Dunedin, New Zealand, my city - my people

Friday, May 31, 2013

Morning and night, two extremes.

This morning I left relatively early to drive to Gore (1hr 40 minutes) where I led the funeral for a 61 year old man who had battled cancer for a year. He had been a St John Ambulance officer and his wife still works for St John. I had married them 10 years ago. It was a big funeral service with quite a few speakers. After the service at the hall we went out to the cemetery for the final bit. I did not hang around too long at the "after match function", but hit the road again to come home. I called at the office to do a few things then came on home.  By the feedback I got I think I did an OK job. I do hope I have a break from funerals for a while.
Grandson visiting.
When I got home my son, his wife and our three month old grandson had arrived. They are staying until Monday. I got handed the baby when I walked in, I watched him having a bath and then going to sleep. 
It was like a day of two extremes. I watched a coffin being lowered into the ground at the end of life. I watched a baby curiously looking around the room and enjoying the experience of a bath, during its first few months of life. It was a nice balance. 
Common denominator
At the funeral a whole lot of people got together and expressed friendship in the journey of life. I loved catching up on St John people I had not seen. I enjoyed even having two firefighters in the congregation. I looked around the room and counted up four couples I had married! I saw these colleagues expressing friendship and love as they farewelled a friend. Tonight it was nice too. In a relaxed way we talked with our son and wife. Then our daughter and son-in-law joined us. The same friendship, kinship in the journey of life was expressed. Somehow the guts of life is found in these sorts of relationships in the journey of life. "No man is an island, no man stands alone..."

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

I lied.. Oh no! ...Deeply privileged

"I have authority to go deep into the well of love at the centre of the universe... and bring that love to bear in a sad situation."
I lied...
In my Monday post I told you that I had a normal week ahead.  I am sorry I lied. I was looking forward to a normal week but it has not turned out to be so. This year has been "busy". Here's a list of some of the things...

  • Son's wedding in January and brief trip with other son.
  • Holiday time doing some renovation work around home.
  • Mid-February visit Christchurch after the birth of my grandson.
  • Visit by Australian friends.
  • All this while wearing a catheter "plumbing arrangement".
  • Mid-March an unsuccessful Trans Urethral Resection (rebore) and recovery.
  • Easter time visit by my son, daughter in law and grand daughter - baby sitting duties.
  • A car accident with the car eventually written off by the insurance company.
  • My last Annual General Meeting of the Church and the reports to prepare.
  • Two separate days in hospital to try to get things right... and a new "plumbing system" to get used to.
  • In the last five weeks I have conducted three funerals - A man who was hit by a car - My childhood minister's funeral - and a funeral for a twenty one year old.
All this stuff has happened along with the normal ministry, chaplaincy and Night Shelter Trust challenges. On Monday night I felt like I needed a "normal" week... but it is not going to happen.
Last week on the night after last week's funeral I received a call from a St John Ambulance officer in another centre. A friend of his in Christchurch, a St John officer was dying of cancer. I had conducted the wedding for this man a number of years ago when the couple lived in Dunedin. Now he had asked his friend to ask me if I could conduct his funeral when the end came. The funeral is to be in Gore, 161 Kilometres away from here.  I agreed to do it, I am a St John Chaplain after all. 
Oh no!  ... Last night I received the call from his widow. He has died and the funeral is to be on Friday at 11 a.m.  My heart sank. I have all sorts of Night Shelter and other things to complete before the weekend. How will I cope with another funeral amidst all this? But in the couple of minutes that I was talking to her, I knew that I had to do it and that somehow deep resources would enable me to cope. 
Privileged to be there...
When I received the call I was on line reading commentaries and thoughts on this coming Sunday's Gospel reading. It is the story of Jesus healing the centurion's son. One commentator told a story of receiving an early morning call to go to the hospital to be with the family of a baby who had died. She served as a hospital chaplain.  She told of the fear of going. The nervousness and yet the desire to be there. She told of that sense of privilege that she felt as she brought help into this dark situation. That rang bells with me. It will be a stressful few days. I meet with the widow tomorrow. I will have to squeeze preparation in somehow. But I sense three things...

  • Somehow I am not alone in this ministry. A recent creed I quote says, "God is love. That cosmic creativity present everywhere and in everything, gently urging all toward the good." I cannot explain it, but when I reach out in love, especially when I need extra strength, I sense a partnership with this mysterious reality. "He" will provide insight, discernment and strength to allow me to do what I have to. "He" will also be in this guy's mates as I share with them and they too will be with me, in support.
  • I have a calling to do this... When I was a teenage plumbing apprentice I was quite strong. Often heavy ducts had to be held in place while sheet metal workers attached bolts, brackets and rivets. The plumbing foreman would call for me. "Where's our human crane? Come on Dave, get under here!"  I would climb under the duct, balance it on my back and heave it into place while others guided it home. It had become my "special job" - I had the strength and had developed the right technique.  It is like this with these funerals. I am the best one with the connections, the relationships and the skills to do it. This is a couple I married. I also supported them through some ups and downs.  I have a continuing task now in this sad part of their life to gather with their friends, many of whom I know, and guide them through the final "Good byes" - It is like the sacred "foreman" saying, "Come on Dave, get over here - you have a job to do - a task to complete! You fit here."
  • The privileges of bringing the deep resources of love... As I read this chaplain's comments, a picture gelled in my mind. I have the authority to go deep into the well of love at the centre of the universe and the community (that cosmic creativity) and bring that love to bear on this sad life situation. I have the authority to carry, represent and express the love at the heart of life. Wow! What a responsibility, but also what a privilege? In some ways what more could I ask of life? "What did you do at work today?" "Oh nothing...I just was a pipeline for the loving cosmic creativity to soak into the lives of a family in need of a lot of love at this time."   Like WOW!

I don't have a normal week this week - I was wrong. I have another stressful and packed few days ahead, but deep down I know I can do it and do something special and awesome. 

Monday, May 27, 2013

Religious snobbery....

I often detect religious snobbery around. I confess that I imbibe in it some times. I recall when I began my brewery chaplaincy I met an older guy there who did the newsletter for the firm - a retired chemist. (We have since become good friends) He of course was asking me questions about what I did and where I come from. He had told me he did not attend church but that his parents did. When I told him that I was a "Church of Christ minister" he replied, "My mother always said that you are an uneducated lot." Now I know that is true of a number of Church of Christ ministers, but certainly not all of us. I think that is the attitude that other clergy have of us often. We are, to them some sort of inferior country hick type of minister. This normally does not worry me because I am "me" and I would not want to be them.

I mention this because of the attitude displayed at the service on Sunday. When I was first asked to be preacher I asked about a lapel microphone. I was told that would be fine and that the Church folk were familiar with people leading the service from the front step. At the service, however, this microphone was not available and I was told in no uncertain terms, that I would be preaching from the high pulpit. I wondered if I was an Anglican, another Presbyterian or the local Catholic bishop if I would have been talked to in that sort of "teacher to pupil" tone of voice? I get these vibes from local Presbyterians who tend to see themselves as "the establishment Church" in Dunedin. But I get these vibes also from other mainline clergy, it feels like "We'll say hello, graciously include you in our meetings, but we don't really need to know your opinion."  Even as some of the clergy thanked me for my sermon I sensed a patronising approach.  My wife standing next to me suggested I should have been asking, "What in particular did you like about it?"  I suspect the same perspectives come into play when it is my turn to host the ministers' meeting - in my experience it has always been the smallest meeting of the year - not that the host has any great sway in what happens. Our Church building is not seen as acceptable as a venue as the likes of the Anglican or Catholic Cathedral, First Church or the like. Now I have learned to live with it. I see them all dressed up in their robes and clerical collars and hear in their conversations the type of things they think are important, and I guess I express my own snobbery, by saying to myself things like, "Oh good grief! Get real!" I would not fit in their circles anyway. (Having said that - some are genuinely good guys whose company I enjoy) I have listened to their sermons. They are often detached sounding dissertations, with little passion, which use theological jargon that rolls off the average listener. They would often be OK theological articles to read, but not good as oral presentations. So many do not hit earth anywhere! Often preachers these days have lost the art of really connecting with people with decent illustrations, if they ever had it!  

I happen to think my theological training is as robust as theirs. I trained for five years and I have since done training in social work.  There was a breadth of perspective about the training I received and we had to think through the issues.  Apart from the academic side of things we also had training and "apprenticeships" in the practice of ministry. (My years of training were extremely busy)  I have also kept up with reading in the whole field of interpretation of scripture, current affairs and the latest theological thinking. So I am confident that I need not be embarrassed about my thinking, perspectives and skill levels. I have also earned my credibility by the impact I have had in the community. This deep down confidence (is it snobbery on my part?) enables me to withstand what feels like patronising attitudes by some clergy.

We really cannot afford the luxury of religious snobbery! On the news today there is discussion about the Catholic Church, child abuse, the various cover ups and lack of caring response in Australia. Among the people I mix with in my chaplaincies the Church (all denominations) is a joke, it has little credibility among the average New Zealand public. We, "the church" ought to be asking questions about how we can change that.  We carry on in our denominations and congregations with "business as usual" and the public is increasingly ignoring us. In my view we need models of Church where the Church is in the world as servant, making a difference unable to be ignored. Otherwise we increasingly look like quaint old people going to quaint old buildings, doing quaint old things that don't really matter.  A reformation is desperately needed and all followers of Jesus need to be included in the search for new ways of being Church. I bet there was very little snobbery among the officers of the Titanic as it sank!

The results of my efforts

Knox Church

Knox Church...
I was to preach at an inner-city ministers' Trinity Sunday Ecumenical service at the historical Knox Church in Dunedin last night. This sermon had been running through my mind for a few weeks.  I asked the people planning the service if I could have a mobile lapel microphone and just stand at the front of the Church. I was assured that would be OK. That is my style, I do not usually use notes though the sermon has often been scribbled out at least a couple of times. I did ask if I could use a power point, but that seemed too much trouble. When I arrived for the service and met the minister in charge of the service I asked about the lapel microphone. I was told in no uncertain terms that I was preaching from the high pulpit, there was no option available, and it was repeated several times. The service was packed with several choir numbers and other aspects and not much time was left for the sermon. I climbed the steps into this pulpit, feeling inhibited by the fence around me and the gap between me and the congregation. I checked my watch before the sermon and realised that I had to edit my carefully prepared sermon in my mind as I spoke. The feedback I got was generally positive though I probably made some people feel uncomfortable. 
This Church building and the style of service made me feel uptight and somehow less of a person. The service was led through in a very formal, impersonal and passionless style. The readings, prayers and choir pieces followed the order of service with no announcement or personal connection with the people in the pews. I suppose it may be a matter of taste, but it seems to me to be a denial of the immanence of God, presenting a God who is distant and a faith that is impersonal and somehow held at arms length. Doesn't do much for me. I had thought Knox may have been a congregation we could have attended when we retire. If that is the usual "feel" I don't think so. I had looked forward to preaching this sermon as my sort of "ecumenical swan song". It seems my effort was OK, but from my point of view, I felt I could not "be myself" in that setting, behind a fenced in and high pulpit.
A plug for $50000
This morning I was to front up with another friend, to a charitable Trust to present a case for receiving a $50000 grant to help the Night Shelter Trust purchase its premises. I put a lot of effort into preparing a power point and we had thought carefully about how and what to present. We had 15 minutes to make our plug. We walked into this room and sorted out our powerpoint and did our thing. They asked a couple of questions. I must admit I tended to bounce back a little too hastily at one, responding emphatically. They were sitting at a board table and nothing they said nor the expressions on their faces gave anything away. There were three organisations after a single grant of $50000.  We had been shortlisted out of fifteen organisations. We heard later that they had decided to give each of the three organisations $10000. It was an interesting experience and we are grateful for the grant.
Half-marathon dream...
I saw an article about training for a half-marathon that is to be run in Dunedin in fifteen weeks time. I still have some measure of fitness with my regular walks up the mountain.  As I looked at the suggested training schedule I thought "I could do that!"  The half is just two days after my 65 birthday, it would be a great way to celebrate and the training involved will help me lose weight. I will have to do some cross training to nurse my fragile knee a bit, but I think I could do it. I walked up the mountain on Saturday and today spent an hour in my "garage gym" doing rowing, cycling, punch bag and some weights. (It was bitterly cold and wet outside) It is a start. It would be great to be able to say "I did a half marathon just after I turned 65". 

I think I have a "normal" week ahead, and a lighter weekend at the end of it. 

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Weekend work

A little time out at last...
This morning I realised that I had left some important stuff in the office. So my wife and I went into town (11k) to pick it up. We stopped at the local sports stadium cafe for morning coffee.  As we waited for our coffee and then drank it we talked.  It felt like we had not had time to talk for ages. Of course we had been talking, but our conversation had been just the necessary to get to work, get meals, do the stuff we had to at church and get to bed. We had both been racing around doing things, going to meetings and never had time to really catch up. We both "unloaded" and debriefed about the various things that we had been involved in. For me it was Night Shelter Trust issues, chaplaincy experiences and concerns about my work load. For my wife it was meetings she had arranged for Habitat for Humanity and a meeting she had attended about our foster daughter who has significant handicaps. Our coffee break took a lot longer than usual. After coming home, eating lunch and doing some work I got to head up my Mount Cargill for a walk. It was great sunny weather and a real treat to be walking in the bush and seeing the familiar but still amazing scenery glistening in the sunshine. It seemed an age since I had been there. I met a friend on top and we talked before I headed back down to work. 
I have three things to prepare for in the next couple of days. I have to lead the normal morning service tomorrow morning and I am a bit behind in my preparation. I also have to prepare power points and wording for a presentation to a charitable trust on Monday morning where I make a plug to receive a big grant for the Night Shelter. With so much money resting on it I am a bit worried about my approach. Distracting me from both of these is the fact that I am to be the preacher at an inner-city ecumenical service at seven tomorrow evening. It is to be held at the "distinguished" Knox Church and will involve choirs, a dance group and a Tongan singing group. I am a bit nervous because my conversational style does not really fit the usual "intellectual" worship in Knox, the building arrangement nor the style of worship that has been planned. So my mind keeps straying to this sermon. 

Oh I do look forward to retirement when I will not have such things hanging over my head all of the time!

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Drained but satisfied now.

I was asked to take the funeral of this twenty one year old who died in his bed. It was totally unexpected with some medical event causing it. His dad had done some contract work for one of my chaplaincies, that is why I got asked. I got the request the day before I had to take the funeral for my 97 year old childhood minister.  That along with other stresses had stressed me out to the max already, and I wondered how I would cope with this funeral.

On Saturday I went out to the family home and sat and talked with the family - mum, dad and two sisters.  They of course were very sad but talked fairly freely and openly about their son/brother and about how they wanted to celebrate his life. I came home quite drained because I had been listening (which involves watching intently) and concentrating. I found it hard to concentrate on preparing the service for Sunday with this funeral on Monday hanging over my head. I did however manage to type up the content of the newsletter and got a service constructed and on Sunday morning, delivered. On Sunday late afternoon/evening I set to composing the funeral service from notes I had scribbled over the last day or so. I had talked to the father on the phone and he also had suggested I peruse the tributes on line. On Monday morning I continued editing and revising the words again and again. I had to do some sort of sum-up eulogy and to my amazement somehow the way I should do it came to mind in a "penny drop" type experience. I prepared, but was still not sure they were the right words or the best way of doing things. The family were not religious and wanted to be honest about that, so the prayers were turned into affirmations. Through the wording I wanted to affirm life without resorting to religious cliches. It is a very worthwhile exercise to do, making you realise that ministers can be quite lazy resorting to well worn religious cliches.  

The thing that hit me was that I was so very nervous. (I have taken funerals for thirty nine years and I still get nervous with every one) On two nights I lost a lot of sleep thinking about how I would go. On Monday morning just after breakfast my wife cut my hair, and as I sat patiently in the chair I felt this knot in my stomach - six hours before the funeral.  Nearly thirty years ago I had taken the funeral of a seventeen year old girl killed as a pillion passenger in a motorbike accident. It had been hard, but I don't remember it being as hard as this one? I knew her and her family a bit better and I guess I was full of the confidence of youth. 

I conducted the funeral and there were of course gut wrenching moments during it as the family and friends shared their story and as they said their final farewells. There were heaps of young people there, and many were very upset. Perhaps their first encounter with death. I hardly knew any of the congregation. Afterward I stood around and guided people around the building. About four different people came up and commended me on the service. There were so many there that I did not get to talk with the family. I came home quite unsure about whether I had done a good job. I went for a walk in the dark to unwind. I found myself waking up at 3 a.m. still wondering whether I had done the right thing. 

Today I got a warm email from the family. Here is just a part of it....   "Thank you so much for conducting  _____’s service yesterday. It was just a wonderful celebration of his life.
 You set a great tone for the proceedings, and captured perfectly the essence of his personality."

I do not charge for a funeral. There are three reasons. (1.) The amount the funeral directors suggest they pay you for me anyway, is an insult to the work I do.  The minimum number of hours I put into each funeral would be eight hours. If you work out the hourly rate it would be quite small. (2.) It is always difficult to know who to charge and who not to charge. Somebody sees you as a friend?  There is a long serving Church member who has probably paid for his funeral hundreds of times with his offering? A poor family? It just seems easier not to charge anybody. (3) The Church pays me a living wage. I use Church time to prepare for and conduct the funeral, to me it would seem like double dipping to make extra money on the funeral.

To receive the letter above and to know that I really helped a family during one of the toughest moments of their life is the best reward I can get. I am very tired tonight but inside I am deeply satisfied and fulfilled.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

A quick post...

The latest picture of our Christchurch grandson, Theo.
Arthur Templeton's funeral on Friday.
On Friday I led the funeral for a 97 year old retired minister who was my childhood minister.  For a 97 year old he had a very big funeral with perhaps 200 diverse people there. He often annoyed me in recent years because he could be pedantic and sometimes imnappropriate. But he had a big influence in who I am today. In the week before the funeral I had many memories. I recall him baptising me. I recall him bringing my mother home from the hospital after my father died, he looked as hurt as we did. He guided me helping a very nervous young teenager open his mouth in public. I recall him being sent by the elders to tell us off at the Youth Group for playing our records too loud and too long, the Church neighbours had complained. One other time he drew us Brown boys aside to tell us that the neighbours in our street had complained directly to him that we were working on our cars too late at night. I had such great feedback about the funeral, and I am still getting it. Members of my congregation said this morning, "We were so proud of you!" The funny thing is that I am not sure what I did that was right? 
Funeral for a young man
After Church this morning we went out for lunch and came home exhausted. I had a nap this afternoon and have been procrastinating, putting off doing the final preparation for the funeral I have to lead tomorrow. On the day that we were celebrating the first birthday of our grand daughter, this young man's mother discovered him dead in bed. I don't really know how you make the final farewells any easier. A funeral for a 97 year old who has accomplished a lot is a breeze, but for a young man at the beginning of his adult life it is so much more difficult. It is funny how so often I find myself indecisive and procrastinating when there is something really hard to do. I hope I can do no harm!

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Not for the faint hearted...

In my last post I told you that I was stressed. It is a strange reality in Church ministry that you often cannot control your workload. I arrived at the office this morning and had about an hour and a quarter conversation with a very upset and distressed woman. I then had to make phone calls related to that and later received an email about the topic that demanded a reply. Issues continued to crop up throughout the day with the biggest one being a request to lead a funeral for a twenty one year old son of an acquaintance on Monday.  What on earth do you say to the grieving parents? I have had a newspaper reporter asking Night Shelter questions, a couple of long phone calls about night shelter issues and I am still working on tomorrow's funeral for my 97 year old childhood minister. Add to these there are also deadline things that are part of the usual preparation that needs to be done for Sunday's service. I will cope but I just don't know how to respond when my GP tells me "You work too hard, take life easier". How?  He has never been a minister.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Mid week report, goodbyes, stress and celebrations.

Edith - one year old today!
A goodbye...  On Monday morning I drove my beaten up Toyota Corolla to the auction place where they sell off written off cars. Even though the insurance payout is better than expected it is still sad to see the end of an essentially good car that I had hoped would last us a long time. 
No day off...   On Monday afternoon I drove out to spend time with the daughter of the man whose funeral I will take on Friday. In the evening I did some work toward helping her to plan the funeral. Monday is meant to be my day off and now it is midweek I am really feeling the lack of a day of rest. 
Night Shelter challenges...   I am chairman of the Dunedin Night Shelter Trust and we also run Phoenix Lodge which provides transitional housing for ex-prisoners.  Both places are always raising issues that get passed on to me to deal with. The numbers of people using the Night Shelter are increasing and the problems that these people bring with them are becoming more complex. K2 drug is causing issues in the house and the clientele seem to be more unsettled in general.  Funding for the shelter is never easy and sometimes I feel like throwing in the towel. I don't know how to tackle the issues, where to begin even on some of them. All of us on the Trust have busy lives so it is often not easy to make headway on problems.  But we have come a big distance from having no Dunedin shelter, and I guess we will continue to overcome the obstacles. It will always be an ongoing journey and problems will always be the nature of such work.
Stress...   I always get stressed about leading funerals and this one is no exception. It is so distracting having it hanging over my head to do. The Night Shelter issues stress me. Ongoing uncertainty about my prostate/bladder and not moving past the problem is a frustration. Realising that some of the good work we have been doing at the Church will in all probability come to an end makes me feel sad and a little guilty for planing to retire. There are also the accumulated stresses of frequent things happening in the last few months, even good things along with the bad.  (A son's wedding in January, a new baby in February, coping with a catheter, visitors, an operation and recovery period, followed by two further days in hospital, funerals and the car accident. etc.) I just notice that every day I sense a level of stress. I sometimes lie awake at night wondering how I am going to work my way through things and even feel a mild panic attack when I think of some problem I have not dealt to. 
Celebrations....   Today is our grand daughter Edith's first Birthday. My wife has travelled up to Auckland to celebrate with the family there. Tonight I talked via skype. The wee girl is growing and changing by the day. We of course celebrated our 44th wedding anniversary and mother's day. It is interesting that I keep hearing positive things about our ministry and church. People say, "Everyone knows that is the church that is open to the community!" "Oh that's the community minded church isn't it - it does such good work!" "You have put that Church on the map!" One of our guys was visiting a rest home and when a lady found out what church he attended she raved on about "David Brown" and "his generosity, and the great work he does through that Church." I don't think they know that it is not as much as they think. Neither do they know that this church is really quite fragile. But it is good to know there is a positive impact. My wife gets impatient. "If everyone who raves on about the wonderful work we do, came and joined us in that work it would be much easier!" 
A good question for every day.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

"This is awesome!" - Another week done and another begins.

Arthur Templeton, my childhood minister in October last year.
Habitat for Humanity memories.
Twice this week I bumped into a guy we built a house with in the early days of Habitat for Humanity in Dunedin. It would be in the late 1990's. At the first meeting he introduced me to a young boy he said was a "foster son". He said, "The wife and I realised we had been given a lot in life so we decided we need to give a bit back."  In the second meeting later in the week he was with his wife and they both greeted me warmly.  We were at the insurance office and as they walked out arm in arm I could not help but think that the hours I put in working alongside this couple were probably well spent. I recall once he and I were together, stripped to the waist shoveling and moving a huge pile of dirt. We paused briefly when we had filled two more barrows to wipe the sweat off our brows. He, a big gruff blunt fellow, looked at me and said, "Are you really a bloody parson?"
Insurance payout...
Tomorrow we hand over our beaten up Toyota Corolla to the people who will dispose of it for the insurance company. We were quite pleased with the market value that they are to give us for the written off car. We knew when we bought it off the local Dominican Sisters that they were being generous with their price. Now we are to get a fair price off the insurance company, we really appreciate the sisters' generosity. We have not lost money on it. People are good.
This is awesome!
We had five fourth year social work university students come to our drop-in centre to help out on Friday night. It was a part of their study program. They helped prepare the food and also stayed and mixed and mingled during the evening. It was interesting watching their reaction to what we do. One guy just kept saying, "This is awesome what you do here!" He wants to bring some members from his church along to it. Another lady is keen to come back next week when we are going to be short staffed.  One other was brilliant, she spent the night quietly talking with people. She asked if it was alright by us if she came back again at other times. Maybe we will help inspire other drop-in centres.
Mixed feelings
While at the drop-in I was approached by one of the guys. "Are you really going to leave us at the end of the year?" he asked. "Yes that's the plan." I said. "What will happen?" he asked. "I don't know at this stage." I replied. In all probability, without us I suspect the drop-in centre will close. That will be sad, and I wish it could be different. I do know that in 32 Sundays I need to be finishing ministry. But there are parts of what we do that I will miss and feel sad about.
Guest preacher
The inner city ministers are arranging an ecumenical service at Knox Church on the evening of May 26th, Trinity Sunday. Because I have been in Dunedin for so long and am finishing at the end of the year, I am to be preacher for that service. It looks like it could be quite a service with various choirs, singing groups and congregations taking part. What do I want to say to inner-city Christians in Dunedin? It has been a tad distracting with my mind wandering to an evolving sermon for that special night. One thing is for certain my style of sermon will probably be different than what they are used to at Knox Church. 
Another funeral to prepare for.
I learned yesterday that a man in my congregation aged 97 had died over night. He was minister at our church when we were growing up. (North East Valley Church of Christ) While he and I were very different, and to be honest he often annoyed me, I recognise I owe a tremendous amount to him. He stayed ministering in Churches until he was 85 years old! He kept learning and thinking theologically right throughout his life.  He had a passion for preaching and communicated to me a love for the gospels and the nature of Jesus. Somehow through his preaching, Jesus made sense to me. He baptised me; he taught me how to read the scriptures in a church service; he gave me a starter prayer I could use when I had to pray in public during communion services; and he gave me hints when I graduated to presiding at Church services in my late teens. At the same time there were parts of his style of ministry that I did not appreciate and in a way that prompted in me a determination to rethink the things I do.  He was also the mysterious person who nominated me (gathering together information and references) to the government ministers to receive the Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit medal in 2002. A big part of the week ahead will be taken up preparing for and leading his funeral service.  Wish me luck. 
Forty four years of marriage
Friday was our 44th Wedding Anniversary. I find it hard to believe that we have been married that long! I joked with my wife that 44 years ago we were "doing it" four times on our wedding night. "Come on" I said, "We've got a few to go!" She just laughed... Days of "doing it" four times in a night are long gone, but I am glad we're still doing it. I think the unity of purpose, "two people living for the same purpose bigger than themselves" has enabled us to stick together reasonably happily. So far it has been an interesting, adventurous journey. 
Me (20yrs old) waiting in the vestry looking shocked before our wedding ceremony. 

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Wasting Human lives . ... special connections.

Why do we do it?
#1. On Monday my wife and I had to go out to South Dunedin. We went down one street and we saw a young woman who comes to our drop-in centre. She was stomping along the road with an angry expression on her face scratching her behind. When she comes to our drop-in centre she is just obnoxious, demanding and a "loser/user".  She sometimes stinks. She is not the brightest kid on the block, but she does have enough up top to be different. She is aggressive in her contacts, is either angry or stupidly giggly and disruptive. Emotionally, personality wise she is a mess! How did she get like this? After seeing her our conversation went on to list off other people whose whole demeanor and lifestyle is chaos.  One man we know is having a protective order served against him for acting stupidly toward a woman who was his girlfriend.  He has had court trouble before for inappropriate actions toward a woman. I took him down to the court to sort out the procedure. He (a 58 year old) is basically illiterate so needed my support. He often acts as an arrogant know it all!  I went to quite some trouble but it seemed to be something he just expected me to do, I received no "thank you" at all. His family life as a kid, particularly from his dad, was diabolical. We know heaps and heaps of these sorts of dysfunctional lives.  What the hell are we doing wrong as a society to produce them? Is it parenting? Is it schooling? Is it family dynamics? Is it just purposeless living by generations of people producing another dysfunctional generation? However it happens here are human lives vandalised, wrecked and poisoned by .... whatever! We ought to be doing better. We ought to be asking ourselves some hard questions about our lifestyle, our society and our values. What ought to be beautiful lives turned to shit. It is deeply sad.
#2. On Tuesday morning I was still groggy when our phone rang. A man told me that a young man  who had imbibed in K2 had been uncooperative, aggressive and abusive. He told me that he had called the police and I think he was quite shaken up by the whole event. How can dairy owners in good conscience sell this stuff? I hear of so many lives wrecked by it.  Lives are completely stuffed up. Like wise with the use of marijuana. I am sure that a lot of the mental health patients aimlessly wandering the streets, unemployed and bludging from drop-in centres or any other easy touch have had conditions worsened by this stuff.. They may have had troubles but I am sure their issues are made exacerbated by their drug taking. Why do we imbibe in such destructive behaviour?
#3. I was talking to a person who is part of a friendship/support group. There is a split in the group and it seems it is caused by power hungry people wanting to be the centre of attention. It is so sad, what was once a positive, useful friendly group is ruined by the attitudes of a few! I could list off untold Churches, charitable groups and other community groups ruined, limited or distorted by such battles and attitudes. Why do we do it?
Eleven "Hello's"
I ventured away from the Church twice today. I went about a block to talk with the local Volunteer Centre. On the way there I bumped into a man I knew and needed to speak with. We talked doing the necessary business but also enjoying each other's company.  Before I got back to the Church I encountered two more people I knew well. After spending three hours talking with people at Space2B I went to visit a firefighter at the hospital about two blocks away. In my walk to the hospital and back I encountered eight people I knew in various capacities. A retired fire fighter, some people I knew through our drop-in centre, the local street sweeper who lunches in our Space2B and even one young woman who greeted me warmly by name as if we were old friends, but I still haven't a clue what part of life she fits in.  I could not help but smile as I reflected on the number and warmth of these encounters. I figured that sometimes I must be doing something right.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Another week of interest.

Sunset on my Mount Cargill
I would love to know what forces make this mist creep over the hills like this. 
Love these bright little flowers beside the track.

Hospital visit disappointment
On Thursday I was to spend the day in hospital for a TROC – trial removal of my catheter. I went in hoping to come out with a “normally” working plumbing system. Short story is that I failed their tests.  Because I retain too much I still need catheterisation.  They instituted a different system of regular self-catheterisation. (don’t ask - it is not much fun!) Anyway it does mean that I am “normal”, don’t have to wear an embarrassing catheter nor connect to tubes and bag at night. I may have to have this for the rest of my life, but they are hoping for improvement.  It is disappointing; it feels like the operation was a waste of time and energy.  While sitting in the bed for the day I read another book so my time was not wasted.
I came out of the toilet to see Mark a local Catholic Priest who does some time as a hospital chaplain visiting the patient next to me. I have known Mark for about 25 years and admire his energy, his compassion and his quiet spirituality.  When he left his friend he saw me in bed and came over and we chatted warmly. “Would you like a blessing?” he asked. “Yes” I replied, well I could hardly say “no”.  So Mark got out his oil and prayed for me while tracing on my palms and on my forehead the sign of the cross with the oil. It was a “blessing”, somehow humbling and warming to receive this ministry from my colleague in ministry.
These days I have more proactively adopted a philosophy of trying my best in any situation to enhance life about me.  During my recent visits to hospital I asked myself, “What can I do in this situation to enhance life?” I purposely went about trying to make sensitive encouraging connections with the patients in my room and to express appreciation to the nurses and doctors for their care. Disappointment at the results meant I had to use more will power to continue to be positive. I found it helped me not to wallow in my predicament. On this visit as I left the ward and went into the lift I saw a man wearing the jacket of a rural volunteer fire fighter. I asked him what brigade he served in. He told me and I happened to know his chief very well.  As we descended to the ground floor I told him I was chaplain to the fire service in Dunedin.  In the foyer of the hospital the conversation moved on to him telling me about the friend he had been visiting who had terminal cancer and his feelings and experiences of his visit that day. He seemed to have a need to talk and I had a need to listen.  I still don’t know his name but it certainly made my wallowing in disappointment disappear.
“We have a photo of you…”
On Saturday a lovely Indian couple we have held a belated “house warming” party celebrating their purchase of a house.  It was held in the Church and we helped them set up and I led in a blessing.  There was a crowd of friends there most of them Indian families. Indian women are so beautiful and their men seem to look like perpetual teenagers. An Indian family arrived and the father seemed keen to talk with me. “I know you” he said, “We have a photo of you holding my son when he was two months old.”  The son, now fifteen stood there as tall as I am grinning. “How? When? Where?” I asked. He then told me that fifteen years ago they had come to New Zealand and had just arrived in Dunedin. He said that finances were low and they heard of our Christmas Day dinner so registered and came. I had arranged their transport and during the day had spent time chatting to them and at some stage held their baby.  It was a warm experience.  After stewing on it for some time my memory banks filled in the gaps.
“Man’s search for ultimate meaning.”
I have been reading this book by Viktor Frankl, the Psychiatrist who came up with “Logotherapy”. Logotherapy claims that humans have a “will to meaning.”  It says that in any given situation in life we need to see meaning and if that search is frustrated we suffer. Frankl himself was a survivor of Auschwitz and I find his theories ring bells with me. I believe we have a whole heap of problems as a society because people do not find meaning in life (Living in an “existential vacuum”).  The Bible says, “Without a vision the people perish.”  In a nutshell that is Viktor Frankl’s message. I want to just share a few disjointed quotes from this book.
“I for one think that if morals are to survive they will have to be ontologized. Ontologized morals, however, will no longer define what is good and what is bad in terms of what one should do and what one must not do. What is good will be defined as that which fosters the meaning fulfilment of being. And what is bad will be defined as that which hinders this meaning fulfilment.” (I see “ontologized” as “seen as part of the essence of life”.)

“Logotherapy is, as it were, trifocal. It focuses on three fundamental facts of human existence: a will to meaning, a meaning in suffering, and a freedom of will. As to the last, man’s freedom of choice concerns the freedom to choose not only one’s own way of living, but even one’s own attitude of dying.”

Frankl was speaking to a group of tough criminals in prison. A prisoner interrupted saying, “Dr Frankl, would you be kind enough to say a few words through the mike to Aaron Mitchell, who is expected to die in the gas chamber in a couple of days?” Here is some of what he said to this prisoner on death row.  “Mr Mitchell, believe me, I understand your situation. I myself had to live for some time in the shadow of a gas chamber. But also believe me that even then I did not give up my conviction of the unconditional meaningfulness of life, because either life has meaning - and then it retains this meaning even if the life is short lived – or life has no meaning – and then adding ever more years just perpetuates this meaninglessness. And believe me, even a life that has been meaningless all along, that is, a life that has wasted, may – even in the last moment – still be bestowed with meaning by the very way we tackle this situation.”

“..in fact, each life situation confronting us places a demand on us, presents a question to us – a question to which we have to answer by doing something about the given situation.”

“…. three avenues lead to meaning fulfilment: First, doing a deed or creating a work; second, experiencing something or encountering someone; in other words, meaning can be found not only in work but also love.  Most important, however, is the third avenue: Facing a fate we cannot change, we are called upon to make the best of it by rising above ourselves and growing beyond ourselves, in a word, by changing ourselves.”

“I would like to offer you a peculiar definition of God at which, I confess, I arrived at the age of 15 years. It is in a sense an operational definition. It reads as follows:  God is the partner of our most intimate soliloquies. That is to say, whenever you are talking to yourself in utmost sincerity and ultimate solitude – he to whom you are addressing yourself may justifiably be called God.”

While there are parts of the book you need a psychiatry degree to fully understand I enjoy his approach to life and therapy. It calls people to broaden their thinking, to transcend selfishness and thus find a more peaceful and powerful life.