Thursday, 23 February 2017


I spent some of this week assisting my friend and colleague, Anne Van Gend of the Anglican Schools Office, in conducting a Special Character review of Rathkeale College, an Anglican boys school near Masterton. Rathkeale is an integrated school, which means that while the Anglican Church owns the grounds and buildings, the teaching staff is paid by the government. The partnership is embodied in an agreement between church and state, the deed of integration, in which both parties agree that the state syllabus will be taught and all required educational standards adhered to while allowing the school to retain a distinctive character of its own; namely, that its life and work will be consistent with the teachings of the Anglican Church. The reviews Anne conducts, by invitation, provide an assessment of how well the school is adhering to this agreement. A report will be written in due course, and I am not going to pre-empt it here, but I will say that I greatly enjoyed being at Rathkeale, and was pretty darned impressed.

There is the sheer beauty of the campus for a start. The school has a stand of native forest and a wetland which the boys are in the process of replanting and restoring. There is a Greek theatre and a ropes course and a jaw droppingly pretty cricket oval. There is a football academy and an impressive history of academic achievement. But from my perspective, what took me by surprise was the easy way staff, board members and students spoke of and tried to live out their faith. There is a rigorously promoted anti-bullying policy. There is a programme of community service and an after hours youth group which attracts scores of students. At an assembly I attended, after all the usual assembly type stuff, the principal ended by praying for a student who had, the day before, taken ill and been hospitalised.
We walk with the young chaplain through the bushland to the small semi circular stand of Redwoods where he sometimes conducts worship. He's American, so we can forgive his love of these  exotics interposed amongst the totara and kahikatea, and the place does feel still and holy. We follow him to the small, rustic, wooden building set amongst the trees which serves as his classroom. The boys are waiting outside and he greets them, shaking their hands as they file one by one inside, using their names and mentioning, as often as not, some small personal snippet. Nice bowling on Saturday. How is your sister now? Are you ready for the history test? The class room is modestly furnished and decorated. He takes the roll by asking each to state the most positive thing that has happened for them in the past week. Then he stands and moves, seamlessly, into a telling of the myth of Theseus in which several of the boys are cast as the dramatis personae; and then, with the whole class engaged, we are suddenly into an animated discussion of what makes me ME? The boys are doing theology and they hardly even know it, engaging with the great questions of consciousness and its relationship to materiality, and realising how complex and deep and how interesting the concepts are. They leave the classroom still animated, still talking of the issues raised. Anne is smiling. She is the originator of the syllabus he is using and, while it is still very much under development, it is thrilling to see it so competently and powerfully taught.

I walked away from the classroom knowing that one of the things I would dearly love to do in retirement is to be involved in the development of this syllabus. A pastoral concern drew me home a day earlier than I had planned, but I flew back South more hopeful about the church than I have felt in a very long time.

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Another Sunday

I led worship and preached in Knox Presbyterian Church today, and felt unnervingly at home. The music was polished and beautifully presented while remaining accessible. I like the building. It soars skyward and gently embraces all in the right places. It's large enough to seat 800 people, but even with today's congregation of  150 or so it didn't feel empty.  In my time I have been a member of the South Canterbury and Waikato Presbytries, so I have know the minister of Knox, Kerry Enrright since the mid 1980s, and ever since he has been here we agreed that one day I'd make this ecumenical gesture. Well, today was the day.

This afternoon Selwyn College opened again for business. All Saints, which functions as the college chapel was full to bursting with the 190 nervous students and a far greater number of their even more nervous parents. I preached (for the seventh and last time!) and inducted the new warden, Ashley Day. We all trooped out into the sunshine for speeches and then the waiata and haka. It is always a spine tingling moment, seeing last years students lined up to challenge and welcome this years' freshers. These are some of our country's brightest and best and they are all about to be immersed in Selwyn's rich, supportive, arcane, congenial, sometimes baffling, always self assured traditions.

Monday, 13 February 2017

Riding Off Into The Sunset

You've seen the movie a thousand times. The town is full of baddies and no one knows what to do, especially the very pretty school teacher/widow/shopkeeper who the chief baddie seems to fancy. In rides a lantern jawed bloke, who after a few initial setbacks,  makes the moderately bad guys look silly, shoots the really bad guys, and fights the really really bad guy up and down several flights of steps and on the top of something moving before witnessing his catastrophically inventive death. Then the the lantern jawed bloke tips his hat, says something self effacing and leaves, usually at sunset, and in the company of the very pretty st/w/sk, and the credits roll.

So what happens next? By which I don't mean what happens in the sequel, which is the same film with the same plot but with more explosions. I mean what would happen next, really? What happens when the lantern jawed bloke and the pretty widow get over the horizon? When they start to feel a bit peckish, or when they need somewhere to stop for the night? Where are they going to go and what are they going to tell their respective parents, and where can they find a cheap mortgage and what do they each feel about having children? What happens in the town when people have got to come out of hiding and clean up all the blood and patch up the bullet holes and bury all those bodies? How do they fill the power vacuum left by the really, really bad guy and how do they get the commerce of the town rolling again, what with the saloon and the general store being blown to smithereens and everything?

The ending of the film may seem like a satisfying place to leave things, tying up, as it does, all the  contrived bits of the plot, but really, it's not an ending at all, it's the beginning of a whole lot of other, less easily scripted, messier stories. In fact, when you think about it, the structure of an action/western/gangster film is a hopelessly unsatisfactory cliche with no decent application to real life, but that doesn't stop it being prescriptive for much of our public life. We see so many of them that we start to believe them, not so much the plot details as the overarching pattern. We begin to see public life, and foreign policy as though they were movie plots, with prescribed movie endings.  The gulf wars were run like this: the arch villain with his WMDs was holed up in the desert town so the good guys stormed in and blew him away. Woohoo!. Cue the sunset and happily ever after. But of course the plot didn't work out then, any more than it did during the presidential election.

Trump framed his election as the defence of the once peaceful place which had fallen into disrepair and corruption because those rich folks who lived up on the hill were running everything and making it tough for the poor honest cowboys. The goodie , the straight talking stranger from out of town, rode in from nowhere and squared off against the baddie, the moneyed representative of the corrupt cabal who ran the show, and by dint of bravado and a quick trigger finger, blew her out of the water. Game over. Yippee! Roll the credits.

But just as in the movies, life ain't like that. When the sun rises again after the sunset which had been so lately ridden into, there is a still smoking town and some devastated people and a couple just beginning their first major argument. When the sun rises again the Middle East is in a turmoil that only seems to be worsening a decade later. Movie scenarios work only when the world is simplified and condensed. In other words they only work in a fictional universe, and never in that other one: the one one containing tears, sweat, semen and menses, i.e. the one in which we all live. If we don't get that distinction right, we wake to the terrifying reality of an illiterate, narcissistic buffoon holding the most powerful office in the world.

Sunday, 12 February 2017

Starting Young

What do you do when children want to handle valuable and fragile things? Forbid them and make the object all the more attractive? Let them handle it under supervision and and so familiarise themselves with it? Noah Picked up my number 1 camera. My heart sank as I watched him totter under the sheer weight of it, but I could see he was curious about this thing which he associated so strongly with me, and I would love him to have the gifts a camera can bring: the ability to see; the ability to make something beautiful in a fraction of a second.  So I opted for the latter, and gave him his first photography lesson: Always put the strap around your neck. Never put your fingers on anything made of glass. Look through this bit. Press this one.

When I uploaded the results today I wish I hadn't left it set to continuous shooting. There were a lot of frames, but amongst the many mis-shots were several I would have been proud to have taken myself.  True, the camera did a lot of the work for him, but it's interesting to see what he chose to point it at. All portraiture is about what's going on between the photographer and the subject. Sort of like found poems, these found pictures speak profoundly of him, and his relationships with those who love him.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Eden to Patmos. Week 9.

I am in Queenstown. Back on the job, back on the road. Still reading my way through the Old Testament.

I like this part of the Bible, these stories of David as he rises to power and tries to keep one step ahead of the varied and vociferous and villainous band of relatives who make up his court. There's all the bits we were told in Sunday School, of course, such as Jonathan firing his coded arrows and the clear eyed shepherd boy squaring off against the armoured behemoth, but now, late in life its the other bits I notice. Such as Joab and Abner, ruthless, amoral and intemperate, locked  in a years long duel to the death from the shadows of their respective kings. Such as the ephemeral villains, each with his wonderful name: Doeg, Shimei, Natash. I notice the seams where the narrative has been stitched together from its various sources. I notice the women, the very few of them who make it into the story, and try to guess at the alternative history which is occasionally breaking the surface.

I try to slide past the ferocity, the wanton unconcern for human life, the savagery.

It is all so raw and unpolished. It's easy to see the genesis of this text: the aging companions of David, sitting around a table drinking far too much wine and roaring with laughter as they remember and retell and relive, while all the time a young scribe sits soberly by and makes notes. The Books of Samuel tell how the fearless and beautiful young man, attractive to both men and women, moves through middle age to become an emperor before sliding into ineffectuality as the debaucheries and miscalculations of youth catch up on him. It's the story of how twelve separate cultures are welded into a nation and held together by the personal force of one man, before fragmenting again under the leadership of his lesser descendants. It's the story of the human race as it perches on the edge of so many monumental changes: the shift into cities and the use of iron, and the invention of writing. It is the story of God.

For sounding through all these often told or wilfully ignored stories is another voice, faintly heard at first, but rising more clearly, and seen only when this long text is read as a whole. It is the call to depth; to reflection; to justice; to righteousness. It is the realisation that buried in this very human story is an eternal one. It is a voice that David himself, despite himself, seems sometimes to have heard clearly. It is a voice that sounds most fully in that one of his descendants who said you shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free. 

It is that voice which I have spent all these years trying to hear. it is that voice which I have tried so hard, and with such limited success, to make heard.

Tuesday, 31 January 2017

What I've Been Reading lately

The 100 Year Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Wndow and Disappeared. by Jonas Jonasson
This 2010 novel is hard to categorise: comedy? historical novel? farce? All of the above? The complex plot meanders, Forest Gump style, through the history of the 20th Century. It's very funny in parts, but is either not spectacularly well written, or not well translated from the original Swedish, or both. The complicated and inventive plot kept me persevering far past the point where the literary critic in me was screaming give up now, there are a dozen far better things waiting for you on your to be read shelf . It has been made into a variably reviewed Swedish movie, and is crying out for Hollywood to take notice.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children/ Hollow City / Library of Souls. by Ransom Riggs.
I saw the movie Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children on a plane a few weeks back, and on the strength of that bought the boxed set of 3 novels by Ransom Riggs.  The movie was OK, but seriously compromised by being given a craptastic Hollywood action ending. The books are wonderful. The boxed set, containing three hardback books and a small envelope of photographs,  is beautifully produced. The books are so exquisitely written that Ransom Riggs can make quite believable his simply preposterous premise of a subculture of peculiar people: people who are invisible; who can set fire to or freeze things with their bare hands; who can predict the future or animate inanimate objects; who have bees living in their stomachs and a score  of others besides. His fanciful plot seemed to be always one step ahead of my ability to second guess him, and his two principal characters, Jacob and Emma are both believable and likeable. These are "young adult" novels, but they kept this 65 year old riveted.

 Talking Pictures by Ransom Riggs
Part of the charm of the Miss Peregrine novels is the way some genuine antique photos have been worked into the plot. This is a separate collection of old pictures, rescued from yard sales, each selected because it bears an inscription of some sort. They are beautiful and powerful, with the pictures and the words of the original owner combining to give an extraordinary insight into long forgotten lives.

Waking, Dreaming, Being by Evan Thompson
Evan Thompson is a cognitive scientist who collaborated with the great Francisco Varela on a book which was powerfully important to me a few years back, The Embodied Mind. Waking Dreaming Being compares the philosophy of mind found in the Upanishads, Buddhism and contemporary brain science. It is profound, well informed and enlightening. It manages the difficult balance of being faithful to its academic sources while remaining accessible to lay people. This is a book I read slowly and which will, I think, still be feeding me many years from now.

The Case Against Sugar by Gary Taubes
The title says it all, really. Well written, well researched, fair. And convincing enough that I immediately cut sugar out of my diet and, without making any other changes,  immediately lost 3 kg.

The Holy Trinity and the Law of Three by Cynthia Bourgeault
Cynthia Bourgeault is an Episcopalian Priest and a fairly well known teacher of  and writer about meditation. This book examines the doctrine of the Trinity in the light of the works of Gurdjieff, and in doing so traverses some of the same ground explored in a more orthodox framework by Sarah Coakley of the Trinity as a process or a relationship.

The Heart of Centering Prayer by Cynthia Bourgeault
After Thomas Keating, no one has had a greater influence on my personal spiritual practice over the past few years, than Cynthia Bourgeault. This book is an argument for seeing Centering Prayer as a pioneering development in distinctively Christian meditation. It combines a clear, practical guide to Centering Prayer with an analysis of the psychology of meditative practice and an exposition of its undergirding theology.


Tuesday, 24 January 2017


It's 10 o'clock on a cloudy Sydney morning and the temperature outside is 36 degrees and rising. Thunderstorms are forecast for later in the day, so Naomi will lead  the expedition to Five Dock Park very soon. I'm coming home in a few days but Clemency will stay here. Nick was riding his bike to work a few days back and was bowled on a roundabout by a distracted driver. He broke the windscreen of the offending Toyota with his head but escaped - miraculously - any damage to his head and neck. 3 cheers for bike helmets! He does have a few other injuries, which are inconvenient rather than life threatening so Clemency will continue the nannying and chauffeuring which have been occupying us for the last few days. She's getting pretty adept at negotiating Sydney traffic and in manoeuvring an electric wheelchair up a ramp and into the back on an SUV. 

Ask any Kiwi for their opinions of Australia and odds are they'll mention snakes and spiders in the first couple of sentences. We don't have any snakes here in Five Dock, at least, not that I've noticed, but in Nick's quite petite outdoors Ive seen three really impressive spiders. There's a wolf spider with a body the size of my thumb who lives by the outside tap. Naomi calls him Wolfie and knows not to touch him, but is happy to show off this accepted member of the family. Out on the deck there is an impressively sized and quite beautiful St. Andrew's Cross spider, sitting quietly in her web, waiting for any passing quarry, which doesn't include humans unless they are silly enough to interfere with her day's schedule. But the really good one is the Webcaster. 

Nick called me last night to come and look at this, Dad, and led the way outside, hopping on his good leg, lighting the way with the torch app in his iPhone. The spider was hanging, suspended from a shrub by a single thread, about three or four inches above the ground. She was large but not impressively so, a body an inch or so long, and holding in four of her limbs a small square of web. If a victim should happen to pass beneath her in the dark she would expand this square into a casting net to throw on it and trap it. 

This is behaviour I find awesome, in the meaning that word used to have. And in the meaning it has now, too, I guess. I can see how there is a Darwinian explanation for it, and a quite straightforward one at that, but somehow a simple description of how behaviours arose, not to mention the associated changes in the physical construction of the web and the ingenious expanding design, miss so many important questions. Such as what is the nature of intelligence?and of consciousness? And for me, these questions are the truly important ones, leading, as I think they do, most directly to the most important questions of all:  how did the spider get to be here? and why? 

There's one of those party puzzle questions. Suppose you are a bus driver. The bus leaves Dunedin at 3 pm for Timaru with 16 people on  board. At Waikouaiti there is a stop and the number of people on the bus doubles. At Palmerston there is another stop and 1/4 of the people get off  and another 6 get on. At Oamaru the population of the bus doubles and at Glenavy 17 people leave the bus. The bus arrives at Timaru at 6 pm. How many times did the bus stop and what is the driver's name? The puzzle works, obviously, because the extraneous information distracts the hearer from paying attention to the main question. So the evolutionary history of the spider, while interesting enough, is, similarly,  not the main question. If it crowds out all our vision, it is a distraction from what is obvious, and what might lead us closer to the heart of all things: a sense of the wonder and beauty and ingenuity of this elegant Universe, which as a matter of course produces such an extraordinary phenomenon as a web casting spider. And the even more extraordinary one of this son of mine, who in spite of everything else, sees; understands; rejoices; shares.