Dunedin, New Zealand, my city - my people

Sunday, December 27, 2015

He will not let me go!

My daughter with her niece, my latest grand daughter. 
My grandson (light blue shorts) with his father look at a digger. Christchurch has many big diggers at work and my grandson (Stanley) loves diggers!
Memorial Arch under repair still.
New Regent Street in Christchurch city... Christchurch is slowly repairing itself after the big earthquake 5 years ago. 
I am turned off Church. I was invited to go to the Anglican Cathedral in the centre of Dunedin (St Paul's) to take part in a service called "Nine Lessons and Nine Carols." I was to read one of the lessons as a representative of the Dunedin Night Shelter Trust. It was a choral service with the cathedral choir singing lots of numbers. There was pomp and ceremony. At the appointed time the verger (dressed in an appropriate gown) came to my seat, she had a silver tipped staff, bowed in my direction and I was escorted to the reading lectern and bowed at again. When the choir finished its number, I read my appointed reading in the translation ascribed with the introduction typed out for me to read. I was then escorted back to my seat, bowed to again as I took my seat. The Bishop was in residence sitting up by the Choir though he did not do anything in the service. Everything was conducted with dispassionate looking decorum. The thing that got to me was that the songs the choir sang, when I could understand them (- though they did provide a brief english summary as a translation.)  the prayers, the carols we sang all had great christological claims about the Christ child that I have come to believe Jesus of Nazareth would reject.  We were in a building that must have cost millions, probably still costs thousands to maintain with all sorts of pomp and ceremony remembering a life reported to have been born in a stable, who mixed with prostitutes and outcastes. - It all seemed incongruous and out of step with the Jesus who "sits on my shoulder" these days.  I hear of millions being spent to rebuild earthquake damaged churches here in Christchurch where I am holidaying. There are millions spent on restoring or earthquake proofing other elaborate Churches. I just feel that Jesus of Nazareth would not approve! I am unhappy attending my local Church, I would not fit in most Churches I am aware of, the language, priorities and dogmatics would not fit me.  There is a part of me which says that in spite of the fact that I have been in Church ministry forty odd years, I should dump Church involvement all together, walk away and don't look back, as so many others have and are doing. "Why not?" I ask.

Somehow "He" will not let me!  The Church is the only place the "Jesus of Nazareth story" is kept alive, grossly distorted though it may be. And I cannot dump Jesus. He still makes sense. I took the two quotes below off facebook. They ring bells for me. Somebody commented on the Leonard Cohen one, "It is up to us to reform our Churches." I guess so. ... He will not let me go!

Friday, December 25, 2015

Christmas day walk.

A lazy pig-out Christmas Day with some of our family in Christchurch.  We are renting a house here for a few days. Late in the day I got tired of being sedentary and went for a walk and just kept walking up.  I kept saying -"I'll just go around the next corner." Phil my son texted me then caught up with me and we reached the top and looked down on Lyttleton Harbour on the other side of the hills. I love walking in the hills, getting out of city streets and pushing myself physically. 
Christchurch city is slowly rebuilding after the earthquake nearly five years ago.

The track kept turning corners so I kept walking. 
"I have been to the mountain. I have seen the other side" Lyttleton harbour. 
Looking the other way - my son viewing part of Christchurch

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

My pre Christmas week so far.

Siblings, cousins and partners.
My siblings with two cousins (brother and sister)
My brothers and sister. "Mrs Brown's Boys"

A family funeral
On Saturday we went to Gore (about 100 miles away) for a family funeral. We had to farewell my cousin's wife, a truly lovely, gifted lady who died too young. It was a sad time but we were able to celebrate her life and be together. It was an interesting venture. All of my siblings were there, even my brother from Melbourne who led the funeral. We had a cousin there we had not seen for years, and other people we seldom get to see. While it was a funeral, and a very sad time, there was also a festive sense about it as we caught up on each other. It is weird how the two things mix. I remember when my father died in 1964 when I was a young teenager, there was a similar feel about the after match function. Family, friends and others all gathered after the funeral for food, mixing and conversation. I recall thinking, "Dad would really love this!"
Positive feedback
I have been visiting fire stations. I have had lots of guys say, "You did a bloody good job of John's funeral." This was a funeral I wrote about in my last post. Today an atheist firefighter who often rubbishes the Christian faith said, "You did a great job of John's funeral. It was really good." Later in the conversation I was commenting on how I seemed to have lost my skill at Table Tennis, he commented, "Well you're good at funerals and naming ceremonies." I am pleased to be able to do things in such a way that they link with it.
Getting old.
This same fire fighter headed out the door and a while later came back in with a beautiful young teenage girl and her little dog.  He brought her over to me and said, "Do you know that photo we have at home of a man holding you as a baby, at your naming ceremony? Well this is that man, Dave, our chaplain." I had met her at various times during her life but now I could not believe that that baby was now this elegant, nicely spoken young lady in front of me. I must be getting old. The naming ceremony was 13 years ago. The couple had almost given up hope of having a child when this baby arrived on the scene. They both were so thankful, and even though one of them claimed to be an atheist, they wanted to gather friends and family for a ceremony to show their delight, to give thanks and to commit themselves to parenthood. It was a delightful time in their front room with friends and family gathered around. It was nice to meet his daughter again. I am getting old though.
The young "lady" as a baby.

Christmas Greetings...
We are traveling to Christchurch to be with all our NZ based children and grandchildren for Christmas. (except our foster daughter who has handicaps - we had a special Christmas with her on Sunday. Traveling and staying away with her is very difficult for us and often upsetting for her - though we feel a bit guilty as it will be the first Christmas she has not been with us. We plan to make a fuss of her when we return. ) Where ever you are dear reader, I hope that you have a special Christmas. 

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Death and life...

Vida Simone Brown, Simon & Stephanies second child.
My week started with a phone call from my son to tell me that we had a new granddaughter born in Christchurch. She has spent a couple of nights in the intensive car unit, but today graduated out of there.  
But ....  my man in the hospice died on the weekend and I faced this week with a funeral to conduct on Tuesday and another on Wednesday. I spend a lot of time preparing funerals. I listen to the families, try to understand the deceased and seek to give expression to how they want to celebrate their loved one's life.  They both died because cancer had taken over their bodies, which had wasted away.  It is a sad disease. The funerals were very different. 
One was a retired firefighter who had been a great family man. The funeral home was full. One of the  moving things was that stacks of retired firefighters turned up. It was great to see them and great for the family to see the support. I enjoyed catching up with them. I appreciated too the way they came up, shook my hand and fell into conversation that was just like that of longstanding close friends. I received very positive feedback from that funeral. I was sure I had done a good job.
The second was a memorial service. The man had chosen to donate his body to the medical school upon death. He had been doorman at the Muso's (Musicians) club, so that was where it was held. It is a bit of an alternative club, but is a night club type place. The room is dark with coloured lights, and a massive sound system that could blow the place apart. The formal part I was to lead was to start at 4 p.m. but the bar opened around 3:15 p.m. I arrived and found the man who ran the sound system and we organised where I would run the ceremony from. The place was busy by then. In time he made contact with a jazz musician who could play the hymn "How great thou art" by ear on a key board. So I ran a very relaxed ceremony, some of the "congregation" were sipping beer and I was on a lighted stage looking out into a darkened, but packed room. There was applause for each speaker, laughter and nobody cared about tears. After the ceremony the man's sister came up and said, "We did it! That was just right!" I received a hug from another sister. When I said thanks to the man who ran the place, he thanked me and said, "You've done this before a bit haven't you?" Another guy, carrying beers said "That was excellent dude! Just great!" My paramedic friend who recommended me to his dying friend said, "They engaged with you. They were really listening!" "You still owe me!" I joked. So I managed again. But I am even more "peopled out" and exhausted, but deeply pleased that I ministered to people.
I had news today that a cousin's wife had died. She was around my age and I am sad for them. She had a progressive disease that slowly took her away. I will attend her funeral on Saturday. The cycle of life goes on.  

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Sharing with families.

A fire fighter who retired eleven years ago was terminally ill and his son got in touch with me telling me his Dad wanted to speak with me ASAP. I saw him last Saturday and had a special time with him and his family. We all thought he would be around for a few weeks more, but on Tuesday night he died. Today I was back with the family planning the funeral. Yesterday I had a couple of brief telephone conversations with family members and then with the funeral director. I was in my mind working out all that needed to be done for a funeral. I have been a bit "peopled-out" lately and in some ways the last thing I needed was a funeral.  I have been busy since talking with various people about the man and the arrangements for the funeral. 

I had not long put the receiver down from discussing something with the funeral director, when the phone rang again. It was one of the paramedics I have been involved with in my St John Ambulance chaplaincy. "I have an old school mate in the hospice." he said. "I told him about you and I recommended you to him a few weeks ago. He asked about you the other day. He is dying and I was wondering if you could drop by and see him with a view to taking his memorial service when he dies. He wants to meet you." I inwardly gasped. So today after planning the funeral with my ex-fire fighter's family, I drove to the hospice and introduced myself to this other man and his family. He was really in no shape to talk, but again I felt a sense of privilege to be allowed into this family's life. I sat as they talked about their life together. They shared about their brother, their childhood experiences and generally cared for one another and their loved one. 

Without looking for work, I, who already feel peopled- out, have two grieving families and two funerals coming up. I will survive, and even enjoy, or feel fulfilled in the challenge of meeting the people where they are at and ministering to them, helping them to celebrate the life of their loved one. Just now it feels like a massive amount of work in front of me.  But.... isn't it great, very humbling and moving, that this fire fighter retired eleven years, when he is facing death thinks to call on the services of his old workplace chaplain? And... I have felt very humbled and moved by the number of fire fighters who have been offering assistance and are obviously pleased that I am involved.  And.... isn't it great and humbling, that a paramedic (who used to work for an undertaker and knows the funeral business) will think to recommend his workplace chaplain to his dying friend? I was surprised that he had that much confidence in me.

I am a privileged man indeed, albeit too busy in retirement. I was talking to the fire chief tonight, and he grinned, patted my shoulder and said, "And you thought you had retired!" My wife told him jokingly that I had threatened to "deliberately make a stuff up of the funeral so that I would never be asked again." "They would still love it!" he responded.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Refreshing conversations with the dying.

A local sunset. 

"At 95 its on the cards!"
Last weekend I was informed that a lovely old guy from my last Church was in hospital seriously ill. I have known this man since my childhood, he had been a much respected long standing friend of my parents. He is 95 years old and is much loved and highly respected. Last Sunday afternoon I had joined in the local "Climate March", had climbed my mountain, and then went in to visit him in hospital, unsure of what I would find.  My first arrival was when patients in his ward were having dinner and there was a big sign saying "No visitors", so I went away, called at the Night Shelter, and came back later.  I found my 95 year old friend sitting in the lounge trying to fathom the TV remote. I sat down beside him and said, "I've come to make sure you are behaving." He greeted me and declared that he would much rather talk to me than watch TV and I escorted him back to his room. We sat and chatted like old friends.  There were two things I appreciated about his conversation. 
First the way he appreciated his life. He kept coming up with things he was thankful for - His family; the people who had shared life with him; the measure of health he had enjoyed; the fact that he was "normal"; that being in hospital was for him a relatively new experience;  etc. etc. - He just kept saying, "Oh I am so thankful for...." He was breathless, his blood pressure was dangerously low and there was a lot of uncertainty about his future, but he was clear, lucid and oh so thankful. That was pretty cool.
The second thing I appreciated was the realistic way he talked about the possibility of his death. He told me, "The kids (his adult children) are worried they will phone me one day and nobody will answer the phone. They talk about that being a terrible thing! But at 95 its on the cards! What do they expect? I have had a long and good life, but it will come to an end and it is going to happen some day soon, it is logical." He scolded me. "Your retirement (from ministry) and my health did not coincide correctly. I was expecting you to be my minister and you to take my funeral, but it wasn't to be. You will speak at my funeral won't you?"  I assured him I would. "I'll say 'He wasn't a bad old bloke, where's the food'." I joked. I think he will live a while longer, on my second visit his health was much improved. I loved his realistic view of life, his sense of appreciation and his wisdom, but whenever he does go I will be sad because he has been a good friend. 
"... I know he wants to have a chat with you ASAP."
I received an email on Thursday from a man I did not know. He had got my email address from the "Gold Watch" list. This is a list of retired fire fighters and I am included in any group emails. He told me that his father (who had retired about eleven years ago) had terminal cancer and had been sent home to die. He was searching for me on behalf of his father and he wrote, "he wants you to take his funeral ..... I know he wants to have a chat with you ASAP." He gave me two phone numbers to ring. The next day I rang his home and I was put on to this ex-firefighter who breathlessly said "Hi Dave, thanks for ringing." What do you say to a man who is facing death?  The counselling books may suggest a more PC comment but I said simply, "Hi 'Fred' (not his name) I hear life has turned to crap for you? I'm sorry about that!" "Yeah" he said, "That's the way it goes Dave. It's tough, but you can't do anything about it." We made arrangements for me to call up when the family was there. On Saturday I visited.  This sort of visit I still stew about. I am full of uncertainty. What will I say? Will I say the wrong thing and muck it up? How will I get on with his family? All these questions went through my mind in the middle of the night and as I drove into town to his house. But when I met him and shook his emaciated hand, and saw his familiar smile I relaxed. I sat and chatted with him and his family. He asked questions about the funeral process. I asked about his family and his life. There was warmth, friendship and again appreciation of life, but also realism about what was ahead. I promised that I would talk with the funeral director and maybe get them to visit so he could clarify things with them. I promised to come back and stay in touch and also to communicate with some of his fire fighter mates.  When I left I thought, "Why did I worry about that conversation? It was such a privilege to be part of this family exchange." 

I am a fortunate man to be "let in" on peoples' journey through life.