Dunedin, New Zealand, my city - my people

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

"Well done good and faithful servant.."

Early this week a retired colleague, Ray Blampied, died in Christchurch. He was over 100 yrs old. I have always admired his loving pastor's heart, his openness and his commitment. He has been an example to follow and was loved by many. In 1983 he presented me with these three items which have deep Associated Churches of Christ links - Two historical books, "Millennial Harbingers" (one of them British) in which Alexander Campbell (one of our founders and a theologian ahead of his time) expressed his thoughts. Ray also made this cross from a Locust tree raised from seeds gathered from trees planted by Campbell at his home in Bethany, West Virginia, and gave it as a gift to me. I was honoured that he thought me worthy. Well lived "good and faithful servant!"

Churches of Christ began as a movement to unite the then much divided Presbyterian Church. They went back to New Testament basics. Some of their slogans were;
"No creed but Christ"
"In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty and in all things Love."
"This is the Lord's table." (An open communion table way back in early 1800's.)
In their formation they had an advanced view of Biblical interpretation, a broad view of the people of God, and simple way of "being." I valued this heritage. Time has distorted the basics, more schism has happened and theology moves on... but I love the originating ethos and basic principles. I now worship most often in a Presbyterian Church but my heart remains in the freedom and potential in that Campbell movement ethos. 
My friend Ray Blampied was also devoted to these principles.

Monday, September 28, 2015

Ministry in retirement...

When I retired I had many people saying things like, "I didn't think ministers ever retired?" "You will never retire, you'll still be a minister." I have known ministers even in their nineties still chasing opportunities to preach, still wanting to be "up front" and the centre of attention. I am going to a Neil Diamond concert at the local sports stadium in a few weeks, and I have often wondered why don't these aging singers retire? They have the money? Why do they still tour and perform when they are in their seventies? I suspect many aging ministers have the same feeling as these singers. There is something in the challenge, something in the art form that makes them want to continue. I am not really like that but I am still finding ministry to do.

We attend a local Presbyterian congregation, though each Sunday I swear never to go back. The people are lovely but the visiting retired parsons are hard to take and, in my view, are killing the church. I am asked to lead a service every now and then. On Sunday I was asked again so, after chatting with the session clerk about my angst and struggles, which she knew about, I agreed and in a few weeks I'll be leading. I have been a bit of the Church handyman fixing things around the building. But some time back I was asked if I could take a wedding for the son of an elderly couple in the congregation. I agreed and decided I would hang around until that wedding. The elderly father is battling cancer and the son, a man in his 50's wanted to get married to his partner of a few years while his dad was still around. So I shared with this mature, but open couple, and conducted their wedding in the Church last Sunday afternoon. It was a nice intimate family wedding. In the process I had conversations with bride, groom and the parents and I felt like their pastor, in caring life-affirming, sometimes healing, sometimes supportive conversations. That is the part of ministry that I think I will never give up. There is a deep privilege when people want to share "life" with you. They don't want answers, they just want "along-side-ness" and somehow they feel free to talk with a retired minister. I suspect sometimes there is even more openness than when you are their employed pastor, they know that you have no axe to grind with them. It was a Church wedding, though the couple do not attend they wanted it in his childhood church. They appreciated my style of service that adapted to where they were at.  In my role as chaplain I seldom do a church wedding these days, they are most often in some secular setting.

I was talking to a younger minister today. I was telling him of my successes with the Night Shelter work. (We had another promising funding conversation today) He knew of my recent funeral and the wedding I conducted on Sunday. "I think I should retire!" he said, "You're doing better in retirement than I am in ministry!" There is a certain freedom in retirement. You are free to do human caring things and you do not carry the label of a "prosylatising minister" trying to increase his congregation or his influence.  You are just being a decent human.

I am trying to go for a walk as often as I can fit it in and the longer daylight allows that to happen more often as we enter spring. I have included some photos taken with the camera on my phone of scenes from around our local area where I walk. I love our harbour views. 
Even on a cold misty day, the spring season expresses itself.
The day before the wedding - next day was a brilliant sunny day.
"When peace like a river..." Love the Otago harbour views.
My mountain from between trees.
The bay called Sawyers Bay because it was once a tree harvesting area.
The wedding register from the local church.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

The Night Shelter Trust can buy its buildings!

Our front gate with an advert painted on it.

One of the many media photos of me and my mate John from the Night Shelter Trust. The buildings we will buy are in the background.
The slogan for the student sleep out and our campaign.
Success at last.
The local newspaper announced it today. You can see it on the front page and page number three. We at the Night Shelter have been successful in raising the funds to purchase the buildings we currently rent.  We had a phone call from a Trust who invited us to put an application in for the remainder of the money we needed, and they granted it within minutes of me sending the application in. We still needed $25,659 of the $595,000 total.  Today I phoned our lawyer and he is making the arrangements to purchase the buildings. It has been a three year (at least) fund raising journey. When we told people that we had to raise $595,000 often the conversation went quiet. You could hear people thinking, "Yeah right - you'll never do it!" But we did. 
The feelings are strange. 
I have lived with this for so long it feels strange to be finished the project.  My study, my computer desktop and my workshop are cluttered with things related to raising money for the Night Shelter buildings purchase. Even our front gate was painted with a fundraising "Eat the Elephant" slogan. It is strange to finish it. There's a certain emptiness, part of my life is gone. Something else will fill it, but just now there's a hole.
The second feeling is one of absolute relief. We have chosen this "ownership road" which was a massive step to take. It would have been disastrous for the credibility of the Dunedin Night Shelter Trust if we had failed.  There were moments when I thought we might fail. A couple trusts that we had expected a lot from, who seemed to show a lot of interest and asked a lot of questions turned us down.  I had put a lot of work into preparing the applications and felt that we fitted their specifications. Without them I knew our job was pretty tough. So I feel absolutely relieved.
The third feeling is that of appreciation. The Dunedin community got in behind our cause. A kindergarten had a pajama day. A primary school's Young Vinnies group organised a mufti day. A couple of Rotary groups gave us a $1000. The University Students did their sleep out raising $12000.  The HR department at the University ran a quiz night and gave us $1500 Some rich people gave us $10,000. All the Trusts who gave us money were local Dunedin based Trusts. The Dunedin Community newspaper promoted our campaign for ten weeks...and so it went on... heaps and heaps of Dunedin people supported our cause.  Dunedin as a city has shown itself to be a caring community wanting to ensure there is care for the vulnerable. I so appreciate the generosity of my fellow citizens, young and old, rich and poor.
The fourth feeling is that of feeling absolutely responsible. The City has given the Night Shelter Trust this $595,000 asset. In a sense these two houses belong to the city and it is our job to use them well, I feel incredibly humbled by the generosity, but an added weight of responsibility to make sure we use the buildings wisely and well. 

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Two Rants.."God" and "Ad libbing".

"Try God"
I was driving home from Christchurch the other day. We take a "short cut" through Timaru, one of the towns on the way, which takes us through the suburbs and away from the traffic lights and busyness of the main road. We past this modern looking Church which looked well cared for and it had a big street sign which read, "Try God".
Now there was a time in my ministry career when I could have had that on a Church noticeboard. As I drove past it the other day it grated. Somehow it assumed that the average person has no deep spiritual experiences and that this "religion" was going to put them in touch with "God".  But my view of God is greater than that. The Apostle Paul speaking about God, said to the Athenians that "in Him we live and move and have our being." He was speaking to the people of Athens and was trying to build on their religious experiences, and recognised that they were already "religious". God is not hidden in Church buildings. The sacred is experienced in the midst of life. We have insights into what is right.  We sense a deep call from "somewhere" to help, "it just seems the right thing to do" people say - "I had to do it." These are "spiritual experiences", they are experiences of the sacred, of "God" and most people, religious or non-religious have them. So people like me driving past this Church already experience God. Many have and are "trying God". It is wrong, and in some ways disrespectful, to assume they aren't. I would prefer something like, "Together we deepen our life." or "Join us exploring depth in life." .....Just sayin...
I was talking to a man in one of my chaplaincies the other day. He opened up about personal difficulties he battled with and our conversation was deep and meaningful. He asked me "Why did you became a minister?" and we chatted about religious perspectives. Then he told me of experiences of compassion at work, compassion toward him. He then went on to tell of the "Buzz" that he and others experienced when they helped somebody, or helped each other during difficult times. You see, he had begun to relate his "God Experiences"...  as a workplace chaplain I do not bring God into his workplace.... God is already there and I encounter Him along side, and within the workers there.
"He just ad-libs..."
When my wife and I went for morning tea this morning, as we entered a cafe we bumped into a minister from a different denomination who we both know well. He greeted us and shared some comments but both my wife and I felt that his attitude and comments were patronising, as if he felt he was superior to us. I suspected that he saw himself as a real minister, properly academically trained and that Church of Christ ministers were a lower breed. Now I would stack my training up against his at anytime. Both academically and practically it would be superior. I also have kept up my academic reading. He has been in a congregation where I have spoken, and that could be the problem. I speak without notes, not from behind a pulpit but just standing on the platform with nothing between me and the congregation and I often use simple life stories to illustrate. I suspect he does not see that as a "proper dissertation" and probably would say "Oh he just ad libs." When I do not use notes it does not mean that I do not prepare. I perhaps prepare more than most.  A man who has made a far greater impact than I ever have or will, never used notes when he went into a lecture or sermon. Dr Albert Schweitzer never used notes at the pulpit or lectern. But he wrote in his autobiography, that he wrote his lecture or sermon out at least three times in preparation. It looked like he was just ad libbing, but he was profoundly and deeply prepared. When I speak, (as I did the other day in a secular setting with student volunteers) I have written it out several times. I have mulled over illustrations and sentences, honing them so that they make their point as directly and as concisely as possible. I am not just "ad libbing", I am presenting a carefully worked dissertatioin without notes, because it allows me to connect with the listeners in a better way.  I tell simple life stories that do not make my sermons sound like academic dissertations, because I want to connect with my hearers, sometimes at a different level than just their intellect. I suspect some ministers would look down on them as being a bit too much like children's talks. But I know they communicate! The aforementioned minister sat in one of my services once. The next week he was leading the service and he commented that he was "pleasantly surprised" with my service the week before. .. now that was patronising!  But it was interesting that instead of reading his sermon like he usually does, he decided he would try to be chatty and ad lib.  It was terrible... long, wordy, meandering and all over the place. Not using notes is NOT ad libbing. 

Preachers please, please, please prepare, and prepare well, with your listeners in mind. It is an important job that you do!

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Different generations.

My son with the completed garden area.
The Students were amazing... this one incredible.
Hand in pocket is bad form.  "David, you were so wonderful to listen to." someone said. 
smile emoticon
Our foster daughter's (with Retts syndrome) art.
She had an exhibition on Saturday.
She looked resplendent.
Last Friday we drove the 5 hours north to Christchurch to attend the funeral of a retired minister who was thirteen years older than me. I first met this man when he was a theology student and helping to run an after-school children's happy hour in my Childhood Church hall. He had three ministries then went into a management position in another denomination's Social Work organisation. He had been very supportive to my sister during a tough time in her life and they were close friends, so we felt we should go to the funeral. So we said "Goodbye" to a member of an older generation.
We then drove to a different part of Christchurch and stayed for Saturday and Sunday at my son's new house, with him, his wife and their two and a half year old son. My son and I worked on building a fence around an area in the back yard then digging a vegetable garden in the enclosure. I enjoy working with him, we tease each other, but work well together. So I worked with "the current generation". While there I read to and played with my grandson and their young dog - "the next generation." 
One year older..
On the Sunday I celebrated my birthday, another year older. Now when people hear my age they will round it up to "Oh - he's a seventy year old!"

While in Christchurch I received information about a positive development in our Night Shelter fundraising campaign to purchase our buildings. We drove home on the Monday to a busy week, chaplaincies, a funding application, a monthly Night Shelter Trust meeting and I was invited to say something at a gathering of university student volunteers and hand out certificates. 
The younger generation. 
It was rather short notice, but I discovered that I was billed as "the guest speaker." I went along and present were a whole lot of students who had volunteered for various agencies, some community representatives and people from agencies who had used student volunteers. Some of the students were those who ran the Night Shelter Sleep-out we enjoyed in town. I was duly introduced and spoke to the assembled group (feedback suggested I was good) then presented certificates to students who had excelled in voluntary contributions. As their achievements were read out I was really impressed with their work, they were impressive young people. 

The final part of my talk went like this.  I told of the perspective on history that NZ writer and historian Michael King passed on though it was not original to him. He said history is like a long on-going conversation in a lounge or bar. At a certain point in time each one of us enters the room and joins the conversation. We listen to what has gone before. We learn and dialogue with others in the conversation, and we make our contributions. But it is true for each of us that sooner or later we have to excuse ourselves and leave the room. The conversation though, goes on, and others must build on our contribution and contribute themselves. I said in my speech that this perspective has us asking, "What sort of contribution am I making to the conversation? Is it positive, constructive and unifying? or is it negative, destructive and divisive?"  I then went on to say that the second part is "that relatively soon I will have to excuse myself and leave the room. But that my experience of working with student volunteers (that I had talked about earlier in the speech) means that I will be able to leave the room knowing that there are people with a social conscience, energy, creativity and a willingness to get involved who will continue to contribute in a constructive way in the ongoing conversation of history." 
It has been a week of reflecting on different generations and the passing of time. 

Thursday, September 3, 2015

Privileged parson...

I am a retired minister, but somehow not retired. Being chairman of the local Night Shelter Trust has been like a full-time job, because we have been on a campaign to raise $595,000 to purchase the buildings we currently rent. We have $42,000 to go and I am getting excited because I sense we are soon going to meet our target. Secondly I do "Industrial Chaplaincy" visiting the Fire Stations and a local brewery. I also do voluntary chaplaincy with St John Ambulance. 
Last Friday I got a call from a man who used to come to the drop-in centre we held at the Church I retired from. He copes with mental health issues. In 2002 I conducted his mother's funeral when she died quite unexpectedly. He always said he wanted me to take his father's funeral, and last Friday his father died.  He rang saying "David said he would take my father's funeral." That was not what I had said really, but I thought that I ought to. I met with the family and spent a long time gathering their memories. On Wednesday I conducted the funeral. I am good at funerals. It took me a lot of work in preparation, a bit of stress and nervousness, but I could tell even during the service that my words were helpful and healing. Feedback after the service confirmed that. I was absolutely exhausted but knew that sense of fulfillment.  A sort of, "For this I was born" experience. 
Today I went into the brewery to do my chaplaincy time there. I had several long conversations. People seemed to want to talk with me. A couple of guys let off steam about issues. Others just talked naturally about life and events. Another raised a family sadness he faced. It felt "good". It felt like I was "connecting" in the journey of life with these people. Again I felt privileged.
I am a fortunate man indeed.