Dunedin, New Zealand, my city - my people

Sunday, May 17, 2020

Paraclete - one alongside of us.

"Lockdown Linkup"
In New Zealand our Covid19 response is in four levels. We were for many weeks at level 4… in Lockdown. Then we went to level 3 with fewer restrictions and now we are at level 2. But Churches still cannot have gatherings of more than 10 people, so our Church has been shut for eight weeks now. During this time, I have undertaken to email, and deliver a weekly newsletter which I called “Lockdown Linkup” to help people still connect in this time. I have done 8 of these and in this last one I wrote a reflection on the Revised Common Lectionary New Testament readings for the day. I have expanded that short reflection in what I share here.  I am sorry that it is long winded, but I guess it is really me sorting out my own experiences out loud. 
The set reading for the Sunday from the New Testament Epistles was from Acts 17: 22-31 which is the interesting story of Paul in Athens. I want to highlight his experience of God in his speech. He is speaking to the Athenians who had many gods and various philosophies and Paul says, “he (God) is not far from each one of us. For ‘In him we live and move and have our being’”. It is one of my favourite Biblical descriptions of the experience of the sacred. I would add to it a verse from Paul’s writing in Ephesians 4. There is one …. Spirit,…. one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” In this perspective God is not imagined as “the old man in the sky, “ or the “man upstairs” as my fire fighters often jokingly refer to him. But it is not a pantheistic (God is everything) understanding of God, but rather what Marcus Borg in his writings calls a Panentheistic one. …”God is in all”  He writes, “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.” It reminds me of the line from a modern Christian creed that I often have on a slide before worship. It reads, “God is Love, the cosmic creativity present everywhere and in everything, gently urging all toward the good.” With these lines in mind, we turn to the set Gospel reading for the day, John 14: 15-21 and I highlight a couple of verses John has Jesus say. 
He is speaking to his disciples not long before his crucifixion.
15”If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you forever. 17This is the Spirit of truth, …… 
21They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.”
The Greek word translated “Advocate” (sometimes “comforter”) is “paraclete”. You may recognise the “para” part from the word “parallel” – two lines running beside each other. So “paraclete” is “One who is alongside us.”
Out of my comfort zone 
Quite some years ago, I found myself nervous and stressed standing alone, behind a lectern on the lawn in Dunedin’s beautiful Glenfalloch Gardens. Before me were over 600 people waiting for a sad funeral to start. Because of the circumstances, it had felt like the whole of the NZ fire service were in shock when a Dunedin fire fighter took his own life. I was called in when the news first hit Dunedin management. I spent many hours with fire fighters and the man’s family. I was asked to lead the funeral, but recognised at this point that I too was tired, in shock and grieving. I had known him for 12 years and had enjoyed his company. We had talked often, in fact just the day before he left for the course he was doing when he died.
So, with a whole mixture of emotions, nervously I started to speak. My voice had the tremors and I was stumbling over my words. I could see people glancing at each other, they had noticed my condition. I stopped and paused. I looked down and shut my eyes briefly trying to gather myself. In that moment I felt a “connection”. I felt supported by the thought of my church people, knowing that they were supportive of me. People who had gone before who were in their time servants of love emerged in my mind, and I felt part of a bigger “movement”. But in those few seconds too, I felt a “presence”, a “partnership” and an inner voice. The words that came to mind went something like this, “These people need support. You can help them, keep going and do it!” So I spoke again, with a strong clear voice, leading a service that people later told me was really helpful.
An atheist paramedic came to me a few days later and complimented me on the service. “You started weakly though? Then you paused…. What happened in that pause? …When you started again you were strong? …. What happened?”  I just said something like, “Oh, I was just getting myself together.” If I was honest I could have quoted this verse; ”If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate,(Paraclete) to be with you.” because that describes the experience I had that day.

Every minister experiences challenges in their work. In my ministry I have often related in secular settings, workplaces or community groups. Also wherever we ministered, I have seemed to get involved with society’s outcast, people living from crisis to crisis, or people with mental health issues. I have frequently found myself out of my comfort zone, wondering about what will happen and “Can I do it?” In these times I have often experienced that “connection”, “partnership” and “presence” alongside me fortifying, guiding and enabling. I can understand the Apostle Paul’s experience when he wrote, “not I, but Christ within me.”
Returning from a grave side burial after a Fire Service funeral in the vintage pump we use as a hearse.

On the summit of the "Desert Road" in the centre of the North Island NZ when we were Fieldworkers visiting Churches.
"Spirit of truth" in groups
For two years Jean and I lived with the family in a caravan, visiting most of the then 40 Associated Churches of Christ in the country. We were “Fieldworkers”, bringing encouragement and help to local churches. In that time I facilitated a lot of groups. There were church planning sessions, Bible studies, Marriage enrichment groups, workshops on social issues or Church life etc. etc. Sometimes there was division among a group or suspicion of me. But after experiencing many of these sessions, I came to a conclusion expressed in a simple statement. “Whenever a group of people come together in love and openness for a good cause, the truth or the way ahead ‘emerges’ among them.” I have been involved in the formation of Habitat for Humanity and then the Night Shelter in Dunedin. Both groups had a hard job to sell themselves, to gather funds, to interest volunteers, and just to come together and work with each other. Both suffered setbacks. (Coincidentally, sadly both had early treasurers who died tragically.) Both had differences of opinion within the group. But the above simple statement rang true. Again and again, the way ahead “emerged” and amazing things happened. “I will send you a paraclete, the Spirit of Truth” Jesus says in this story in John’s Gospel. I believe that by telling the story the writer of John’s gospel is sharing his, and the early church’s experience of what happened when they followed Jesus. (The gospel was probably written sometime after 90A.D.) In the modern words, they discovered again and again that, “God is love, gently urging all toward the good.” It is not just old religious words in the Bible, it is a movement we can humbly know and experience in the midst of life now.
 Living in the midst of Covid19...
We live in deeply turbulent times. We ventured out to the Hardware Store on Thursday. It was the first day of Level 2 in New Zealand’s Covid19 response. We could go shopping again.  Life had been freed up some more. We had moved down a level from the restrictions in level 3. But in the store it was difficult to keep social distancing, you had to be on your guard all the time.  Now this hardware store is my “happy place”, I love browsing there. But this time it felt scary, I was glad to get back home into my bubble again. Even though New Zealand has been relatively successful, Covid19 is still out there and we have to learn how to carefully live with it. Life will be different. How will we manage? How will we sort out the way ahead?
We as a local church have had our life turned upside down. We are a small fragile Presbyterian Congregation in a community on the outskirts of Dunedin City. The Church building has sat empty for eight weeks. A planned “Neighbours day”, Easter services, the church fair, Rumpus room youth activity, Tuesday children and parent’s afternoon teas and other plans have all gone down the tube – for now. We wonder “How will we crank up again?” “Where will we find the energy to do all we have to? What will we have to do differently?” etc. As individuals and in the groups we are involved in, the future feels blurry and uncertain. John would remind us, when we seek to be followers of Jesus, that there is a presence alongside of us empowering us. “I will send you an advocate (one alongside you) the Spirit of Truth.” We are not alone, the way ahead will emerge, the love at the heart of the universe is with us urging all toward the good. I do not understand how, and cannot work out all the theology involved, but I know from experience that the essence that this passage refers to is real.
"The wisdom of the ages"
New Zealand Maori have “Marae’s”, the centre of their community, the gathering place. At these centres, the important building is the Meeting House. (wharenui) The interior walls of this building are ornately decorated, with the pillars carved with depictions of the ancestors of the local Iwi. (“Tribe”)  In this hall there are often Hui (meetings) with speeches, conversations where decisions are made and stories are told. Speakers will often speak with their hand touching one of these pillars. This is symbolic of their understanding that there is a wisdom from the ages, from Atua (God) or Tane... passed on to them through their ancestors.  I guess these Christian passages are saying a similar thing. As we live there is the life of “the Spirit” passing on to us in our time the wisdom of the ages (God) for our age. We are not alone.

 The thing I find interesting is there are many ancient cultures which in different ways depict the same sort of thing. I watched a program where there was a walk in the outback of Australia. A few ultra-fit younger European guys carrying fancy tramping gear and equipment raced against a much older Aboriginal man with a small sack of gear strapped over his shoulder. They walked for days, camping out, sometimes catching food or searching out water. The old man did as well as any of the others, and the one that beat him to their destination had to be rescued at one point. The aboriginal would spend time along the journey, “listening to the Spirits of the land”. He was more resilient, found water, food and direction more reliably.
I saw another documentary of tribal people in Papua New Guinea. They were guiding people into unknown jungle, through to an inaccessible tribe. These guides “listened to their grandparents” for guidance about weather, direction and for wisdom in relationships. In my reading there have been other examples too.
In my experience we in the west often do not allow these sort of connections that bring resilience and resources at important times and yet it is embedded in our Judeo-Christian religion. Perhaps that is the case because we have made it into a “religion” and not a “spirituality”.
Albert Schweitzer
The great Missionary Doctor Albert Schweitzer has a famous quote that rings true with this thinking: “He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside, He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same words: "Follow thou me!" and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfil for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.”

― Albert Schweitzer, The Quest of the Historical Jesus

The Apostle Paul gave us a benediction which speaks of this "Connection"
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship (partnership, friendship) of the Holy Spirit be with us all.
At lunch time today my wife and I took a picnic lunch to a high point at the beginning of the Otago Peninsula. This is looking down the harbour toward the mouth.

On top of the hill you could look in the other direction toward the open sea.

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