Dunedin, New Zealand, my city - my people

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

"It is finished!" - "Mission accomplished!"

Jesus' words from the cross were "It is finished!" There have been various understandings of the Greek word. One scholar suggested that what he was saying could be simply, "Mission accomplished!" I felt that feeling yesterday.
I came back from our overseas journey and a few days later learned that a man I knew well, who had been part of my St John chaplaincy, was in hospital with terminal cancer. I had known him at least 18 years, and journeyed with him through all sorts of experiences. I was sad about this news and from conversations I knew that many friends were visiting him in hospital, and that there the doctors were hoping to settle pain levels and send him home in the next day or so. I thought I would catch up with him when he went home. Well he went home on Tuesday and on Thursday morning, he died. It was only two and a half weeks from his original diagnosis. Yesterday I conducted his funeral. 
Do it well! Do it well! I hate/love leading funerals. I get extremely stressed because I know that it is so easy to muck up. I am also deeply aware that my faith is on show as I lead. People subconsciously, or consciously evaluate the relevance of Christianity as they see it as a minister leads a funeral. I knew that most of my friends at St John would be attending the funeral if they were not on duty. I knew too that most were not active Christians, and were even cynical about "faith". I also am devoted to ministering in such a way that the family is helped by the funeral. I am conscious that it is my job to help them celebrate the life and "being" of their loved one in a meaningful way. My task is to aid them in the grieving process and enable them to draw on the support of others and find the deep resources of love. I put a lot of effort into funerals. I listen deeply. I stew on what I am saying, I craft it and shape it and am always, always nervous about how it will go. 
My "call" 
If somebody were to ask me why I became a minister, here in short is what I would answer. I was a young plumber, attending church on Sunday, but on week days I mixed with men on building sites who never went to Church, but who often shared with me their varied life hassles. I became deeply disturbed, or "outraged" as Bernie Sanders may say. I was deeply aware that Church as I experienced it just did not speak the language of these men. What went on in Church was like irrelevant "gobbledegook" to the life issues normal people were facing. The topics, the language, the ethos was all some-how "in-house" church-culture stuff. I felt deeply that I wanted to somehow be part of bridging the gap. I was shy and wasn't sure I had the temperament to be a minister, but thought the study would help me journey, and at least make me a more useful layman in bridging the gap. I did become a minister. 
The funeral... I prepared, and worked and only slept a few hours the night before, and in the morning prepared again. So I found myself, just after midday, waiting as the funeral chapel filled up with about 350 people. (The guy was only 62) Some from my chaplaincy came in, saw me and said, "Are you doing the honours?... Oh that's good!" or words to that effect. One, a team leader came and with a grin, saw my nervousness, nudged me in the ribs and said, "Don't fuck it up!"  He knew and I knew that he was only putting into words what I was saying to myself. The funeral director, a lady who once worked at St John and is still there as a volunteer told me it was time to start, and she comforted me by rubbing my back as I set off down the isle. I led the funeral. It was a bit hard because the man was my friend too. The St John folks formed a guard of honour, and I marched out between them. I stand by the hearse as they load the coffin, and found myself standing next to the team leader, who was diligently uniformed and standing to attention. After he stood at ease and most people had past by paying their respects, I leaned toward him and quietly asked, "Well, did I fuck it up?" He grinned, patted my shoulder and said, "No you did well, you did us proud like you always do." That was the sentiment I received from so many. Some just came up and rubbed my arm, others shook my hand and said "Well done." Some hugged. I am always, always surprised that I "succeed". 
One comment, however, I really appreciated. I had started my van to leave to go to the "after match function", and this guy, a friend of the deceased, came to my window. I wound the window down and turned off the motor. "I just wanted to say you did it well." He was hesitant and struggling to express his thoughts. "My father was a Methodist minister...  I often think you guys get it wrong, its all religion and not... not... human... shall we say. ... That doesn't help these days. ... you didn't do that. You spoke our language ... you had the spirituality...it was there.. but ... you were with us. It worked for me! You said the sort of thing I think... you are a bridge! That is what you are. A bridge between the spiritual and us normal humans. Well done!" .. he stammered a few more comments trying to put into words his experience of the service.  I said, "Thank you so much... I understand." and as he went away I paused before I started the motor. My mind went back to my 1960's-70 outrage and the gap between the Church and people. (An outrage I still have) I remembered the reason I became a minister and I said quietly, "Mission accomplished!" (well for today anyway) I felt that by grace, I was fulfilling my calling. I slept well last night. 
A further event....
I am probably boasting a bit here, but today (the day after I wrote the post above.) I received this from a retired St John Chaplain, who has been a principal of a theological college. He is a man who has been involved in St John Ambulance all his life. I had not seen him at the funeral. He says it is a "gift"... I am not sure....It simply is very hard work, at least for me, and I tend to think that we ministers often shirk that work and hide behind cliches. At least I have been guilty of that.
The email was a great encouragement. It warmed my heart.

Dear Dave,
I didn't interrupt your conversations with people after Neil's Service on Monday but I did want to say how much I appreciated the way you had woven a spiritual dimension into what I guess was authentic for Neil's family and friends.  I have noticed before your keen awareness of where people are 'at' and your ability to build around that in a sensitive and authentic way.  It is a good gift.  Thank you for that.  ..........
It was so good that you were back in time to take the service - you knew him so well from your chaplaincy.

Look forward to chatting some time.

Until then,


Sunday, July 3, 2016

Reflecting on our Edinburgh experience.

The Discovery in Dundee. Robert Falcon Scotts Antarctic ship. 
Craigmiller Castle. I got lost in the woods exploring this. 
My son is an expert barbecue cook. The shed we built in the background. 
Leon my grandson. Great lively little man.
Arthurs Seat, the hill near the centre of Edinburgh. I got to climb it twice.
I sang little Xavier to sleep. (I am not good at "selfies") 
Walking in the Pentland Hills. How many feet have crossed this style to wear that stone down?
We walked about 20k, got lost, got wet, but had a great day. 
An apartment block in Singapore with the family washing on bamboo poles out the window.
It is a long way..
Last Thursday, after a drive on clogged roadways, we farewelled our son at Edinburgh airport, and began our journey home to NZ. It is a long journey, made longer by various incidents on the way. We boarded the plane at Edinburgh, but because they had weather hassles down London way, the plane sat on the tarmac for about three quarters of an hour. At Heathrow we found our outgoing terminal and entertained ourselves until we could board the plane for Singapore. Again because of bad weather approaching, the plane sat on the tarmac for an hour or so. By the time we arrived at Singapore we had been on the plane for nearly 15 hours. We stayed a night there, and then flew the nine hours to Christchurch, NZ. Our Christchurch based son and grandson had coffee with us at the airport, and we soon boarded our final three quarter hour flight to our home town of Dunedin. Our daughter and son-in-law picked us up and brought us home, with food purchased so that we could have our evening meal together. I fell asleep while talking after the meal, and this week have been incredibly tired, falling asleep in my chair easily. It simply is a long, long journey from Edinburgh, Scotland, to Dunedin, New Zealand.
Edinburgh city..
This has been our third visit to Edinburgh, though our first was only a day touristy visit. Edinburgh has become a second "home" to us and we quite confidently master the bus service and explore parts of town. But, being colonials, living in very different circumstances, it is quite hard to adapt. Here are some quick observations.

  • There are some lovely open spaces and parks in Edinburgh, but the density of the living is something we needed to get used to. My son lives in a house that is a modern version of Coronation Street type houses. The house is warm, compact with a small backyard and attached to the neighbouring houses. At night we could hear the neighbour's phone ringing and some of their movements. In NZ we live ten minutes drive from the centre of our city, on an acre of land, with bush around us. Most people here still live in houses with eighth to a quarter of acre of land. Driving into town for the first time upon our return, we wondered where everyone was. The crowded lifestyle of Edinburgh, the footpaths, the traffic takes a bit of getting used to, though I recognise that most people throughout the world would live in similar circumstances. We stopped off at Singapore and their apartment buildings go high into the sky.  I love the openness of Dunedin, New Zealand. 
  • I simply LOVE the history in Edinburgh. My brother and his wife came through Edinburgh while we were there and we were their tour guides for a day. I wandered around pointing to plaques on doorways, buildings and footpaths which told of the history of the place. Later I felt guilty, because I probably bored them to tears. But the history of the UK fascinates me and inspires me. For example; I read in a little museum on Cannongate in Edinburgh, of a time when only 32 of the elite Edinburgh could vote for Members of Parliament. The rest of the population were not qualified to vote. If you questioned this or protested this you were harshly treated by the judicial system of the day. But people did! And they kept challenging it in spite of the punishments and set backs, until a more just system prevailed. It is here in the UK that the society that we enjoy today, the rights we have and the freedoms we take for granted were forged. Because they stood for that which is right and fair, we today have heaps of rights, freedoms and understandings that we take for granted. We stand on their shoulders. I love the "peoples' stories" that are told in the buildings and streets of Edinburgh. In NZ we do not have such a long standing history.
  • I was sad that there seemed to be a higher proportion of the population who are addicted to smoking than in NZ. At the bus stops the tops of the rubbish bins, and falling on to the pathways beside them, there are countless cigarette butts. I thought it may well be because of the area we lived in, but up town, outside office buildings, at bus stops there seemed to be a bigger proportion of the population that smoked. It was sad to see.
  • Traveling on the city buses is an education. You hear the quite loud conversations in the scots accent. Often there seemed to be an undergirding anger, particularly in men's conversation. I think the whole situation in Europe has an impact on how people feel.  But there were delightful interludes, great little conversations with complete strangers that were pleasant surprises. In Dunbar I sat on a bar which was designed to lock your bikes to, and an older man slid alongside. "D'y'mind if I share y'seat? Growing old is a bugger!" he said, and we began a conversation, in which I learned he had worked at the Royal Mail all his life. We went into a cafe in Dalkeith, and were welcomed with, "Come in me'darlins, take a seat, what canna get ye?" We began chatting with this waitress, then her boss and others in the cafe joined in. The boss let us off 30p when we were searching for the right change, and an hour later, when we had new supplies of coins, I went in and repaid the debt. There was laughter, and lots of chit chat, with lunch time patrons wondering what was going on. They farewelled me with warmth and best wishes. In Dundee I sat on a seat in a pedestrian area of the town waiting for my shopping wife. A woman with an elderly man on her arm came along and told him to sit. "I'll be five minutes." she said. He laughed and shook his head. I joked, "I'll time you!"  So he and I were sitting there watching the world go by, waiting for our women folk, and chatting every now and then. When this woman returned, twenty minutes later, I joked that it wasn't five minutes. I then got an explanation. "The bairns are gettin' christened. Its up (somewhere I did not know) so we have't'be dressed right. So I'been shoppin' for that."  There were these delightful interludes that made us feel more at home. 
  • One thing that happened a few times, was that we were asked, "Are you from down-under?" as people recognised our accent. "Yes, New Zealand." "Well at least y'r not Australian, thank God!" Aussies do seem to have a PR problem in Scotland.
  • We attend the Augustine United Reformed Church while there and really enjoyed the ethos. It promotes a progressive christianity which we feel at home in, and is open to the LGBTQ community, and indeed has a group within it who call themselves "The Tribe." On our last Sunday there the man leading the service announced that "Jo will bring us our scripture reading." This mature person got up who was dressed and made up as a woman (tastefully) but was obviously "trans" in the way she walked. As she read her voice was more like that of a man. But she read with real passion, expression and significance. It was important to her. We had easily accepted openly gay people participating (we could tell by the partners they sat with) but this was a new experience. But the feeling I got from this experience was one of liberation. It was not a big deal. Here were people, some who were senior longstanding church goers, who simply accepted her as a person. They smiled in approval at the end of her reading, because she had done it so well. And somehow it made me feel safe. A thing went off in my inner being that said, "It is OK to be completely yourself in this Church." I felt liberated. I wish I could transplant that ethos! 
  • We so appreciated being able to spend time with the family. Daniel is our third child. We adopted him as a baby, and he is now a big Maori/Samoan man. He is a thoughtful and responsible husband and father. You need to know that for us, he is as much "our son" as any other child in our family. We hurt when he hurts, we are happy when he is happy, we are proud when he or his children do well, we worry with him when he is worried and we feel that partnership in life that parents feel with their kids. Dan and his wife Magda looked after us in their house for nearly all of our visit, (May 3rd until June 23rd) and their house is not that big. It is not always easy as adults, having parents visit for a long time, but they were great toward us. We so appreciated their hospitality, and I loved playing with my two grandchildren and working with my son on DIY projects. Saying goodbye at the airport was excruciating, it could be that we never get to see them in person again.
Taking up the reigns of life again...
While in Edinburgh I kept in touch with Night Shelter business via email on an ipad. This first week back I have had meetings, done chores, made phone calls and written emails related to the Night Shelter. I have gone back to my three chaplaincies and caught up on what has happened.  Busyness seems inevitable, and I am already thinking up new projects.  I am hopeful that with a new operations director appointed at the shelter, life will not be quite as hectic. 

I enjoyed my holiday with family, and enjoyed Edinburgh, but I love being back in New Zealand. I am a "Kiwi" through and through.