Dunedin, New Zealand, my city - my people

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Two heart warming incidents...

From "Steve"
We have a foster daughter with severe handicaps. (She is a Rett syndrome sufferer) Our Pania is in her early thirties and in a supervised house with others. She visits home regularly and is my "special girl". Carers from the CCS organisation take her on outings during the day. We had a call from one of her carers. She had taken Pania to the swimming pool - she loves that. When she smiles her eyes and smile light up a room and I can imagine in the water with her carer she would be all smiles. At some stage after the swim, a man came up to her and her carer and introduced himself just as "Steve". He was from South Africa and had four young children with him. He handed the carer a very generous donation in cash and told her the money was for Pania - "to be used for something special for her care."  He gave no details but said that "God had told him to give it." I don't suppose Steve will read this but Pania says "thank you" and her parents say "thank you".  
".. but she out of her poverty put in everything she had." (Mark 12:44)
A second story - In an email sent via the Night Shelter website to the Trust a young lady told this story...
I was walking to work the other day and saw a homeless man who had a sign asking for money for food because he was hungry, I'm a student and have very little money anyway. I had five dollars in my account on Monday (i get paid on Fridays) but I drew it out and gave it to him anyway. However I noticed that no one else was even acknowledging him i was really angry. Soooo..... I came up with an idea of organizing a city wide protest thing to help raise money and awareness for the homeless in Dunedin and I was wondering if you would be able to help me? It would mean a lot if you could because I don't know anything about organizing things like this :)

I love her anger. There are big issues involved in why people are the way they are, but it is nice to know that this young person cared. We are following up with her.
Two stories in two days. - I thought I would take a couple of minutes out of my day to share these two stories just to brighten your day. There are caring generous people in the world.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Mental health, this week's rant...

Grandson Theo. 4-5 months.
Granddaughter Edith just over a year.
They need more care...
We have a man who walks about town. They call him "Speedy" because he walks quite fast, especially when he was younger. He has mental health problems. He is under some sort of supervised accommodation, but I do not think there is much supervision. He came to our drop-in centre on Friday night. He was not well clothed for the mid-winter cold outside. I was pleased to see him come in from the cold and we made sure he had food - a cup of soup, half a pie and some sandwiches. He grabbed this food like a hungry dog grabs its food, while fiercely looking about. (He hates being crowded in)  He shoved this food into his mouth like he feared it was going to be stolen, struggling to eat it as fast as he put it in. He sat down to sip his soup and have a hot drink. We put more sandwiches within easy reach because he looked so hungry. Next minute he vomited into his jumper lying beside him on the seat. He had eaten too quickly. I gave him a spare jumper and took him home to his place and as I drove I thought of the many people we know through our drop-in who, like him, struggle to cope on our city streets because they have mental health issues. As chairman of the Dunedin Night Shelter Trust, I often get an early morning phone call from the shelter's manager. He feels he has to report to me when there has been an unfortunate incident at the Shelter overnight. Most often it happens when he is trying to deal with some person struggling to cope with a mental health issue. We used to have "asylums" - or more correctly, hospitals where these folk had often life time residential care. They were often placed outside the city limits. In their wisdom the authorities have closed most of these down, declaring that these folk would be better off in the community, with proper community based care. The hospitals were not ideal, but the current situation is, in my view worse. There are too many like "Speedy", not coping with their freedom! Caring agencies and public mental health systems are under funded and we as a community are not caring for the vulnerable in our midst! 
"I've had enough!"
The Old Testament reading today was from the book of 1st Kings. It was the story of the prophet Elijah fleeing from the wrath of Jezebel. He went to the desert where despondent and fearful he cried, "It is enough! ... take away my life!" He moved on to a cave at Horeb and there complained "I have been zealous for the Lord... I alone am left..." and spoke of the way the people had deserted the Lord.  I kind of identify with his feelings often. Maybe I am "different" or a bit eccentric, but in Church and community groups I have been and are involved in, I often feel frustrated and feel like shouting; "I've had enough!" or "Doesn't any body else care?"  Elijah's desperate cries encourage me. He too had tough times. This week its been a bit like that. I had been a good boy and delegated stuff, but somehow it landed back on my lap. People have not done what they had promised to do and others interrupted my day with agendas of their own. I have felt like screaming, "I've had enough!"  In exploring this passage I found a commentator who shared this information;
Mother Teresa's book Come Be My Light (2007) shocked people with its description of profound spiritual darkness that haunted her for fifty years. She writes that she didn't practice what she preached, and laments the stark contrast between her exterior demeanor and her interior desolation: "The smile is a big cloak which covers a multitude of pains... my cheerfulness is a cloak by which I cover the emptiness and misery ... I deceive people with this weapon." She describes the absence of God's presence in many ways - as emptiness, loneliness, pain, spiritual dryness, or lack of consolation. "My heart is so empty... so full of darkness..." 
I know of several famous writers, christian leaders and other people of achievement who all faced heavy hearted moments far worse than I do.  There are names like Florence Nightingale, J B Phillips, C S Lewis, Robert Lois Stephenson and others I have read of. I am encouraged. Perhaps it goes with the territory. M Scott-Peck suggests in one of his books that depression often happens when people have the courage to face reality. These people are brave enough to look at life honestly, see its failings, are disturbed by it, and long for it to be different.  
The thing that gets me is that these "real" people who achieved so much, had the courage to keep going, doing what they believed to be right in the face of disappointment, depression and frustration. That is courage - seeing and feeling the reality, experiencing the loneliness, but still doing that which is good, still committed to making a difference.  I am not famous, nor do I achieve a lot, but I hope I have a measure of such courage.
"Rain, rain go away.."
This last week New Zealand has suffered a mid-winter blast of bad weather. There have been big dumpings of snow in places. Flooding, slips, power outages and road closures have happened in different places throughout NZ. We have had a week of sleety rain and hail in Dunedin. There is a slip near by which caused the evacuation of a few houses for a while. Everything is damp and cold. It was the shortest day on Friday - the shortest daylight hours. Traditionally July is our coldest month, but it is heartening to know we are theoretically now moving toward spring. Tomorrow is my day off. I think I'll be chopping firewood, weather permitting.
Mid-winter moon tonight.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Everyone is fighting...

Church dogma...
As I listened to the two funerals I attended last week (and they were quite well run) I could not help but think of how people view the Church. It is easy to see that people would view the Church as that agency who says who gets into heaven or not, and that the purpose of Christianity is to get people to heaven. I suspect there is "life-after-life" but that is not what Christianity is about for me. I don't believe in a God who will allow somebody in, or disallow somebody because they happen to have been or not have been, through the right ritual when they were a baby or even later in life - or because they belonged to the right institution. "The sacred" is bigger than our various religious interpretations. Our religions are "gropings" to try explain the experiences of the depth in life. Good religion helps us to live well here, and to "be present" to our fellow humans, creatures and the world of nature - to live in sympathy with, or in harmony with (The Jewish concept of "shalom") people and the world about us. I happen to find Jesus' teaching helps me to do this, but also discover that same essence in other places too. The frustration I have is that traditional emphases in Christianity, in hymns, ceremonies and in Church expectations and priorities seem to be a distortion of this. At the most recent funeral I was standing with firefighters in the family room of the funeral home listening to the funeral - we could not see what was going on. The hymn "How Great Thou Art" was announced. It was interesting. My guess is that all the firefighters knew the hymn (it was popularised by Howard Morrison in NZ) but nobody wanted to sing, and all but one in this packed room did not sing. Guys around me jokingly said, "Go to it Dave! Come on sing up." (We in Church inflict singing on people for whom it is completely foreign!) The words of the song assumed a certain view of God, of the atonement, the second coming and of heaven that I was not that comfortable with! It simplistically praised God for creation and we were attending a funeral for a guy who died relatively young of cancer? What went wrong with creation? 
Living in a small world...
My wife and I were driving through a locality today and talking about a man we knew there.  My wife commented that he "lived in a small world, physically and mentally." His conversation is always about himself and "small" things. He has sometimes dropped into Space2B and seems to have no empathy for the poor, the mentally ill or vulnerable people. His attitude is almost one of contempt. He cannot understand our priorities. Life is simple for him, "look after yourself."  I said to my wife, "Maybe he's got it right? Maybe we should not care about the people we worry about? Our life would be easier." "If we all did that life would be even more of a mess than it is!" my wife said. "There would be more misery everywhere." .. and I knew that she was right.
"Be present with.."
The Dalai Lama said essentially that compassion could rest on a basis beyond religion. "We are all born the same way - out of our mother. We will all die. We are essentially the same whoever we are and whoever we think we are. Therefore we should care for one another." I keep saying we are, whether we like it or not, on the same journey of life. We are called to help each other make that journey, and journey well. I like the concept of living life being "present with" others. Being present means that as I live I am aware, sensitive to and responsive to the needs and circumstances of others who journey with me. Some examples. I lusted after a nice big Ford station wagon with a 4 litre engine - Power to burn, a man's car. My wife said, "But what are you doing to the environment?" I talked of investing money in a certain investment group. My daughter says, "How is the money used? Does it treat people well?"  I want to buy certain coffee for the Church, but my daughter says, "What is buying that coffee doing for the producers? Is it fair trading?" I know and admire a lady who would love to fly back to Ireland to visit her family more often, but she chooses not to. She doesn't because she sees herself contributing to climate change by the excess burning of fossil fuel. She says, "If we all used planes less, it would make a big difference to the level of destructive emissions." There are people on Dunedin streets struggling to cope with life. Most do not see them. Nobody would blame me if I too ignored them. But just maybe I can share some thing with them, my time or food, my resources which will help them have a better experience of the journey of life? - I know that I cannot help everyone. I know that I cannot live a pure life, I will inevitably contribute to some of the problems of the world. But if we all lived, as much as we are able, so that we make ourselves "present" to others about us, more of us would live a fuller more happy existence.  Being "present" to others and life about us, ultimately enriches our journey.
True religion..
I came across this quote I had jotted down in my diary from somewhere. "Be kind - for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle." (Philo)  Each week I lead in a pastoral prayer. As I think of the members of my congregation, or people in my chaplaincies, I know that each one is "fighting a battle." "He" struggles with getting older. "She" worries about her daughter and her addictions and illness. "He" has "plumbing" problems and ongoing uncertainties about health and the possibility of cancer. "She" feels trapped in an unhappy marriage. "They" struggle with finances and making ends meet is a real battle. "He" still grieves for his wife, they were still so much in love when she died. .. etc. and I could go on listing challenges.  ALL OF US in life have challenges to face, and we can link arms in compassion and help each other experience life as best we can - or we can live in a dog eat dog world "looking after ourselves!"  It is our choice. 
True religion encourages people to have a breadth of perspective, a depth of wisdom and hearts long on compassion. Too much religion these days narrows people's focus and so contributes to the problems of the world.  Micah said, "What does God require of you but to do justice, love kindness, and to walk humbly with the Lord your God."  Jesus said, I have come that they might have life, and have it abundantly." John Shelby Spong commenting on this passage says, "Those of us who want to constitute ourselves as disciples of this Jesus have a single responsibility and that is to try to build a world in which every person in that world has a better opportunity to live fully, love wastefully and to be all that they can be in the infinite variety of their humanity."

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Sad ... but a good time.

The late Keith Ferris. A real good guy.
Goodbye Keith
Nineteen years ago, when I first began as chaplain to the fire brigade, I met a firefighter who was on light duties because he was recovering from a near fatal bout of meningitis. He went on to work in the training department and found his niche there. He did fire rescue training for rest home staff, and other workplaces needing such training. He went on to train volunteer firefighters throughout Otago and Southland. He died last Tuesday of cancer and on Saturday I attended his funeral. (He was Catholic so a priest led the funeral - I was off the hook for this one.) Bus loads, van loads and carloads of firefighters came to his funeral from all over the place. The funeral home was packed to overflowing with people. St John ambulance staff and Police representatives were also there along with family and friends. It was a great tribute to a much loved man. 
Keith Ferris was his name and I had a great deal of respect for him. I recall he invited me to participate in a three day fire rescue course. Because he knew me and loved to tease me, he kept choosing me to be the guinea pig, or the volunteer to go first in any exercise. He was enjoying himself with a real twinkle in his eye. He also talked me into going into the smoke chamber with breathing apparatus on, and loved seeing me fight the fear of the heat. I had to shave my beard off and he enjoyed making that demand of me, taking photos of the bare faced, hot chaplain just after I emerged from the hot box.  Keith was an ideal trainer, he was always enthusiastic and effusive in his responses to people. You felt like you could do anything with Keith to guide you through. When you had completed the exercise he treated you as if you had won an olympic gold medal.  I will miss him because at 3 p.m. every Tuesday and Friday when I would turn up at central fire station to do my chaplaincy, Keith would be in the yard or sitting outside the Mess. He was a smoker and there is an outside bench where smokers sit to have their cigarette.  He always said "Hi Dave" and often threw me some good natured cheek and teasing. If he was with a group of trainee firefighters he would say "Hi Dave" and on more than a few occasions I would hear him explain to them that I was the chaplain and then say, "He's a good bugger". In the tribute from the fire service the senior station officer said, "When I came away from Keith I always felt like saying, 'Jeez I must be good!' because Keith always made you feel good about yourself." Heaps of firefighters attending the funeral looked at one another, grinned and nodded their agreement.  I reckon that is a pretty good thing to be remembered for!  One of his favourite sayings was "You beaut!" or "Bloody beaut!" Goodbye Keith my friend, we will miss you heaps. I hope I can be half as positive as you.
A good time
It is strange but it often happens at a funeral that you have a great time. When I was young and my Dad died, I of course was part of the "after funeral" gathering, where family and friends gathered for a feed, to catch up on one another and share memories. I recall thinking then, "This is great fun! Dad would enjoy this!" Well Keith's gathering was like that. Retired firefighters turned up and we caught up on them, chatting, laughing and being old friends together. After the funeral I did not go out to the grave side ceremony. A group of my St John Ambulance staff invited me to join them at the coffee bar around the corner. It was great to be included. I then went to the "after-match-function" at the Fire Station and found myself staying for a couple of hours chatting with various people. It was simply good fun. I began to feel a little guilty for laughing so much at a funeral function, but then I thought Keith would be happy! He would be saying "You Beaut!" I came away feeling privileged indeed to be part of this band of people. They are hard shots, often loose with their language and sometimes coarse with their humour, but they are basically good people whose company and support I enjoy. 
"Do you believe this religious crap?"
I was talking with a retired firefighter whose company I enjoy. He has worse "plumbing problems" to deal with than I do and we compare notes. There were of course religious elements to the funeral, though I appreciated the flexibility of this particular priest and his style of leadership which seemed sensitive toward secular people. As I talked with my friend, out of the blue he came up with a question, "Dave, do you still believe all this religious crap?" His wife looked embarrassed that he would ask such a question of a minister. I told him that I cannot go along with a lot of traditional Christian teaching, that I was fairly liberal and very much on the edge of Church doctrine. "That is one reason I am retiring" I said. I told him that I prefer to call myself a "Follower of Jesus" rather than a "Christian". "I am pleased to hear that! I just cannot go along with a lot of religious stuff,- I tried but it does not gel."  Whether it was because of the funeral or not, I was surprised with the number of in-depth,  profound and thought provoking conversations I had. I felt close to so many people.  I am very fortunate, I enjoyed a precious time of friendship.
"My soul-mate"
A friend of ours who I first met in the fire brigade has attended Church with his wife for the last few years. We "click" and enjoy many conversations. His mother died last Friday evening and I went out to help him begin to sort out what to do. He stood up in church and thanked the Church members for their support and then looked at me and said, "I especially thank my soul-mate up there for his help when it first happened."  It seems I am really important to him. He once told my wife that he looked on me as his brother. I am privileged. I don't have a heap of close friends but I do enjoy his acceptance of this eccentric, heretical old parson.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

A little boredom would be nice.

In my last post I talked about my normal week, and seemed to suggest an easy Friday. I never cease to be surprised at the variety of life I experience in my job. Last Friday I went on to visit St John Ambulance and Firestations. At both places I got into deep and meaningful conversations. I learned that one of the nicest of fire fighters, a man who trained volunteers and was always bubbly and positive was in a bad way in hospital with cancer. 
We ran our drop-in centre and immediately when around 50 people came in I sensed tension in the air.  There was a guy who takes playing pool too seriously, who is an ill tempered man who hates to be beaten. I noticed a bit of tension with one guy he was playing with. I was talking with another man when suddenly there was a brief scuffle. The bad tempered guy had swiped the other's phone onto the floor, where it fell to peices. The other shouldered him away from the phone, in the process he broke his pool cue and the other pool table was damaged. It was over in a few seconds with the more responsible of the two picking up his phone and moving away down stairs.  We have mentally fragile people there, however, and this little scuffle made another man flare up. He had to be led away by his carer. - As I talked with various people to calm things down a bit, I could not help but think, "Why do we do this?" It is sometimes so hard and thankless.  It was barely over when my cell phone rang and a man from my congregation told me his elderly mother had just died in a rest home and asked what he should do next?  I climbed into my car and went off to spend time with him at the rest home. What a day? No boredom.
On Monday I was able to have a day off apart from a couple of phone calls and emails.
Today Tuesday began a bit earlier.  First our phone rang just before 5 a.m. and we scrambled out of bed to answer it. We didn't make it to the phone before it stopped ringing. We lay in bed stewing on who amongst all the people we know, would want us at that time of the morning?  The Dalai Lama was in town and the Interfaith Council had arranged for a bunch of religious leaders to meet him on the steps of the cathedral at 8:45 a.m.  I was asked to go. So I got to shake hands with the Dalai Lama. We found out his town hall presentation was live streamed on line, so we showed it on the screen in the Church and a few people came in to watch.  The town hall was sold out. I spent some time at St John and caught up on a man whose wife had been treated for a tumor of the brain. I was asked to sometime touch base with a lady who will lose her current position. I was planning to go into the hospital to see this lovely firefighter, but just before I left I checked my emails. I learned that the cancer was more aggressive than at first thought and he had died. I was so sad, he was a great guy! I went with a heavy heart to visit fire stations and listened to a lot of his colleagues express their sadness. Another firefighter told me of two men he knew who had committed suicide last week. 
I came home with a sense of sadness overload. I seemed to have had to be a part of quite a lot of sadness lately. One good thing was that a man who helped instigate this Dalai Lama greeting today came to me to ask about my impending retirement. "Why?" he asked. "Cos I'm getting old!" I replied. He then went on to speak in glowing terms about our Church's openness to the community. "I don't think there is another Church in town like it." That was nice.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

A "normal" week.

This is the first time in three weeks that I have not had to slot a funeral into my week. In that way it has been a normal week.
Loss of focus...
I think because of the pace of my lifestyle lately this week I have found I have been slack... not as motivated. I guess there are always times you take the foot off the accelerator. It is also evident that I am really looking forward to retirement. I suspect a trigger to this feeling is that the leadership here met the other night to look into future ministry and I guess that has made the finishing of my career seem closer. (though it is still seven long months away)

The Good and bad of my week.

  • I actually had a day off on Monday. After saying goodbye to our son and family, we went "window shopping" looking at the prices of vehicles. I chopped fire wood and then had an enjoyable run (jog) in the evening.
  • On Tuesday one of my duties was to visit fire stations. A fire fighter is very ill in hospital. One fire crew had been involved in assisting at an attempted suicide. I so often come away from my fire station visits with a feeling of warmth, having been among friends. After finishing I went to the Night Shelter to install a new toilet seat. While there I encountered a couple I knew who had been sleeping in their car! I get cold in a warmish house in a warm bed. I cannot imagine sleeping in a car in Dunedin in the winter! In returning to the office I had short warm conversations with people using the church halls. I came home to learn that a Habitat for Humanity affiliate was hassling a house owner for oil drips on the asphalt on the drive! - I wanted to scream... "Get a life! Find something truly important to worry about!" 
  • On Wednesday I went to my doctors. We are good mates and our conversations are often warm, friendly and affirming. He gave me good reports on blood pressure issues, and genuine concern and support about my "plumbing issues". At lunch time I enjoyed more conversation with people attending Space2B... I enjoy this part of our church life. Friendships are part of the guts of life and it is a privilege to sit and eat my sandwiches with a group of friends.While there I received a visit from a St John team leader who delivered a generous gift of money. They knew that I had taken their colleagues funeral in Gore for nothing. They had taken "the hat around" to help with funeral expenses and had decided that I should receive this gift. "You helped a mate of ours. We appreciate that and we want to help you." he explained. Worth more than the gift of money, (though I think the gift was an expression of it) was the affirmation that I had done a good job, "as you always do." "It was well done and we appreciate it." In my years I have learned that if you give freely and generously of your time, resources and talent, often you will get ripped off, but also the "God of love who is the creative energy everywhere and in everything" is at work, and there are people through whom he responds in love and generosity. I wish Christians, churches, Habitat for Humanity, people and myself would truly trust that love that goes around, and live more generously and freely, instead of always wanting their "pound of flesh" and counting "who owes who what" and "who is deserving and who isn't." St Francis in his prayer was right, "It is in giving that we receive." Selfishness brings its superficial rewards, but the rewards of giving are deep, profound and life-giving.
  • On Thursday I walked the few blocks to the brewery and encountered some of the vulnerable people of our city who greeted me as I went by. I saw again this homeless couple and we talked about their situation. In the afternoon I talked with a reporter who is doing an article on homelessness in Dunedin. The issues are big. Homelessness is a symptom of other problems that run deep in our societies values. I felt frustrated that he will be limited in his discussion of it by "word counts" and the newspaper's political sensitivities. I picked up my wife from her "Friends of the Emergency Department" volunteer work. She told me that one of her jobs that afternoon was to sit with an elderly lady who was dying and who eventually died. She talked about how she handled that. "I will have to brush up on the words of the 23rd Psalm!" she commented. She offered the comfort of familiar words of faith, loving physical touch and human presence as this lady completed her time among us. I was full of admiration for her work, she is a rock to so many people.
  • Today I am looking to do more work on Sunday's service. What can I say that is different that I have not already said in the last 25+ years? What will make a difference? 

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Bombed out with family on a Sunday afternoon.

With Theo at breakfast on Sunday morning.
This afternoon we had our daughter and son-in-law visit, our foster daughter (who has handicaps) and of course my son, daughter-in-law and grandson were visiting. I tended to just blob out and let the conversation go on around me.  It feels like I have had something going on or hanging over me for ever. I have not really had a clear day off in weeks, so with nothing planned for tomorrow and nothing I need to do until I start work on Tuesday, I relaxed (or Chillaxed" as my son calls it - a mixture of chilling out and relaxing) It is strange that when you stop after a busy time you suddenly feel really tired. It is like you have been running on adrenaline. I rested on my bed briefly once while waiting to use the bathroom.  A few seconds later my wife came in to tell me it was free and found me dead to the world - sound asleep. I woke and felt guilty - family was visiting and I was not being sociable! It is raining outside so we have a warm fire going inside and it has been one of those lazy afternoons. We ate well at lunch and had more treats mid-afternoon, so just now I am not a bundle of energy as I wait for our evening meal. We have since skyped with our family in Auckland and talked with the Edinburgh family by phone.  It has been a nice gentle family afternoon.