Dunedin, New Zealand, my city - my people

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Christmas Eve reflections.

A sad Thursday.
Last Thursday I had a reasonably busy day lined up, planning to go into town to do chaplaincy at about 11 a.m.  I rose had my breakfast and was beginning to carry on my work toward Sunday's service when the phone rang. It was still relatively early in the morning so I was expecting it to be the Night Shelter. It wasn't. This woman's voice said, "Hello Dave I am "X" I am "Z Y's" wife. He wants to see you." "Z Y" was a retired fire fighter who has been retired nearly five years. Ten months ago I had heard he had been diagnosed with cancer, and in April, just before we headed away to visit Edinburgh, I had heard that it was terminal and they did not expect him to last more than two weeks. "Z" is a nice guy and I had enjoyed talking with him as his chaplain. He had always made it very plain he was an atheist and didn't believe, or tolerate that religious "shit". But I liked him. He is a very skilled man and appreciated some of the things about life that I appreciate. But because he was an atheist and because he had expressed a wish that he did not want hordes of visitors, I did not go up to see him. I thought he may interpret any visit as me wanting to "save" him before he died. Before we went to Edinburgh I wrote a card expressing my admiration and appreciation of him as a person and wishing him all the best for whatever time he had left. He has lived all this time and a fellow fire fighter had been keeping me up on how he was doing. But now he was asking for me, so I made a time that afternoon to visit him. But more was to follow that morning.
Yet another funeral!
I set about doing work and the phone rang again. It was Jack. Jack had been a good friend of my Dad's. He and his wife, Florence had been like a younger Aunt and Uncle to us as children when we were growing up. They were part of my last congregation and I had been visiting them from time to time since my retirement. Both were in their nineties. "David" Jack said, "I need to let you know, its Florence, she has died this morning." He told me the details, how it happened and how he was feeling. She had been becoming more frail. They live in the same area of town that my retired "ZY" lived and I had thought that I could call on them after my visit to him. But now Florence, a lovely loving woman, was dead. "She would want you to take the funeral." he said. He had to hang up because a daughter was arriving, but I made plans to see him after I had visited my retired firefighter. I was choking up as I talked with him on the phone.
It was some afternoon. My terminally ill retired fire fighter was struggling to accept the inevitable. We talked and he asked me to lead his service when the inevitable happened. I promised to keep in touch. I visited Jack, and his two daughters and a grandson was present. We had a nice time of memories and reflection until the funeral director came. We made necessary plans and I stood with Jack as the funeral attendants prepared and carried Florence on her last trip down her garden path. As I held the door for them to load her into their wagon, I said, "Take care of her, she is a special lady to me." I know the funeral Director well. So on Wednesday this week once again I was up front leading a funeral ceremony. There was a big number of people there, and among them most of my old congregation. I felt a bit awkward because professionally the current minister should have been leading the service. But I have known this couple virtually all my life, I had led the weddings of their two daughters and knew them well. He accepted the situation when Jack mentioned it to him. 
I was told by many, many people, including the family, that I did an excellent job. I was relieved and again wondering how come I succeeded? 
Questionable Carols
Tonight in an hour or so there is to be a Christmas Eve service in the local Church. I am not leading it, the "Interim Moderator" is doing the honours, but he wanted the Carols, all eleven of them, on power point on the TV screen. So yesterday I found myself typing up Christmas Carols. I do not believe in the Virgin Birth as an historical event. I do not think that the "real" Jesus would like the theological adulation of him that goes on in Carols. I hate the sentimental hog wash linked to Christmas. So I spent time yesterday typing up these carols. "Lo he abhors not the virgins womb." What on earth is that? He better not! "But his mother only, in her maiden bliss, worshipped the beloved, with a kiss." "Maiden Bliss"? Is a normal woman who is sexually active somehow dirtied? The implications of the doctrine stink! So I will display the words like a good little helper, but some verses I will definitely not sing.
Happy Christmas everyone. Have a great day.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Oh dear, how embarrassing! I'm a "Local Hero."

Kiwibank runs a "New Zealander of the year" award thingy and the public are invited to nominate people. Well some people nominated me for my work leading the local Night Shelter Trust. From these nominations local hero's are selected, then next year the New Zealander of the Year is selected. I am most unlikely to be anywhere near that award, particularly since only my Night Shelter stuff is mentioned in the nomination. But I was selected as one of many to receive a Local Hero Award for the local region.  So we went to the Award ceremony last night. Here are some photos.
It is nice to be recognised, I guess, but a bit embarrassing. There are lots of people supporting me, for example my chief supporter and accomplice is my wife. Nothing is achieved on your own, we are all part of groups of people assisting each other on the journey. We went to the ceremony, where there were drinks and nibbles. Afterward we bought fish and chips for tea which we ate in our kitchen while watching TV. That is not a very fancy way to celebrate, perhaps we are getting cynical in our old age.
The inscription reads "New Zealander of the Year" and "Local Hero" award. On the back is my name.
The box is as flash as the medal!
The recipients... Sze-En Watts (third from right in the second row) received one on behalf of the Uni-Crew who organised the sleep out.  
The Uni-crew (student volunteer team) who organised the sleepout.

Friday, December 9, 2016

A letter to the editor - about Jesus.

The other day I got to stewing about things while I was reading the local paper.  That night and the next morning, a "Letter to the Editor" rose from somewhere in me. So I wrote it and sent it off. "They will not print that!" I said to myself. Days went by and it was not printed. This morning it was in the paper for all to see. I reprint it here...

Dear Sir,

Breakfast at our house includes reading the Otago Daily Times. On Monday I was reading the World Focus magazine, while my wife was reading the rest of the paper. “Castro” she blurted out, “did not want anything named after him. According to him, such individualism is wrong.” I looked up and commented, “That’s sounds very Jesus-ish.” - I doubt however, that Jesus would agree with Castro’s methods. At that point I was looking at the back page photos and saw the photo of the massive Sagrada Familia cathedral in Barcelona.  My wife interrupted again and said something about “poverty in Zimbabwe.”
Like a cow chewing its cud, my mind chewed on these statements, the photo and Christmas. I got to thinking, would the real Jesus applaud the building of that cathedral in his name? Would the “real” Jesus like the endless adulation and unearthly glorification of himself in Church worship, in Christmas Carols and in the way we celebrate “Christ”mas? Would he be in tune with the “religious and worship focus” of the Churches?
I study the gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. I avidly read recent scholars and thinkers to seek to improve my understanding of Jesus of Nazareth then and now.  As I read of Jesus he seems to say, “People of the world seek power, money and adulation, but followers of my way will be different, you will be servants in the world.” I suspect a cup of water, a serving towel and a caring touch are expressions of Jesus’ way, not towering Church buildings, endless adulation, creeds and worship without loving action. I find myself disturbed by priorities in our churches and by the way we celebrate Christmas. Maybe Jesus would sing with Malanie, “Look what they done to my song ma… it was the only thing I could do half right and its turning out all wrong, ma!” These days I prefer to call myself a “follower of Jesus” rather than “Christian”, which seems to me to carry too much distortion and unhelpful baggage.

Dave Brown

I got a text from two fire fighters this morning thanking me for the "thought provoking letter" and one pointed out that I had won the paper's "Letter of the Week" prize! I had not noticed that. ... That is a surprise in this secular country and age. I came across a quote from the Dalai Lama. "If you want to make others happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion." Pretty much sums up the message of Jesus for me. 

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Something has to be done!

Funeral outburst
I led this funeral yesterday. It was very stressful. It was for the 19 year old girl, a mother of a 3 year old, who overdosed on alcohol and morphine based painkillers. She spent the night with her boyfriend and they were drinking whiskey and she had pinched some painkiller pills from her dad's bathroom cabinet. She died over night, so yesterday I found myself standing in front of more than 300 people leading her funeral. Many of the people were young people. 

I was disappointed because the dad had said he wanted to speak on behalf of the family, but on the day he had changed his mind. I had prepared a short history of her life with some stories that depicted her personality, but I was leaving her dad to do the main job, as he said he would. I had offered to read family contributions and a couple were given to me before the service. I wished he had at least written one. I was introduced to an ex-teacher of the young woman, who wanted to speak. He spoke well, but was very emotional.  During the service I was handed about three sheets of paper from people with poems or messages on them, one I could not read the writing and I struggled to get through it! There were some of her friends who spoke. During the service too the family asked if another young man could speak, so for much of the ceremony I felt like I was winging it and a bit out of control.  It was the nature of this family and I half expected it might happen that way. I listened to the teenager friends speak proclaiming undying love and how they were there for each other in life, etc, crying their way through their presentations. I read the messages handed to me as best I could, but I began to feel uneasy. 
Now I could be wrong in my estimation, but it seemed to me that many of them were part of a partying/experimental/risky living, superficial culture that had ultimately killed this girl! It was in my notes to give some brief advice to bring some meaning to this event, but because of the way the service had gone the nature of my comments ended up being very blunt and to the point. By that time I was feeling a bit raw! The death seemed pointless and needless and was the result of a stupid decision and mind set, yet they were talking as if she was Mother Teresa herself! 
I left my notes and ad-libbed and the words I used went something like this; "I am an old man and because of the things I have been involved in and am still doing, I have encountered a lot of sadness in my life. This death has had its impact on me. It seems meaningless and needless. ... But we can give it meaning if in memory of (the person) we committed ourselves to two truths. First, you, each one of you is unique and precious, love yourselves! Look after your self. For God's sake look after yourself! (said fairly forcefully) Secondly the person next to you, here and wherever you are is a unique and important person. Love them. Look after them! Look out for them. For God's sake look after your mates! Lets in memory of xxxxx, commit to look after ourselves and look after our mates! Love yourself and love your neighbour are the guts of life!" 
I was angry that this young woman, who obviously had spirit, skills and a "presence" about her, had been killed by dubious values and practices which are part of our youth culture. In my time I have seen too many lives stuffed up by such an atmosphere or way of thinking.
The golden rule - why not teach it?
New Zealand is a very secular country. There is now almost an aversion to religion in Government departments (except Maori spirituality) and in the education system. The separation of Church and state is a basic principle and a way of life here. But I think with the lessening of the impact of Christendom (and I do not think that is all bad) we live in times when as a society we have no anchor, no clear base for morality. Greed, selfishness or just self survival takes over and truth, honesty, compassion tend to go out the window. I was talking to a man at the brewery where I am a chaplain and he was telling me about one of his kid's twenty first birthday party. He told about the consumption of booze that went on. Then he said, "It is different than in our day. We used to drink, and drink heavily, but we always looked after our mates. I discovered on the night of the twenty first, the kids today don't! If someone is comatose, they just leave them behind! We never did that even when we were pissed!" It rang bells because I have heard emergency workers saying similar things. Politicians lie and do not seem to be embarrassed about it. People take things (stealing) if they can get away with it, then boast about it! In our market place people cheat and lie blatantly. I had a man ring asking if I could help with a survey. I put him off because I was busy, but he insisted that he ring after work. He did so, the first few questions were survey type questions, then he began trying to sell me insurance. I told him, "You lied! This is no survey. It is false pretenses." He began to tell me again about this insurance deal, but I just said "No - you lied - goodbye!" It was blatant lies with no sense of guilt or remorse! We have lost our moral compass. But.... do not teach religion! Do not get to deep values! That is in personal opinion territory and dangerous, offensive even! Such depth is seen as offensive in our secular society. You work that out by yourself somehow!  
But... I got to thinking, the Golden Rule... "Do unto others as you would have them do to you." or variations of the same theme is a basic principle in 26 of the major religions and is expressed in the secular moral philosophy of many writers. It is such a basic principle accepted by such a wide range of thinkers, that surely in our education systems it should not be offensive to teach and explore that! Surely we can instill such an acceptable principle in our young people's minds and get them exploring its implications. It is not converting them to any particular religion, but just exploring a principle which has evolved in a variety of civilisations. The Charter for Compassion is a grand statement along this line which deserves attention, but even just the golden rule itself explored more often could become an anchor for our morality. Just thinking... as you do when you are confronted with the senseless death of a young person!

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Death and Life.

Catching up with special friends.  
The CORE Education Community Service day team.
The Mountain top. 
The beautiful Otago Harbour from the top. 
A "Koru" - the young fern frond unwinding.
Josie on the left is a beautiful Sister of Mercy. We have known each other for nearly 30 years.
The Night Shelter Christmas tepee with the special star from a grateful client on top.
Last Wednesday evening we were invited to a friend's place for a surprise birthday party for a mutual friend. They are all people from our last Church. We have generally not mixed with people from the Church out of respect for their current minister, but we do seem to make contact with this group of people every few months. It was a delightful evening, and time seemed to fly as conversation ranged over a number of subjects and we warmly caught up on each other's journey. While there we "skyped" with the host's brother in London, and her mother in India. The ipad got passed around the table as we each said "hello". Friendships are one of the special gifts of life, and these days can span the globe.
Life 2.
There is an organisation called CORE Education in NZ who do "stuff" related to the professional development of teachers. I have a friend who works in the Dunedin team, and last year they had a "Community Work Day" coming to the Night Shelter and to do gardening and building. I got a message early last week that they wanted to come again and tend the garden that they planted last time. They came for half a day after spending the first half assisting another social work agency. Together we hit the gardens and paths of the night shelter like a tornado, weeding, sorting and installing new edging. It is so good and life-giving having such support expressed. They shortened my Night Shelter "to do" list considerably.
Life 3. 
As I began this week I knew it was going to be a busy one, with a workshop to run, an Annual meeting to prepare for and run, and a Church service, along with chaplaincy responsibilities. I was working away on Monday, reading, stewing and preparing, then on a whim decided to take a walk up "my" Mount Cargill. I "work" while walking, I argued, so away I went and puffed my way to the mountain top. It is so life-giving for me getting out in the bush, seeing expansive scenery and yet enjoying the little plant life along the way. I had not done it enough lately, and vowed to do it more often.
On Tuesday morning I was working away in my study for most of the morning, then began to get ready to go to town to do my chaplaincies. My phone rang and it was a policeman I know. He told me that an acquaintance of mine needed somebody to talk with. The man came on the phone and blurted out, "Its my niece, she's killed herself!" and dissolved into tears. I asked where he was and said I would be there in fifteen minutes. I have been drawn into this family's grief. A 19 year old mother of a 3 year old girl, accidentally overdosed on alcohol and pain killers. It is extremely sad. I lead the funeral in a few days time. I was talking to the funeral director who I know well, and said, "Why me? I am meant to be retired?" She grinned and replied, "Because people like being around you and having you around at times like this." I find such involvement stressful, but I also feel deeply the pain of the situation and ache for the people involved.
Death and life together.
That afternoon I went to the hospital to meet members of the family to support them as they visited their loved one in the "city morgue". As I walked through the foyer/reception area of the hospital I saw one of my fire fighters and his wife, obviously going home with their tiny baby. The baby had been born at 24 weeks and I had followed their journey on facebook and whenever I could catch up with the young dad at the fire station. It had been a tough journey as the baby, confined to a special unit in the hospital, went through all sorts of ups and downs, many times failing to breath. Now I rushed up to the couple and celebrated the fact that they could take their child home. The worst (hopefully) had past, and I was simply delighted as I looked at this little human venturing out into the big world of life. Then the irony hit me. I walked down a corridor from this happy encounter to meet the grieving family.  With some family members sobbing deeply, my policeman friend led us down to the room where this nineteen year old lay, cold and very dead. Life and death together in just a few minutes! We have a sad binge drinking problem among young people in New Zealand. 
I wrote the chairman's report for the 2016 Annual meeting of the Dunedin Night Shelter Trust. As I listed off the things we had done for the year I felt tired. It had been a busy journey restructuring and further improving the work of the Dunedin Night Shelter. I would love to be able to hand over the responsibility. I have been involved on the committee from the very beginning in 2003, and as I wrote the report, then the next night chaired our meeting, I felt the weariness of that long journey. 
The Anglican Cathedral in town had invited us, along with other agencies, to set up a Christmas "tree" depicting our work in some way. So the day after our AGM my wife and I were there with a friend from the Trust setting up our display. We were approached by a very nervous and very pregnant young woman and her husband. She said something like; "I wanted you to know that many years ago I used your service. I stayed at the shelter. " She hesitated, then said, "I would not be here today if it wasn't for you and what you do. Life turned out OK. This is my husband." she said turning and smiling at a very proud and loving husband. She led us to believe that we had saved her life, and she was so genuine in her appreciation. 
I was too dumbfounded to speak. She gave my wife Jean the star which is on the top of our tepee. That experience is about as good as it could ever get!  Nothing could top that moment. I simply floated out of the Cathedral feeling like it was all worth it after all!