Dunedin, New Zealand, my city - my people

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Sound off.. Good and bad.

Four funerals - two Church services and two chaplains conferences. - Phew!
I have conducted three funerals in the last three weeks, and yesterday I was doorman/sound system operator at a fourth.  Two of the funerals were for men I would count as friends. The fourth was for an elderly lady in the local Church whose health has been going downhill for quite some time.  They have a bit of a tradition here of ringing the bell of the Church at the end of the funeral. They ring out one chime for every year of the person's life. My friend Robert used to be the bell ringer on such occasions. At his funeral one of the local cafe owner's came and offered to ring the bell 73 times. Yesterday after this lady's funeral I rang the bell 83 chimes.   It has been an interesting journey.  I am still saying "bugger" about my local friend (Robert) who was found dead. I miss his presence at Church and in the local community. I looked forward to our conversations and life seems more empty without him around. 
I have led worship at the local Church the last two Sundays.  Though they were not my best, I enjoyed introducing dialogue, doing some pastoral care toward a grieving congregation and feeling like I was sharing something important.  I enjoyed too the creative process of exegesis of the readings and working out how best to communicate the message of them. It is an art and I enjoy being the artist. 

A gift of grace...
The day after my last funeral, a retired firefighter phoned me asking if he could come and see me. "I need to see ya!" he said over the phone, "Are you gonna be home this afternoon?" So we tidied the lounge, got afternoon tea ready and waited for his arrival, wondering what he had to see me about. He arrived in his farm ute, with a crate on the back, filled with macrocapa firewood all chopped and split. Macrocapa is one of the best and most expensive woods for fire wood. He poked his head out of the cab window and in a gruff tone yelled, "Well, where d'ya want it?" We unloaded this surprise gift and went in for a cup of tea and a friendly catchup chat. How cool is that. As I left I looked at the pile and said, "Thank you so much! You are so great!"  "Look in the mirror and say that to yourself! See ya!" he retorted and away he went. My mind went back nearly twenty three years ago when I first met him. All I said was, "Hi I'm Dave Brown, I'm the new chaplain." and he told me "take your f***ing Christianity to Wellington and shove it up the bums of those F***ing bastards up there. Don't bloody Bible bash us!" We now enjoy each other's company. As I stacked the wood a couple of days later I realised the tremendous amount of work he had done in cutting it and splitting it. It is such a warm expression of friendship.
Women.... learn some manners!
It may be because I have been busy and tired, but lately I have decided mature women need a lesson in good manners. I do a lot of extra voluntary stuff. I'll fix a tap, or do some little handy man job for somebody, or do maintenance around the Night Shelter or Church.  In the last few weeks I have had what only can be called "demands" made by women. "I need a key." "The toilet is leaking" "I need paint, what about that paint you've got?"  I have noticed how rudely a succession of women have asked for favours. If it had been men they would have said, "Hi Dave, I know you're busy, but I need a key. Would it be possible for you to get one for me please? If that is OK? Are you sure its OK? How can I pick it up?" But not this woman, just an email, "Hey Dave I need a key!" It is as if you are one of their employees and they are the boss. Its a demand, with no "please" and "thank you". In musing on this I decided that its the way they talked to their children, and they carry it over to mugs like me. I have expressed frustration a couple of times and that has brought about a lessening of their demand. "Oh I know you're busy, just when you can." 
Is a funeral the time for a sermon?
I sat through the last funeral as the sound system controller, doorman, janitor. There were folk I knew from St John there and I knew that most people there were not Church goers. Many were people from the local community I see in the supermarket and garage. I like the guy who was leading it, he is a loving man, but it was a "religious" funeral with Christian dogma, jargon and cliches. Under the heading "Words of Comfort" in the order of service he gave a little sermon. In essence he said, "The Bible says death is the 'enemy'.(the metaphysical pro's and cons of this considered) We can defeat death by believing in Jesus Christ. Our deceased 'sister' did. So I commend to you her faith - if you believe then you too will defeat death and have something to look forward to at the time of your death."  I was embarrassed. Here in the church I attend, representing the congregation I fellowship with, this guy was hitting people with this 1950's dogma! Reading the body language, most of the congregation had switched off anyway. I am not a follower of Jesus to get to heaven when I die! If heaven is a reality (and I think some kind of ongoing dimension is.) I cannot believe in a God who would ban people from heaven on the basis of believing the right dogma? I felt sick and did not want to be identified with this congregation. In spite of his desire to commend Jesus to people, I suspect he would have had the opposite impact. At least he did on me. I felt repulsed by this sort of Christianity, though I actually like that particular minister as a man. 

Sunday, August 21, 2016

I nearly cried.

In my last post I told how Robert, a local friend of mine had been found dead.  I had once met one of his brothers who lives in another city, but did not really know his family. I heard that this brother was on his way to Dunedin.  I felt that when his brother arrived to deal with funeral arrangements, he may not know where to begin to contact the local Church. I drove past the house several times to see if he had arrived.  Finally on Tuesday morning as I left to go into town to meetings and chaplaincy work, I dropped a sheet of paper with the interim moderator's and the session clerk's phone numbers on it into the letterbox. I also had my name and number and the offer to help in any way. I expected that the interim moderator would take the funeral. Later that day my wife called at the house and met his brother. She and he rang me, and he asked if I would lead my friend's funeral. I agreed, though I knew that it would be emotionally tough. The brother came for dinner that night and we chatted about it, his memories and made necessary arrangements. I attended a St John Chaplains' conference in Wellington City for two days, and caught up with the larger family on Friday. The old Iona Church is part way through a restoration project and is seldom used. As we cleaned and prepared the church for the service and did the set up, we realised that my dead friend was the one who usually did a lot of these jobs on such an occasion.  On Saturday, in the historic Iona Church in Port Chalmers, I led his funeral. There was quite a crowd there, including at least six senior Presbyterian ministers. I was aware that my ceremony would be different than theirs, but I thought I had to be true to my approach. As I came to the end of my eulogy I found my voice cracking with emotion and was glad to hand over to family members to share their tributes. After a couple of other speakers, I safely negotiated the remainder of the service. Robert had promised to play "Finlandia" in Church for me when I next led a service, and the brother had chosen that tune for the organist to play as we led the casket out of the Church. As I walked ahead of the coffin down the Church isle listening to this tune that he and I enjoyed, I found my lip quivering with emotion and the beginnings of a sob happen. I bit my lip and carried on. As they loaded the coffin into the hearse I wanted to yell, "Bugger!"  
Today I led Sunday worship deeply aware that Robert was missing. He always appreciated what I offered. But I did feel that once again I was minister to a Church family who needed encouragement and love. 

While I was in Wellington one of my firefighters phoned my wife. He was sitting with his siblings around his mother's hospital bed and she was expected to die. Would I lead her service when the end came? First thing on Friday morning I phoned him and assured him I would. I had a long association with both him and his wife, marrying them many years ago. Later that day as I was preparing Robert's funeral I received a call telling me that she had died. A couple of hours after finishing my friend's funeral, I was once again sitting with a grieving family planning for a funeral this coming Tuesday morning. 

I am at once energised and exhausted by this ministry, that seems to follow me. 

Monday, August 15, 2016

"Bugger!" is all I can say.

to brighten the mood - spring is coming. These were on our lawn. 

Since retiring and worshipping at the little Presbyterian Church here, we have got to know a lovely, quietly spoken, gentle man who lives alone. He has been a bachelor all his life working as a draftsman. He lives with diabetes and the early stages of Parkinson's disease. 
He and I have similar theological perspectives and have often chatted about our faith journeys. Also since I am essentially a shy guy who works hard to push my boundaries, I understand and appreciate this man's quiet lack of confidence and hesitancy, that is where I come from.  We both like being bits of loners, but we have enjoyed each other's company. He has taught himself how to play the pipe organ. He designed and built a beautiful boat and had promised to take me for a ride in it. In spite of his quiet uncertainty, he was in fact, a very clever man. 

Last week he had the misfortune to discover a friend of his dead in her house. She had Alzheimers and he had lovingly kept an eye on her since her husband's death earlier this year. He would ring her each morning, and this particular morning she had not responded. When he rang us to tell us about this experience last Wednesday we invited him to come for the evening meal. We listened to him tell us what happened and reflect upon it, but we also found ourselves chatting about life easily and warmly. I was pleased because he seemed to relax in our company.
He was not at Church yesterday and I was not too worried because I knew his deceased friend's relatives would be in town and he could be busy with them. I also knew that the preacher we had for the day was not our favourite and that he may have avoided coming for that reason. At church though, others told of instances when he had been found in the beginnings of a diabetic coma. We began to be concerned because he had said that he would see us at church. We made attempts to contact him at his house where his car was still in the driveway, and by repeated phone calls. We were not able, but were not that despairing, thinking others may have visited him and taken him somewhere. We were not certain of his plans so did not feel we could call the police to break into his house.

Today we heard that they had found him dead in his house, I assume from some sort of diabetic event. I have tried to do stuff, but have found that numbing distracting feeling of grief demotivating me. Every time I have thought of him and his friendship today I have just said, "Bugger!" I have lost yet another friend out of my life. "Bugger" is the only appropriate word. I am sad. Getting old is not easy, sadness seems to be a recurring experience. Since coming home from our trip to the UK I have now lost three fellow, friendly companions on the journey of life. Bugger! 

Saturday, August 6, 2016

Is NZ becoming a third world country?...and sadness again.

A third world country?
Example 1. The Night Shelter in Dunedin needs a new weekend supervisor because of the resignation of one of our guys. I have advertised in the local paper and have been emailing and sometimes sending out by "snail mail" the job descriptions and the application forms. It is the "snail mail" that annoys me. At one time when you posted a letter in Dunedin to a Dunedin address, it was sorted in Dunedin and virtually the next day, or at the most, the day after was delivered. These days it goes all the way to Christchurch, (364 Kilometres) is sorted, and brought back to Dunedin. Here these days we only receive mail on three days a week. (It used to be every day) So when I am posting these things out I am aware that the application form I post will take quite a few days to get there, and then when they post it back, it will require a few days to get back to me. Applications close next Wednesday, so it could be tricky for those relying on "snail mail". It used to be reliable, quick and easy. These days it is a relatively poor service. Are we becoming a "third world" country?
Example 2. A retired firefighter has been in hospital with very bad lung problems. He was full time on oxygen. His prospects looked very grim, and he had resigned himself to dying in the next week or so. There is a drug that could possibly help, the relevant agency in NZ has approved it, but has not purchased it. If they did it would cost heaps. It can be purchased more cheaply via India, but it will take some time to get into the country. It will not arrive in time. It somehow feels "third world". 
Example 3. My friend is spending his last days in Dunedin hospital. There has been a public outcry because the powers-that-be decided that rather than cook meals at Dunedin Hospital, the supply of meals will be contracted out and they will come from Auckland. (1061.71 Kilometres North of Dunedin.) People have reported that the meals, reheated, taste terrible and are of a poor quality. I have thought it was a daft idea flying food all that distance and was annoyed at the loss of Dunedin jobs. But I have not got too worried about the quality of meals, after all you are not in hospital very long. I visited my friend, however, and he said through his oxygen mask, "The meals are crap - the papers are right." When the meal was delivered to him last night while I was visiting he said, "I have to beat myself up to eat them." I thought - here he is, life almost gone, and he has to spend his last days eating bad quality "old" reheated food! I was thinking of ways we could bring in nice food and perhaps some wine, since he loved his wines. Are we a third world country? It feels like it is.
... In the early hours of this morning my friend sadly died. One of my jobs this week will be leading his funeral.
Sadness hits.
I have known my firefighter friend for nearly twenty three years. In that time he went from being a station officer to being deputy chief of Dunedin Fire Service. In all that time, even though he was not an active church man, he has been very supportive of the chaplaincy service. I have interviewed him in Church and on a radio station service. He has confided in me and pointed me toward people needing support. He was the first to get his crew assisting with our community christmas dinners. He has been a supportive presence when others thought a chaplain was not needed in a modern fire service. He called me "Skypilot" a term from his navy days. Today I have moped around grieving, feeling sad. I spend time tomorrow with his family and will later in the week, lead his funeral, but just now, I am sad. It feels like the older you get, the more often you encounter this sadness. Apart from reminding you of your own mortality (he was only three years older than I am) you realise that you are losing people who have journeyed with you.  He and I had stories to tell, history together and things to laugh about, and now he has gone. As he said in a matter of fact way when I first visited, "It happens to us all. That's life." My last words to him were that I would "Love and leave him for now and come back and see him." Sadly I was wrong. His last words to me as I left his room last night were, "Look after yourself."  I'll try Trev, I'll try.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Still going...

A team of American Students spending time at Otago University.

My opening speech. I wore many layers to keep the cold at bay.

Around midnight there was a bit of a dance party going on.
Some of the students looking attentive for the national TV slot. We made it to national TV on two channels!
Sze-En Lau Watts (Student Volunteer coordinator) David Clark (Local Member of Parliament) and me.
Both people are great people I am privileged to share with. Sze-En has a way of inspiring people to do great things.
David Clark and I were judges of the team "Forts"
The Town Hall and Cathedral in the Octagon.
A final thank you speech - "You encourage and inspire the Night Shelter Trust members. Thank you."
Student Sleep out.
Last Friday night I joined about 150 university students and some other friends and "slept out". Last year in mid winter, around 200 students slept in the Octagon, a space in the centre of the city, to raise awareness of homelessness and to raise funds for purchasing the night shelter. Then we raised $12,000 and it was fantastic. This year the students wanted to do it again and they worked on it, doing a lot of work while I was in the UK and their coordinator was also overseas. I kept up with it all via emails and through their special facebook page. It all came together and we gathered at the Octagon. We had heaps of packaging cardboard, to build ourselves forts and entertainment was lined up from 7 p.m. until about 1 a.m. A friend and I constructed a fort, but when it came to sleep in it I decided it was too cosy for two men to sleep in. I "slept" outside. There are bars all around the Octagon and they were playing loud music until after three in the morning. I don't think I got a full hour of sleep. I had to do an opening speech. Here is what I said roughly.... 
- The students planning it had said, "At this point Dave, you can tell us how much you love us." So first.. I love you all for being here.
- When I was a boy I loved climbing cliffs, and on family picnics I would go off on my own and climb a cliff near by. One time I got stuck. I was on this cliff face and every time I tried to step to get a foothold, the stones would give away under me, and would tumble down the cliff. Every time I tried to get a handhold it would give way. I was frozen there. I had run out of options, everything I tried failed, and I remember just staying there awhile petrified, not knowing what to do. Well people who come to the Night Shelter, or Phoenix lodge are often like that. They have run out of options, and struggle to get a foothold or handhold to move on in life. The money you raise tonight is going toward ways we can reach out to them, and give them a hand to take the next step. I love you for being here to help us to do that.
- I love you also because of what your presence means. Every day we hear of hatred, division and bloodshed in the world. We hear of angry people seeking to destroy others. But here in the little city of Dunedin, at the bottom of the world, there's a group of young people who are saying "No, there's a different way, the way of compassion, of care and constructive love." Thank you for taking that stand, in the face of all the evil in the world... for that I love you .... Lets have a fun night together!

And that is what we did. At 67 I was a young man sleeping out with a lot of idealistic, energetic dancing students. Snow, wind and rain had been forecast, but it was a calm but cold night. It warmed my heart to be part of it.
Back into it, maybe...
I have been approached by the Session Clerk of the local Presbyterian Church and asked if I would take a more active part in leadership there. It has been a bit frustrating and tough there. I have agreed and we are working out a way we can do it, without hurting the ministers who come to speak, or seeming to take over too much, but in a way my wife and I can help lead, give some pastoral care and help more in worship. It all has to go through the proper protocols, and it does not mean I am back into "ministry", but just able to do more than we are doing at the moment. I am excited but in some ways scared by this, but have decided that if we are going to attend the Church, this is what is needed to help it be the presence it can be in our community. Watch this space.