doing lots of "community building" activities. A credit Union began. A bus was purchased and that was used for trips out of the area and bus parties. They had a Sunday night "church service" in their lounge. People would come and there would be discussion, prayers about local needs and communion handed around, bread on a normal bread and butter plate and a glass with grape juice. After church there was a big feed on the table and then people often played cards. People with a variety of needs would call and Ian and Curly would seek to meet needs, advocate for people or encourage their own growth and decision making. Ian was an important part of the community. I arrived on a plane from NZ once. Ian met me and said, "We're going to a meeting at the police station." Ian was part of a community group who met regularly with Police to discuss issues. (I recall that meeting. The young policeman sitting next to me must have felt uncomfortable with his side arm on, so pulled it out and sat it on the table next to me! Coming from NZ it was uncomfortable for me having this "canon" sitting near me! NZ police are still unarmed.)

I was inspired by Curly and Ian. Here was the Church serving the community, really involved in the community in costly ministry. Secondly here was real Christian hospitality being expressed. Curly was (still is) magnificent. With little enough to live on, she always managed to feed people well, with a sense of humour and love. (They had voluntarily put themselves on the equivalent of the unemployment benefit, since many of the people in Kensington lived on that.) Thirdly, here was true acceptance of people. The people visiting, or around the table could be smelly alcoholics, a prostitute from St Kilda, some needy mum and her kids, whoever, but they were welcomed with humour, respect and love. I once asked Curly how come she could love these people, and she said something like, "I look at them and remind myself God loves 'em." These people were practicing the love of Jesus in a very real way. I think overall it must have been quite a stressful lifestyle and maybe the model was unsustainable without a greater team of support, but its directions and principles were right. Involvement in the community, not hiding behind religious walls and practices. Truly being salt in the community.  With this, open hearted, big hearted love for people, meeting people at their point of need and respecting them. The ministry in Kensington was as much Curly's as it was Ian's. She was a rock behind Ian, and a beacon of light to many people.  Ian went on to different ministries, and then moved to Adelaide giving leadership by stimulating the work of many churches. Ill health brought early retirement for Ian. 

Ian was one of my friends when I did my theological training in Melbourne. We, and another Aussie mate Jeff, stayed friends in spite of the distance between NZ and Australia. He used to annoy me. Sometimes he could be so dogmatic with friends. He was on a journey and we knew each other so well that we bounced off each other freely in our thinking and journey through life and ministry. (I probably annoyed him at times too.) He died three years ago, and one wonders if the stress he took on board back in Kensington did not contribute to his early death?  His funeral was packed with people, many talking to me and telling of how much his ministry had changed their lives. Curly continues sharing love in her special way. Her home is still a place of loving hospitality. I could tell you much more about this couple, and their journey, but that is enough. Their experience in Kensington challenged and inspired me to find ways to express the same principles in ministry. In spite of being Australians, they are good, inspiring people that I have been privileged to know. 

Thanks to God for those inviting us to live more faithfully!
Thanks to God for those who show us richer lives of charity!
Thanks for those we see no longer, but whose mem’ries in us lie!
Thanks to God for those who teach us how to live and how to die!

Friday, April 6, 2012

I chatted with Fred Hollows..

I thought I would continue a theme of good people I have known. I once had long conversations with the late Fred Hollows the well known eye surgeon who founded the Fred Hollows Foundation which does tremendous work throughout the world. His father Joe and his mother, knew my parents, once lived in Dunedin but were important members of the Palmerston North Church. When I got there they had moved to the coast, but visited the Church regularly. Joe sold the land the Church was built on to the congregation for a shilling so they were very special to the Palmerston North fellowship. Fred grew up in Palmerston North. He actually went down to the Church of Christ Bible College in Dunedin with the intention of becoming a Church of Christ minister. (I was the last student to enroll at the Glen Leith College. They closed it when I became a student there... I wonder why?) I doubt he would have lasted long as a minister. He was too "big minded" for the relatively conservative Churches of Christ of his time. I met him because his mother fell ill and was expected to die. He travelled from Australia to be with her. I as a nervous young minister, went to the hospital. I recall sitting in the waiting room with the family during Mrs Hollows' last few days and standing around her bed.  I had heard so much about this man Fred Hollows. He had opened up possibilities for people throughout the world to receive their sight again. I chatted with both Fred and his brother Monte. Then I got left alone with Fred. I was so surprised to find a man who was keen to chat, tell me of his past and his work. He was also interested in me and my perspectives. (Who was I next to such a man? ) He told me that once when he came back home from staying at the Bible College he had introduced a folk dance at a church social. A rather conservative Christian lady came up, told him off and slapped his face. She saw dancing as something Christians should not imbibe in. (I somehow doubt Fred looked remorseful enough for her.) We talked Church, faith, politics, economics and life's journey. I found him to be such an interesting man. He was one of those guys who called a spade a spade. He spoke straight from the shoulder but was a visionary leader. Instead of saying "We can't do that" it seemed like he said, "Why can't we do that? Of course we can!" In our conversation I was intrigued by his passion for people. He had a deep concern for the poor and the underdog. I think he had left the Christian faith he had been taught well behind, but certainly had caught the spirit of Jesus. I was later sad to hear of his own battle with cancer and eventual early death. This big hearted, down to earth man I had a couple of conversations with in a hospital waiting room, and once in the cab of my old ambulance, inspired me. I read a biography and story of his work, but it is the character and passion of the man which came across in our conversation that I remember fondly.

Thinking of such people as him and Brian Laws of my last post I remembered a hymn we sing. I rode my bike into the church to retrieve them. Here are the words, they were penned by David L Edwards and ring bells with me as I look back on people in my life;

Some there are who by their living lift us to a higher plane,
finding joy disclosed in sorrow, healing hidden in their pain.
They are drawn by brighter visions, glad to give all they possess
for a greater good, discovering holier depths of happiness.

Some there are who by their loving lead us far beyond our fears,
showing us by their compassion hatred washed away by tears.
When contempts that we inherit fill us with hostility,
we have hope because of persons who have known love’s liberty.

Some there are who by their dying draw us closer to the Light,
finding death a blessed journey into that most gracious night.
When we feel the sting of knowing that our days are brief and swift,
we remember those whose living met each moment as a gift.

Thanks to God for those inviting us to live more faithfully!
Thanks to God for those who show us richer lives of charity!
Thanks for those we see no longer, but whose mem’ries in us lie!
Thanks to God for those who teach us how to live and how to die!

I am thankful for Fed Hollows and my memories of our encounters.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

A beautiful person I know and other stuff.

Early morning in our lounge the bike being assembled. They did not teach me that in theology college?
Phew! Made it....
I started the week with an enormous "to do" list and quite a number of deadlines and appointments. I wondered if I would ever get through them. Other things have come up during the week. Here are some on the list; An Elders' team meeting where I had to report. A meeting with a man from the local council about funding contributions to the night shelter. Going to buy a bike with a man who had his stolen. I had been gifted money to do this. Do an update of time sheets and statistics related to my chaplaincy work... I was way behind. Helping to host a citizenship seminar and then a new immigrants tour in Space2B at our Church. Record a radio Church service to be played on Easter Sunday. Prepare a service for the weekend. Prepare for and meet with a social work student and her supervisor to workout if we can offer her a fieldwork placing. Do chaplaincies. etc.etc. Then there were extras. There was a bit of drama at the night shelter early Tuesday morning. Repairs had to be made. I discovered I had to assemble the bike. A door had to be fixed at the church. The elders' meeting threw up a couple of little tasks. Always too there are people to talk with and sometimes their timing is difficult. But I made it! Great! As I packed up tonight I saw a bit of paper with a telephone message on it and I swore. I was meant to reply to him! The one job I missed. But while driving home tonight I saw the man I bought the bike for peddling his way through town and I smiled a smile of satisfaction. (The seat is way too low for proper biking, but I could not convince him to have it higher.)
Meet Brian Laws
In my work in the community I meet with a number of people and often feel privileged to share with them. I'll introduce you to Brian who is treasurer of our Night Shelter Trust. A fuse blew at the Night Shelter on Sunday and I visited to check everything was OK. There I met Brian who was doing the same thing. He is a man in his mid seventies. He is not a rich man, but a lovely guy. If he sets his mind on something and thinks it is important he can stubbornly put his point of view quite forcefully. The thing with him is that he is pulling his weight and more, so you are compelled to listen. He has an immense job as treasurer, but he is always doing those extra little things for the night shelter, taking real ownership of it. As I talked with Brian on Sunday he was off to buy some oysters and chips for a bedridden, demanding man that he visits. This man has always been a bludger around the churches, and has burned bridges with lots of people. I once tried to get a wheelchair taxi for him for the Christmas dinner but the drivers refused to take him because of the abuse he dished out. He is not the nicest man on the block, but he is needy and Brian in love and grace visits and helps him while the rest of us are pleased we can avoid him. There are times when we run out of volunteers for supervising the Night Shelter. Brian is so determined that it remain open and available that he will offer to stay over night. He tells me that for him it is quite a stressful proposition, and he once had a difficult guy come in who scared him, but he is prepared to go beyond his comfort zone and do the job.  There is courage! This Easter weekend he is down to take two nights! Brian is a devout Catholic man. He has a beautiful, down to earth humble nature. He is one of God's saints. He inspires me by his very presence, his persistent kindness and loveliness.

Have a great Easter everyone.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Why do we do it?

Today I faced my fears, stopped procrastinating and started renovating the bathroom.
Why do we keep on doing that which is stupid?
One of the many people I got involved with and attempted to help years ago, was a big bloke who because of some shady dealing had got himself in financial trouble. He also had a tendency to mix with the wrong people and lose his cool with his girl friend. (About once a month??) He was often remorseful about all three tendencies and promised not to do them again. Unfortunately the good intentions would last a while and then he would slip back to his old ways, even though he knew it would only complicate his life.  He is not alone! I am like that too. We are in good company because even Saint Paul said, "I don't do the good I want to; instead, I do the evil I do not want to."  My mum used to say, "The road to hell is paved with good intentions."  I started thinking about this subject a while back while I was watching people out of a cafe window. A drop-in friend went past and he was smoking. I know that he has attempted time and again to give up smoking. Another alcoholic friend went past, and I saw boy racers (young and old) screaming past at unhealthy speeds. I know intelligent people who again and again cause problems in their life by drinking to much. I know I have to watch my weight, but often I go to the fridge, or the 24 hour shop and get yet another snack. It could be killing me? I hate my pot gut? Why do I do it? I know others who stuff up relationships by doing the same sort of thing time and again. I used to be a regular gym freak. I enjoy exercise and I know it is good for me. But twice in my life I have joined a gym with great intentions, but after a few weeks, I continue to make "donations" till the contract runs out and fail to actually go! Why? I frequent second hand shops and there are often near new exercise machines there. Their owners once had good intentions. Why are we like this? 

In my own life and in my work in the community I often ask myself, why do we keep doing the things we know are bad for us and fail to do that which would be good? I don't have full answers, but as I reflect on my experience and my own life, here's some reasons that I wonder about.
Not much else in life...
On Sunday I caught up on news of a man I have known for some years.   His life has deteriorated to the extent that now he is obese, bedridden and needing help with everything. I was talking to a man who visits him and helps him (he's a saint) and he was telling me that even the medical people have given up hope. One apparently said, "His quality of life now is so bad that we should let him have or do whatever he wants!" In other words, if he wants greasy chips, or to smoke or drink, give it to him because he has few enough pleasures in life anyway! I feel sorry for this wasted life. I think though that  a similar thing can cause us to do the bad or not do the good. Many of the people I have talked with who would love to give up smoking or drinking to excess don't have much in life. They feel like the only pleasure they have is cigarettes, or a night getting blotto.... or porn... or driving fast.. or eating too much or... whatever! We insert that which brings some pleasure into otherwise bland lives, even though we know it is not good for us. Is that a cause of this malady?
Sometimes it is stress... we have too much in our life.
Here I admit my own frailty. When I am stressed I eat. It is comfort food. Sometimes when I am stressed with a whole heap of things to do, I'll go to my study at home to work, but unsure of where to start, I'll get hooked on solitaire. ... like a zombie I'll waste a whole night playing solitaire! I know that driving fast brings expensive petrol bills, harms my cars and can even be dangerous, but sometimes when I'm stressed I'll lose myself in driving, working out my anger and frustration in my car. (I do enjoy driving!) I have been known even just to take a car ride at the end of the day for no reason in the country, racing over the motorway fuming about life. I think that maybe stress causes us to keep doing unhealthy things?
Sometimes it is how we feel about ourselves...
I have had people say to me words like, "Why care? It does not matter if I live or die! Nobody would miss me! I am a nobody!" We may not express it in words, but sometimes we are disappointed with ourselves, we wish we "performed" better and have a low view of who we are. Our motivation to do things like exercise, or to stop smoking, or to improve ourselves just isn't there. We, consciously or unconsciously feel we are not worth the effort. Sometimes it is our own perception of ourselves. Sometimes it is brought about by a lack of affirmation, appreciation or love by those about us. In my experience feelings of uncertainty as we go through various stages in life can bring on this lack of self esteem. We feel that we are not worth the effort. I suspect that our low sense of self-worth can cause us not to do the good, or to keep doing that which is not good for us - am I right? 
Deep connection helps..
I am not an expert so I really do not know why. We can get too simplistic and the reasons can be much more complex. These are just my reflections. In my own up and down battles with such things, I am thankful for being in touch with the Jesus story. Whatever else it does, it  connects me to the "way" that reminds me that I am important and that my life is valuable. In Jesus too, I sense a call, a challenge to be a co-creator with the love at the heart of the universe - deep purpose for life. I also sense an understanding "presence" or "current of life" with and within me. While I, like many of us will continue to struggle with such things, I have found these to be a source of grunt to help dig me out of ruts I keep getting into. 

Sunday, April 1, 2012

No work today....

 A fine Friday filled by people
I went into my office on Friday morning and had plans to make sure I completed the Church Newsletter before the weekend, and to look further into appropriate prayers, meditations and reflections for Sunday. Let me tell you none of that happened. My day was filled with people.
 I was still dealing with overnight emails when a friend visited and we went down to the nearby Starbucks for coffee.

Returning to the Church I discovered a man from Iraq was visiting Space2B again and we sat and chatted. I learn so much from him. My life experience expands as he tells me about his experiences. (He told of the devastation, the tragedy and destruction of war. He told how later he was forced to leave behind everything and flee the country. – I could not help but compare his experiences with the gripes I sometimes hear in the workplaces I visit… I often feel like telling people, “Come back when you have real trouble!”)

My office phone interrupted and I had to leave the conversation to deal with that. I received a text from a woman who voluntarily cleans our Drop-in centre. She runs sustainability classes in our building and sees cleaning our drop-in as one way she can contribute to our church life. She had done her weekly clean and I caught up with her as she was leaving. A very intelligent Irish woman with great insights into life and a sense of humour, she is always terrific to chat with.

I returned to Space2B and discovered the lunchtime group was arriving.  “Ben” said his week hadn’t been too good and we chatted about that. Others shared about life in general. From there I took my lunch to St John Ambulance and caught up with people there, some facing changes. I talked with people giving up their Easter leisure so that St John’s can serve people at the Wanaka Air show.

Back in my office an architect friend arrived. We had worked together in Habitat for Humanity for many years and now he was helping me with something for the Night Shelter. After our business was attended to we chatted about life, growing old, and Habitat for Humanity issues.

“Fred”, an ex-drop-in centre regular, interrupted us.  He burst into my office with his little dog. “Daaave! How the f…. are you? Haven’t seen you for ages!” he exclaimed in a loud voice. I was pleased to see him because I had been worried about him. He is very intelligent, but socially abrasive, he and I have a longstanding friendship. My architect friend probably wondered what he had struck and excused himself and left Fred and I to catch up. I was meant to be down at the fire stations so after chatting I took Fred part way home (they don’t let him on the buses with his little dog) and I drove to the central fire station.

At the fire station I “helped” a crew pack up an emergency shower tent they were practising with. After chatting with various guys I went on to visit other stations. I am intrigued and pleased by the good-humoured warmth I receive. I was back at the church by about 6 p.m. and at 6:30 opened the doors to the drop-in centre.

During the three hours of Drop-in I played pool, endless rallies of table tennis but also had serious supportive conversations. Grief, anger management, budgeting and health issues all featured. At about 10:30, after I had run Robbie home, I packed up and drove home. The newsletter was still a blank page on my computer screen and no more service prep was done. 

People and conversation had squeezed “work” out of my day, but in the end I thought it was a fine fulfilling Friday. I think the relationships I enjoyed that day were worthwhile encounters. I do believe that somehow mysteriously the sacred is in the encounter. People talking in a loving way with others will change the world. A fine Friday.