Dunedin, New Zealand, my city - my people

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Cathartic rant about life.

A notice board I made for the local Church. 
My wife working with me on adding legs and repairing an old pool table. 
My special friend Cyril. 
The Devil Incarnate
Let's be clear I do not believe in a literal Devil. I have been astounded by the fact that Donald Trump was elected President of the USA. He sounded horrible during his campaign. He was over the top, with untruths, showmanship, and divisive language.  I was sure there would be enough "sane" people to out vote those who did not see the emptiness in him. But he became President. But then I thought and hoped he would modify his behaviour and actions. I also kind of hoped that the people in the Republican party would help him see some sense, and modify the outcomes. So far I am disappointed. Every time the TV or Internet shows him signing some new executive order with his arrogant comments, I see "the Devil Incarnate." The directions he is leading the USA are winding back the clock of progress by decades. He is like a vicious flat earth person, dragging people back to primitive outlooks and divisive behaviour. He is evil, but he is not the source of the problem. I think the superficial lifestyle and values we have increasingly accepted as "normal" are the source. In an interview I just watched, Al Gore was discussing the rise of Trump and the problems we face. He said something like,"An important part of the problem is the way we share information. ... The line between news and entertainment has almost dissolved and the ratings have a big impact on what stories are covered and how they are covered." These days in NZ after the "news" we have a choice between "Seven Sharp" the superficial rantings of Mike Hosking, or "The Project" - extremely brief superficial- semi humorous looks at the stories of the day with lots of giggles. (or Shortland Street - God help us!) Gore is right! Compared to the real interviews and discussions of the past from the likes of Ian Fraser, Brian Edwards, Bill Ralston and even more recently Paul Holmes and John Campbell, these are like weak, dumbed down, poor excuses of journalism. John Key got away with too many "I can't remembers" and nobody really digs deeper than superficial, immediate and entertaining causes for issues.
I am surprised by sadness. A 96 year old friend died last Wednesday. I had known of Cyril since I was a boy, he was in my parents' wider circle of friends. I know old men die and I am sure he was OK with it, but in my life he became important. He has been a fine example for me, and over the last 30 years he has been a tremendously supportive friend and often a listening ear. I knew whenever the going got tough he was there with quiet loyal support. Since my "retirement" we have not had as much contact, but in these last two days I have been surprised by deep feelings of loss. Cyril was an accountant and treasurer for a couple of charitable Trusts and would come into my office to get his balance sheets photocopied. They were all beautifully handwritten with such neat handwriting. They were like works of art.  On these occasions I would sometimes offer him a cup of tea and we would discuss life. He was a deeply religious man, but his "Jesus" led him to have a liberal, progressive outlook. My father died when I was a young teenager, so in some ways he became a surrogate dad over the last thirty years. We once had a difference of opinion. He phoned me during a busy day, and one of my "low" days in my love hate/relationship with Church. He phoned me at the office to complain. This was not like him at all, so I knew it must have been a serious issue for him. From time to time we had been using an Australian colloquial language paraphrase of the New Testament readings. Cyril thought they were a little too colloquial, and wanted to register his distaste. He commented that in all the changes I brought I should remember to be "mindful of the older people in the congregation." I recall debating with myself. Would I just lamely say "thank you for the feedback" and leave it at that, or would I discuss it. I decided that I knew Cyril well enough to be honest. So I explained why I used that paraphrase. (to make people sit up and listen in a new and different way)  I also commented that in my years of ministry at the Church, I felt that one of my faults had been that I was too mindful of the "older people" and too cautious to make changes. That I had neglected the preferences of younger people in order to avoid conflict. So we entered into an intense, but respectful discussion. Cyril always was careful to choose the right words in conversation and was very wise. He was a master of the English language and so there were lots of pauses as he thought carefully about what I had said and how he would respond. We came to a point where we sort of "agreed to differ" but knew that each had heard the other. He had worn some of my angst and frustration of ministry, and I had been a little unfair to bounce at him. Then he said, "There is one more thing before I go." I wondered what else was coming. There was one of his pauses as he searched for the right words.  "I admire your work. .... I really appreciate your ministry..... I enjoy your emphases. I have enormous respect for you.... (he hesitated) .. no its more, .... I love you like one of my own. You need to know that there has been nothing in this conversation that changes that. You will always have my support and love." I was stunned, and assured him the feelings were mutual. When I hung up all I wanted to do was drive to his house and hug him.... but I didn't. He was a lovely man. He had been an officer in  the Royal Navy during the war and still carried himself like an officer and gentleman. Beautifully spoken, caring, but he loved watching sport. He never missed going to a rugby test in Dunedin in 70 years!  I remember interviewing him in a Remembrance day Church Parade about his experience of being away during the war years. He answered with depth, humility and wisdom. He was in fact a bit of a pacifist at heart. His wife died 15 years ago and on the night she died when I arrived at the hospital he wrapped his arms around me, cried on my shoulder and just said, "Oh David, she's gone. Joan's gone!" My wife and I and he and his family gathered, holding hands around her bed and he asked me to pray. I could barely express myself.  On the day of my final service at the Church when I came to say goodbye to him in the morning tea room, we both choked up and hugged each other tightly.  He simply choked out the words, "Enough said." patted me on the shoulder and went out the door, I am sure with a tear in his eye, because there was certainly a tear in mine.  We live our lives, but underneath like the piles or foundation stones of a house, we have people who are supportive of us, who show an example, who love us. Well for the first day or so after his death I felt like one of my supports had gone. Well lived Cyril. We were different generations, and I have lived a very different life with some different outlooks than you, but you, and the way you lived, were so so important to me. 
Neighbours' Day
Last weekend it was Neighbours Day in NZ and people were encouraged to get to know their neighbours. My wife had the great idea for the little local Church to host a Neighbours day afternoon tea for the locals. She worked hard toward it. The afternoon tea at the local Church was a success, in spite of a cool rainy day! I did a heap of work getting a table tennis table, fuzzball table and a pool table repaired and ready. My wife letterbox dropped every house in Sawyers Bay and did a heap of baking. With me running the morning Church service and then us hosting the afternoon, I was totally exhausted at the end of the day.  I wish I had taken photos, it was great seeing kids enjoying the hall, and neighbours learning about each other and sharing stories and phone numbers.
Maybe a bit of grief. Maybe with Night Shelter, chaplaincy and Church responsibilities I am a bit too stressed and busy. Maybe the uncertainty of waiting for a prostate biopsy also contributes. It can be too that my loner, introvert personality contributes to it. The last week or so I have struggled with sadness, or depression. I have felt like telling the world to get stuffed.  There are quite a few uncertain and pressure things I am dealing with on my "to do" list. But I will emerge out the end and keep going. I visited a firefighter yesterday who is battling terminal cancer and coping with pain. I went on to call on two other friends in their 90's who recognise the end of their life is near. I know that the things I do make a difference and in the midst of depression, and when my end comes I can look back with satisfaction. That is something I have found is a powerful motivator to keep me going in spite of the way I feel. Money can't buy that.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

"Sowing the seed" Really?

Photos: Me joining a bunch of retired firefighters for a pre-christmas lunch last year: Relationships are "of God". I don't remember that much of our conversation was about "faith" but God was present in the friendship, solidarity and companionship.

I was watching an Australian program on TV the other night.  Many TV programs annoy me, but there is a type of program that often rubs me the wrong way. They will follow some people doing their job - police officers, outback truck drivers, or in this case, outback pilots. That is quite interesting, but they ruin it by the narrator endlessly repeating the situations, and over dramatising the things that happen, I guess in an effort to make the ordinary seem interesting. I am interested in the ordinary anyway.  But that grating practice is an aside. The "Outback Pilots" program showed various people who flew planes for a job in the arid and vast areas of Australia. There was a police pilot, crop duster pilots and a United Church of Australia minister from Broken Hill. This church minister flew his plane to visit people in sheep or cattle stations in the wild areas. There were big distances to cover so he used a plane, landing on rough farm airstrips. He visited one such station and the farmer had him help with some jobs. He assisted with rounding up stock, then he flew the farmer over his farm so that he could checkout fences and the condition of stock in far off paddocks. It was a statement that the very likable and, I am sure, able minister said after that visit that got me stewing further, and I share my cogitations.

As the plane took off from that particular farm he talked into the camera. He said something like, "Well we didn't get to talk faith. Most of it It was pretty light, but we have sown the seed. You do not know where that will lead in the future." This minister had enquired about the impact of a drought, asked about the health of the farmer, talked about his work, his hopes and helped him practically. I am an industrial chaplain who has conversations with potentially, up to a hundred different people each week. In the great majority of my conversations I do not "talk faith".  But I do not see them as "sowing the seed."  There are a number of reasons for this. 
(1)  In the flying minister's case, I suspect the farmer would feel insulted if the apparent interest and friendship expressed by the flying minister was seen as just so that in the future he could get him to "talk faith." I believe something spiritual, real and important happens when we really take an interest in another and walk alongside them. When somebody spends time and really listens to me in my life journey, I grow spiritually; I am affirmed; I feel loved! That is "of God".  It is a stand-alone useful and important ministry, deeply spiritual, even if it is not "religious".  In the case of our flying minister, in spite of his theology, I think he was doing this in a genuine way.  It is sad that he only felt it was a means to an end and not a valuable end in itself. (Having mentioned the above impact of when somebody truly "attends" to me, on thinking about it, for me it rarely happens - I encounter few real listeners - and that is probably true for others - which is sad. We love talking, but rarely truly listen!)  Genuine caring, compassion, attending and traveling alongside another is divine ministry. 
(2) The Apostle Paul talked of a God "in whom we live and move and have our being." (At the time he was talking to pagans in Athens - not a bunch of spiritual elites in a Church service - he saw that "God" was a part of their experience of life, even though they did not name "him". )  God is a reality of ordinary life, not some other "being".  Marcus Borg wrote; "God is not 'a being,' but a non-material layer or level or dimension of reality that permeates everything, and at the same time, is more than everything." ("God at 2000" book he edited) So God is a part of and in "coping with droughts" our health, our work, our relating with one another, and when we talk life, its hopes, its challenges and when we relate with care and compassion, God is present and there. We are, whether we name it or not, talking faith, love and hope. 
(3) We do "God" a disservice if we see him only wrapped up in religious words and religious activities. I believe He is expressed more fully in loving listening, active caring and genuine sharing life with others, than in doctrinal discussion. St Francis of Assisi said something like; "Preach the gospel at all times; if necessary use words." 
(4) I believe God is in relationships. You may have gone on a walk with a mate and chatted along the way, or just accompanied each other in silence, drinking in the world about you with another. When the day was finished and you went your separate ways, you say a warm farewell, and you feel like something special or even sacred has taken place.  In that relationship, somehow in that sharing with another, the "sacred" is present. I have a little booklet in which, near the end of a year together, my social work class mates wrote affirming comments about me. We all wrote in booklets for each other. At the end of the session we read our booklets in silence, and we were to leave in our own time. But there were hugs of friendship, tears of appreciation, deep emotions and whispered conversation as we left what had become a sacred place, a sacred meeting. I facilitated a Critical Incident Debriefing for fire fighters, police, and ambulance after a very sad fire in which people were burnt. To my relief these emergency workers shared their emotions openly and honestly. They expressed support and care for each other and when I wrapped up the conversation at the end of the session, there was an extended period where people just sat together in silence.   During supper a hardened fireman came up to me and thanked me for facilitating it and commented, "Someone should have prayed." "God" the "sacred" is in caring, supportive relationships. They are the most important ministry we can offer, and not just a means to the end of "talking religion." 

Just sayin'. 

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Fuel for the journey.

In the hills overlooking Island Bay where my son lives in Wellington, NZ

On the top of one hill an intriguing statue.

Richard Holloway's book.

A bigger than life depiction of a NZ soldier departing Gallipoli.
Getting older..
Our oldest son and daughter-in-law have moved to Wellington from Waiheke Island, so we went to see their new place and catch up with them. While there we visited Palmerston North where, in the late 1970's we had six years as a Church minister, fresh out of theological training. Visits to grandchildren and nostalgic visits make you realise that you are getting older, but lately I have been feeling my age more acutely. On the day we arrived in Wellington, my son and I went walking in the high hills surrounding the city. Wellington is known as the "Windy City" and it lived up to its name. I had puffed my way up to the top of the hills behind my son, and we were surveying the scene, side on to the wind. Suddenly my glasses flew off my face, through a fence and disappeared into the long grass. We had to go searching for them and indeed were fortunate to find them. I then realised that my $4000 hearing aids could easily suffer the same fate, so I took them off and put them in my little backpack. A friend on facebook joked, "Its a good thing your wooden leg was well strapped on." Also somehow on our journey, I lost the top plate with six teeth that I have. When this sort of thing happens you recognise your age. Glasses to see, hearing aids to hear and teeth to look OK. Back in my home town, Dunedin I visited one of the fire stations in my chaplaincy. The crew invited me to go to the park opposite to kick a soccer ball around, so I was happy to join them. At one stage I headed the ball and the bridge of my glasses opened up a gash on my nose, so blood started running down my face. The park looked dry, but underneath was quite wet from recent downpours. I fell flat on my back twice, ending up bleeding, wet and muddy. I had also strained my arms trying to save myself so have had to recover from that. The other day too, I began to cross a busy street but had to back off when an oncoming car seemed to have me in its sights and followed my backward retreating steps. I tripped on the curb and fell on the footpath, glasses, hearing aids, wallet, pens and bag spreading over the path. I went on to attend a meeting with blood oozing out of grazed arms and hands. I have also had to go to the urology clinic because blood tests revealed high PSA levels. With disappointment and trepidation I await a prostate biopsy. I revisit prostate problems I thought were behind me.  So lately with falls, spare parts and prostate issues, I have been feeling my age.  But that's OK, plenty of people I know have not reached this age, getting old is the price you pay for living longer.
While in Wellington I visited our National Museum, where my son works. I went to the exhibition on Gallipoli, a terrible battle New Zealand forces, along with others, were involved in during World War one. As I went through the dramatic display, reading the descriptions and quotes from soldiers journals and letters home, my heart was deeply saddened, a lump formed in my throat and I had the sort of emotions I had when I visited Auschwitz years ago. Human life was cheap, men were cannon fodder, and the whole thing was one mad, miserable disaster. I could not help but be reminded of and recite under my breath G A Studdart Kennedy's poem.
Waste of muscle, waste of brain,
Waste of patience, waste of pain,
Waste of manhood, waste of health,
Waste of blood, and waste of tears,
Waste of youth's most precious years,
Waste of ways Saints have trod,
Waste of Glory, waste of God, - War!

I am still thinking and growing "inside".
I was talking progressive theology with an older friend recently. He challenged me, saying that he had not seen any book with a "popular" version of progressive theology that lay people could enjoy. "We need someone willing to write that."  The implication was that in retirement I could do that. I doubt I could, but I have often thought of leaving something when I die which explains where I ended up in my journey for those of my family that might be interested.  I am grappling with thoughts, and still journeying and thought I'd pass on a couple of things.
"Oh My God"
I listened to part of a TED talk by nature film maker and photographer Louie Schwartzberg. He commented that people saw his work and often said, "Oh my God." He invited his listeners to think about what that meant.
"Oh" - It caught your attention, makes you present and makes you mindful.

"my" - It connects with something deep inside your soul. It creates a gateway for your inner voice to rise up and be heard.

"God" - Is that personal journey we all want to be on, to be inspired, to feel like we are connected to a universe that celebrates life.

I liked this! It resonated with me and put into words inner stuff I struggle to express.

"Doubts and loves - What is left of Christianity."
I have been reading a book by Richard Holloway. He used to be Bishop of Edinburgh, but because of his progressive thinking was dumped from the job. I like his thinking. He wrote the book "Doubts and Loves." and eloquently expresses where he was at. He too puts into eloquent and learned words "inner stuff I struggle to express." I share just one paragraph that so resonated.
"... I would like to suggest that we ought to switch the emphasis in Christianity from belief to practice, from Orthodoxy to Orthopraxis, from believing things about Jesus to the imitation of Jesus. There would be three challenging elements in such a determination, none of them easy to follow. The first would be a resolution to love rather than condemn sinners; to seek to understand others rather than rush to judgement. The second element would be an active pity for the wretched of the earth that worked to change their lot. Finally, there would be a mistrust of power and violence, both personal and institutional, and an active opposition to them. This was the programme that got Jesus crucified. Following it today won't make us popular, but it would be a more creative response to the confusions of the human condition than the endless disputes over doctrine that have so disfigured Christian history."

He explores a lot more in his book and stretches your mind and soul. I enjoyed the journey of sharing his journey. This quote reminded me of when I in conversation mentioned my theology, a poet friend retorted, "Your 'theology'? Your theology is 'Just do it!' "  Holloway seems to endorse that approach.