Dunedin, New Zealand, my city - my people

Thursday, October 31, 2013

If I were a carpenter...

I was talking to my son the other night. He trained in the hospitality industry and has learned coffee roasting. He has worked successfully in these areas, but lately has been working as a labourer with his father-in-law who is a builder. Now my son tells me he has signed on for an adult carpentry apprenticeship.  There is a little bit of me that is jealous. I love building, and often feel like I would have enjoyed being a carpenter. Recently my wife and I flew up to Waiheke Island (Auckland NZ.) to visit my other son, his wife and daughter. While there over the weekend my son and I did some building. It went so smoothly and it turned out well. We built a porch over his back deck. I really enjoyed it. He is quite clever with his hands so we got on famously as we planned and built this addition. I love building, I would have enjoyed being a carpenter. But then I enjoyed plumbing too? I enjoy mucking around with cars and motors too? And, over all I have enjoyed the challenges of ministry and church chaplaincy. You just cannot do everything in life. I look forward to retirement and time to do stuff like building.

Monday, October 28, 2013

The bad and good.

In NZ the weekend has been "Labour Weekend." Monday is a holiday which celebrates the establishment of an eight hour day and a forty hour week. It makes no difference to me because Monday is normally my day off.
Sunday was my tenth last service of my ministry career and I survived - only nine Sundays to go. I do not have a say on what happens after I leave the Church, but in a conversation I heard about the current proposals. I was saddened because it is not what I would choose, but I need to butt out and walk away. It is not my responsibility.
After my traditional Sunday afternoon "exercise" (It used to be running but it has descended to a dawdle) I went to the Night Shelter to pick up mail.  There was a cold wind blowing with the odd spot of rain. It was 4:30 p.m. and the Night Shelter opens at 7 p.m. When I arrived there I found a man with his upper body lying under the shelter afforded by the front door step while his legs and feet were open to the weather. He looked a bit seedy and sleepy, but I could not let him in the shelter.  He would have to wait the two and a half hours. I feel sad that there are so many vulnerable people around not coping with life.
One of the letters I picked up said this....
"Dear Mr Brown, in response to your plea for help in purchasing your present night shelter buildings, i was moved to send you this cheque. I admire you and your helpers for giving up your time and energy to accommodate those who need a bed. I wish you success in your appeal. With best wishes... " ($1000 enclosed) 
That is pretty generous isn't it? 
Monday a good day off....
As well as being Labour Day, Monday is my day off, and my wife and I seem to find an excuse every Monday morning to go to a big hardware store in town for a cup of coffee. While drinking my coffee I waved to one of my fire fighters waiting in the que with his partner to purchase his coffee. To my surprise he came over greeted me warmly, shook hands and hugged me. (NZ men seldom hug - except on the rugby field) We fell into deep and personal conversation. He began with, "I told my partner I was going to go and hug God!" "Oh a promotion!" my wife said. 
More good...
From the hardware store we went to the supermarket and there I bumped into a mechanic who had been made redundant from one of my chaplaincies. (My ever patient wife rolls her eyes when I keep bumping into people I know) Again he and I fell into warm personal conversation and when we eventually finished we said almost in unison, "Its been great seeing you."
We came home for lunch. On Sunday evening I had received an email with a request for me to visit an out of town St John Ambulance person in hospital going through a bad experience with cancer. I exchanged my relaxed clothing for tidy attire and went off to the hospital to do the visit. To be honest I was churned up about making this visit. I am busy and somehow emotionally at a low ebb. While I look forward to retirement, endings bring sadness. I was not sure what I had to offer these strangers. I called and found this couple facing this challenge in life together. The husband was determined to sit by his wife as she faced this battle. They were brave and lovely people. It was hard, sad but somehow good.
Good twice over...
On leaving the hospital I walked through a shopping mall. I bumped into a lovely English couple who visit our Space2B. Once again I received a warm greeting and we fell into friendly conversation. When we parted the same thing happened. All three of us said in unison, "Its been great to see you!" 
Almost back at my car park at the Church I came across one of my elderly Church members. I knew she had a recent car accident so I was pleased to see her. I have known her for much of my life, and became good friends with her husband before he died in 1994. I caught up on her experiences and the aftermath and we chatted for some time, before we parted company.

As I drove home I reflected on my "Day off" encounters. I am indeed a fortunate man. Such encounters really do enrich my experience of life.  As I talked with my wife over a cup of tea when I got home, she commented that they showed the breadth of my ministry. - A fireman; a mechanic; a cancer patient and her husband; a couple on the outer fringe of our Church community and an elderly Church member. (Only one of the seven people is a "Church Member") They were warm "people-encounters" that bring depth, meaning, solidarity and love into my life. I AM a fortunate man.

Friday, October 25, 2013

"Lord help me not to be all bitter and twisted!"

Occupational hazard..
It has often felt like being a bitter and twisted retired Church minister is an occupational hazard. I have known many retired ministers who have stuck with congregational parish ministry who have ended up all bitter and twisted.  For some reason they felt they have been treated badly in their life and work. Sometimes they feel like their obvious gifts were not recognised. I think too most of the people they know get substantial increases in salary and power as they become more senior, but for a minister there are often no opportunities for "promotion" nor of increased earning capacity. Our movement too is very democratic and the minister does not have much authority in Church life. Everything has to be agreed democratically before elders or congregation and this can lead to a sense of frustration.  In my experience the happiest retired ministers I have found are those who left parish Church ministry and worked in chaplaincy, a church agency or a para-church organisation.  As I enter my last nine weeks of my career as a minister I am struggling. I find it could be so easy to become all bitter and twisted. 
Looking back...
I look back on my career and ministry and find many "if only" things. "If only they had let me do..." "If only I had more support for..." "If only they had decided to..." "If only we had better facilities..." "If only..." etc. etc. I look back and have reason to feel there have been lost opportunities, limitations placed on some things and disappointing support for others. So as I get nostalgic and try to evaluate my life and ministry I find it is easy to become bitter and twisted.
 "Lord help me not to become like that!"  I have often said to my wife, "Please do not let me get all bitter and twisted!" and my retirement from my current ministry is in part a preventative measure. - Three other things I need to do.

  • Accept my part in the disappointments or lost opportunities. It is too easy to always blame others for such things, but I need to accept that often I have been complicit in the failure. Maybe I have been too afraid to rock the boat or really confront people? Maybe I have not presented things in the right way? Maybe I ought to have delegated more? Whatever it may be, I need to accept that I am not a perfect minister and say truthfully about some things "WE lost that opportunity." or "WE messed up that." In this I need to forgive myself for my mistakes.
  • Secondly as I read Ron O'Grady's book I loved the line where he said, "The clearest fact about life is that what might have been is not what is." To avoid getting bitter I need to remember and just repeat that - and move on. There is no good looking back, it will not change the past, but it can make my future miserable.
  • Thirdly I need to remember and celebrate the successes and achievements.
One other book I read while away was "The New Zealanders" by Maurice Shadbolt. In it was a short story that was set in the early 1950's about a guy named Roger. Roger was a close friend of a couple called Peter and Val. In the story Peter had been active in the communist party and trade union, writing and speaking trying to bring what he saw as vital change to society. He eventually created enemies even in the communist party and was excluded. He was killed in a drunken car accident and the basic story is about Roger visiting Val his widow, about a year after the accident. A conversation in the last paragraphs of the story rang bells with me and I report it from memory.  Roger was trying to get Val to have a realistic picture of her husband's life. "He was a failure!" he said and pointed out that all his writing and speeches did not make one bit of difference. Val was understandably not pleased about the direction of this conversation, but eventually responded with, "It doesn't matter."  "What doesn't matter?" demanded Roger. "It doesn't matter that he was a failure." she replied. "So you think that too?" "Of course he was." (a failure) said Val, "But it doesn't matter whether he was a failure or not. It matters that he tried. At least Peter tried." ... then to confirm her thinking she repeated, "It doesn't matter that he was a failure. He tried to make a difference. Most people do not even try."

However people view my career as a minister, (and I have many critics - I am out of step with much contemporary "Christian" thinking ) as I go through the process of leaving that career behind in the next nine weeks, I can honestly say, "At least I tried! I tried to give expression to how I saw the mind and spirit of Jesus."  Many have given up, are half hearted in their involvement or do not care.  At least I tried, and ultimately I can be satisfied with that.  "Lord help me not to be bitter!" 

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Ron O'Grady ONZM BA MTh

I read three books while I was away. One was by an old Catholic author Michel Quoist. When I was younger I used to enjoy his meditations. (I have changed) I read Maurice Shadbolt's early book, "The New Zealanders" and found his short stories fascinating but frustrating. The book I really enjoyed was by an elderly Church of Christ minister, Ron O'Grady, now in his eighties. As a child and teenager I recall him as one of our ministers who was heavily involved in the ecumenical movement. I appreciated his thoughtful approach back then. The book is his autobiography, "The Ultimate Challenge". He led a very challenging, broad and high pressure life with a great variety of experiences right up until the present.  Mother Teresa, New Zealand and Thailand Prime Ministers (he conducted David Lange's funeral) President Marcos, Queen Silvia of Sweden, Pope John Paul II are just some of the people he met and mixed with on his life's journey. Here is a short paragraph about him.
Ron is a minister of the Christian Church (Churches of Christ), married to Alison with three children and three grandchildren. He has served in parishes in Naenae and Christchurch and on the staff of the National Council of Churches in New Zealand. Later he became the Associate General Secretary of the Christian Conference of Asia based in Singapore. He spent one year in the United States as a Visiting Scholar and in 1982 became Director of the Australian Churches’ Overseas Aid Programme. Back in New Zealand he has been writing, publishing and assisting churches and organisations. In 1990 he founded ECPAT International, the programme to end child sex abuse. 
I admire Ron and see him and his wife as a product of our denomination in New Zealand at its best. A song we sing fits. "Some there are who by their living lead us to a higher plane." Here are some quotations from the book.

On NZ Church life.
He speaks of the 1970's enthusiasm for ecumenical sharing but then goes on....
"Since that time Christianity in New Zealand has become even more fragmented. The major Christian denominations - Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox - are all experiencing some internal problems with declining membership and clergy shortages. The religious vacuum has been filled by an absolute myriad of new, independent and often mutually exclusive religious groups.
.... Each one claims the Bible as their central guide but their understanding of biblical history and teaching is usually highly emotional, personalised and selective. 
....... The Christian ideals of service, simplicity, humility and love are often hard to identify."

On the "might have beens" in life...
The clearest fact of life is this
What might have been is not what is.

Ron shares his creed...
I believe in good
even in a world that rewards evil
I believe in love
though people rape and destroy
I believe in truth
even as I listen to public lies
I believe in tomorrow
even when today is bleak and empty
I believe in beauty
even when it is hidden beneath ugliness
I believe in Jesus
even when he is being crucified.

On the ending of life...(On the last page)
The circle of life is eternal
The beginning is only the point
at which we take up
where another person has left off.
What we call the end is just the moment
when we hand over the task to another person.

There is no beginning and no end.
Every end is also a beginning.

An amazing quotation he often used from a Korean writer...
He introduces it with, "Through all the years (in Asia) I was very moved by the courage of the many people risking their lives to defend basic human rights. The whole struggle was summed up for me in the powerful words of a little-known Korean writer Kim San which I often quoted:"
'Nearly all the friends and comrades of my youth are dead, hundreds of them: Nationalist, Christian, anarchist, terrorist, communist. But they are alive to me. Where their graves should be no one ever cared. On the battle fields and execution grounds, on the streets of city and village, their warm revolutionary blood flowed proudly into the soil of Korea, Manchuria, Siberia, Japan, china. They failed in the immediate thing, but history keeps a fine accounting.
   A man's name and his brief dream may be buried with his bones, but nothing that he has done or failed to do is lost in the final balance of forces. This is his immortality, his glory or his shame. Not even he himself can change this objective fact, for it is history. Nothing can rob a man of his place in the movement of history. Nothing can grant him escape. The only individual decision is whether to move forward or backward, whether to fight or submit, whether to create value or destroy it, whether to be strong or weak.' 

I love that quotation... "history keeps a fine accounting". "Nothing can rob a man of his place in the movement of history. Nothing can grant him escape." (Good or bad) 
It is only a little book that I had read very quickly, but I went back through it and drew great inspiration from Ron's life and his emphases.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Unseen issues people have.

I was reflecting the other day on something I need to bear in mind more often than I do.  Because of my prostate/plumbing problems, I need to carry a little bit of “apparatus” with me during the day. It is a fine tube or catheter and three to four times a day I am to use it so that I can completely empty my bladder. It is no big deal, it is much better than wearing a permanent catheter and in all other respects life for me is normal.  But this gadget has to be washed in warm water and so I need to have a hand basin with hot running water. I also need to carry a tube of KY jelly, so, as you can imagine, it is better if I have a reasonable measure of privacy.  That is easy at home, but at the church or in public toilets it is not always possible.  Sometimes in a public toilet, the washing is a rushed furtive activity with an ear open hoping nobody is going to walk in.  In these places life can be awkward. Because of this when I am away from home and using public toilets, I often choose to use the one labelled “disabled” because it provides a private hand basin. The thing that can be embarrassing is that when you leave or enter the cubicle or toilet labelled “Disabled,” you sometimes see accusing looks from people who think you have no disability. I once heard one lady say to another, “He doesn’t have a wheelchair?”  Another time when I came out of the disabled toilet a person waiting to use another cubicle commented, “That’s a bit cheeky!” as I went past.  I sometimes want to yell, “Well I do have a disability it is just that you cannot see it!”
My reflection is this. Often in relating with people they will say or do things that we see as inappropriate. We can be critical of their actions or words from our perspective.  But, just maybe we do not see the “disability” or the things that they have to, or have had to cope with in life?  We might well understand or be more tolerant if we could see the “unseen” hassles that contribute to the way they behave.
I share two examples brought to mind by a recent incident.  In a chaplaincy a group conversation turned to the condition called asperges.  We talked about it for a while then one man told how his son was diagnosed as “asperges”. He told about all the traits and challenges of the condition, particularly relating it to his son’s schooling. As I drove home that night I got time to reflect further on this incident.
First I did not know that this man had to cope with a son with those issues. I was impressed with the things he was doing to support his son and knew that the whole situation must place a lot of extra pressure on him and his wife. It may contribute to the reason he reacts the way he does in certain circumstances?  He certainly has quite an extra burden to carry in life and maybe, I thought to myself, he needs my listening ear more often?
Secondly as he talked of the condition and how it impacts on his son’s behaviour I thought of another man we have dealings with through the Church. This man annoys us intensely. He often has inappropriate behaviour, says inappropriate things and seems to have an annoying attitude.  But it struck me that the symptoms described in the conversation about the son fit exactly. It is quite possible this man is an undiagnosed “asperges” sufferer?  That does not excuse all that he does, but it may explain why it seems so difficult to communicate with him on the issues.

Anyway, the reminder for me in all this is “go gentle on people, you may not see all the issues they are facing”.   

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

A good idea..

They share the Church building on Waiheke Island. What a great idea for the Christchurch Cathedral. The Anglicans and Catholics have lost their "Cathedrals" in the earthquake and are wanting to rebuild. Why not share a cathedral in the centre of the city? That would be more like "Kingdom economics."

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The day after "Blah" feeling.

My friend Don Gordon. I will miss him very much. We had great conversations, with a cheeky dry sense of humour. 

Yesterday I conducted the funeral for my friend. I had some positive feedback. I was disappointed because I had said that each speaker should just go for five minutes. Most went for a lot longer than that. Some who had more right to speak longer, did restrict themselves to the five minutes. One lady went for fifteen minutes. I was annoyed because it made it a long funeral. The saving factor was that some of the speakers were exceedingly clever and entertaining. I had very positive feedback about my part in the service.
It does not change the fact that Don has gone.  Today that reality has sunk in and I have been feeling blah.  I have received thoughtful support from people in my chaplaincies and Night Shelter friends who knew how attached I was to Don. Even the funeral director involved was thoughtful enough to ask me how I was coping. It is the church people who do not seem to be as sympathetic, and that is sad, because in theory they are meant to be the caring ones.
A bit thoughtless
I was working in my Church office late this afternoon.  I had intending staying there until 6 p.m. when I pick up my wife from her volunteer work at the hospital. I was then planning to go back to my office to work until I could visit the Night Shelter and talk with the manager at about 6:45 p.m.  I knew my elders team were to have a meeting with some out-of-town leaders about the future ministry.  One of my elders arrived three quarters of an hour before hand and began asking questions. It became evident that they planned to meet in my office and "when was I leaving?"  I did leave at his convenience but felt a tad angry - and let him know. It is my office - if they wanted to use it they should have let me know, or even had the common courtesy to ask me before hand. I had been busy doing preparation for two events and papers were everywhere. I had to do a bit of a tidy up. Secondly I was still working. I have two deadlines tomorrow and I was using every moment I have to get work done. It felt like a kick in the teeth - "You're retiring, you don't matter anymore. We do not even have to be polite to you." I know they did not mean to be nasty, but that is how it felt... they were just thoughtless, disorganised and taking things for granted.  At the moment I am even more disappointed in "Church." I guess grief has just hit me today and it is easier to get your nose out of joint when that happens.  81 days to go and they cannot go fast enough.
I tidied up a bit, packed up and drove to a park near a lookout over the city and did some reading for Sunday's service.  
Where will I go to Church? Will I go to Church?
One of the issues we will face in retirement is where we will worship. I raised this with some friends the other day and one immediately shot back, "Mount Cargill!" I have to admit I do not fit easily into most Church settings, I am unorthodox. I would like to go somewhere where they are serving their community, but those Churches are few and far between. I think we might have a long break as "backsliders" and then look around. 
A nice politician
We had a message from the Labour party that the spokesperson for housing was wanting to talk with somebody at the Night Shelter. I made an arrangement to see him at 10 a.m. on Tuesday. I went to the night shelter and waited for a car to deliver him. He was late and didn't arrive by car but walked. I met him, made him a cup of tea and we sat and chatted like old friends about housing issues and other stuff related to our society and economy. He was a genuinely nice guy, asking intelligent questions and contributing logically in our conversation. There did not seem to be any smarmy political smooth talk and over the top friendliness. When it was time for him to go he was going to order a taxi. I offered to drive him, so this senior politician who could be a cabinet minister (I hope) next year, clambered into my junky old Nissan Bluebird and I drove him to the house he was staying at, which was just a few blocks from the Church. He thanked me for my work in the community as he left. He was a really nice politician, I hope he has a great career ahead of him. His name is Phil Twyford, watch out for him.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

When will it stop?

Playing with my new camera on our walk this afternoon. My friend is an "expert" so I am learning from her.
I keep hoping that life will get easier, but it seems to be getting more packed with things to do.  
The week ahead has its far share of challenges.
On Tuesday afternoon I will be leading a funeral for my friend Don Gordon who died sadly last Thursday morning. I have been saddened by his death. I enjoyed his company even though we were quite different. At various times he claimed to be an atheist. I enjoyed his quirky sense of humour and the fact that "What you saw is what you got." I recall my first meeting with him. He prepared the weekly newsletter for the brewery and when I began chaplaincy there I was told that I should touch base with him each time I visited the brewery because he would have any news about people and events. This I did on my first day and when I fronted up to his office he quizzed me about who I was, asking me what denomination I was a minister in. When I told him that I was Associated Churches of Christ his response was, "My mother always said you were an uneducated lot." - which was not true. (May be different now) We had a relationship in which he loved to point out my failings. If I misused a word; if my grammar was incorrect; if I forgot something he had told me or some other error, he would love to point it out. We would argue in a good hearted way from time to time, but he had a mind for detail so you had to be good to win an argument.  It seemed like every time I visited he would have some new thing to show me. It may be some new historical fact he had found out in his research. It may be a bit of a quirky event he had learned about or photos he had taken. He often would dig in his bag and bring it out as soon as I arrived in his office. I did feel superior in one thing. He often was forced to ask me how to do things on the computer. I am not that computer literate but he was worse than me. Whenever I went to leave his office he would say, "Well we better weigh you." I would follow him up to the hops scales and be weighed and often told that I was "fat". That began because he organised the running team for business house "fun" runs and I was often part of the team. Over the last few days I have been thinking about him and heard myself saying out loud, "Poor old Don." He was more than a "client" in a chaplaincy, he had become a friend and I don't have too many of them so I will miss him deeply.  
Night Shelter Volunteer Night
On Tuesday evening I have to lead a night for people interested in being a volunteer for the Night Shelter. I can do that but there is a heap of preparation to do. Some of that involves consulting with other people and often just to connect and find time to talk is difficult. 
My Last Radio Church service
This week I have to record a Radio Church service for a local station. It will be my last one. Usually I have my daughter along to help bring a variety of voice, but she is working out of town. It requires a lot of preparation.
These three events plus my usual workload, increased because of the absence of my daughter, will make the week ahead extremely busy. 
Preparation... preparation.. and more preparation.
I have to do preparation for a number of events coming up. 
  •  next Sunday's service. 
  •  a wedding that will soon be upon me. 
  •  I speak to a group of people next Monday afternoon about our Church. 
  •  Next Monday evening I speak to another Rotary group about the Night Shelter. 
  •  I have to prepare stuff for my daughter who is standing in for me at an event next Tuesday evening. 
It feels like I have a great cloud of work hanging over my head. 

This afternoon I raced into a fire station. One of my fire fighters was donating a washing machine to give to my man who had recently moved housing units. I loaded up the machine, fitted in a walk with a friend, then rushed off to deliver the washing machine.  I wrapped my arms around the washer, picked it up out of the back of my van and lugged it up the path.   As I lowered it into the back shed of the house and wiped my brow, I said to myself, "This lifestyle has to end! It is all too rushed!" Not this week though. I won't get my day off this week. How did life get so busy?

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Life's ups and downs...

My ongoing prostate issues...
I have been waiting for an appointment with the Urology department at the hospital to learn the next plans about how they are going to respond to my MRI scan results. I was getting concerned about it because time was dragging on. Sitting in my office yesterday morning I had a phone call from the Urology Department. Somebody had cancelled out on an appointment, could I come in just after lunch. Of course I said "Yes" and phoned my wife requesting she bring in a change of underwear - well that's the part of the body they "explore".  I was taken very quickly and the specialist walked in the room saying, "We don't know what is going on with you, or what to do!" Anyway we discussed the matter with questions from him to me, and mine back at him. (He is a very blunt, to-the-point character.)  He told me he was pretty sure there was no cancer, which was nice to hear. He wanted to know why I still had to do this self-catheterisation. He mumbled away, looking at the computer notes on me jotting down notes as he read. He ordered me onto the bed, "knees to your navel, bum hanging over the side of the bed." Then he said "Relax!" - yeah right? After the mandatory finger test he sat down to give his decision. "Right - this is what we're gonna do! We'll take you back into theatre and put you to sleep. Then we'll shove a camera down your penis (my eyes were watering at this point) and see what's going on. If there is something we can fix we'll do it then and there. We'll do another biopsy while you're snoozing too. You'll be in hospital for a few days." Upon questioning he told us it would not happen till next year - so life goes on for now. It does sound promising and he seems determined to do me some good. I am pleased that there seems to be progress.
Today's phone call ...
I was just about to pack my bag and come home from the office at about 6:45 p.m. tonight when my phone rang. It was the manager of one of my chaplaincies. My friend, who some months ago had been diagnosed with prostate cancer, then more recently had cancer elsewhere had been taken to hospital and was not expected to live long. His friend who was at his side had asked the manager to ring me. I went into hospital and spent time by his bedside, though he was in no condition to talk. After consulting the nurse, I dipped a sponge on a little stick in water and put it to his lips, and let him suck the moisture. I warned him, "Watch out Don, I am gonna play nurse." I did this periodically.  My mind went over the many hours of conversation we had shared over the 17 years I had known him. We had run in many running races together, 10k business house "fun" runs and half marathons. He used to weigh me regularly and declare I was "fat".  I never thought we would be in this predicament together. I was there for about an hour then left. I told him that he was pretty special to me and left wondering if I would see him alive again. Sometimes life is a bugger.