Sunday, 13 March 2011

Pilgrimage 1: Ruapuke and Rakiura

After a brief liturgy in the Cathedral, the twenty or so pilgrims from Dunedin drove to Bluff, arriving in time to be welcomed onto Te Rau Aroha marae at about 7:00 pm. We were joined there by another twenty or so from Southland and we spent the night in a building which is undoubtedly one of the great artistic treasures of New Zealand. Opened in 2003, Te Rau Aroha was designed by Cliff Whiting, who designed the marae at Te Papa. The wharenui is octagonal, evoking the shape of the small whare puni used by Maori in this part of the world as they pursued a semi nomadic hunter- gatherer life in pre European times. The traditional design motifs are worked in a variety of materials and are brightly coloured, intricate and complex. Although it was not possible to take photographs inside the wharenui, this detail from the wall of the wharekai (also beautifully ornamented, although not as lavishly as the wharenui) gives some idea of the style and type of  decoration.
The most striking feature of the interior of the meeting house is the circle of giant effigies of women tupuna: they are tall, stately, and marvellously executed. They represent the women who married Pakeha in the very early days of European contact and thus acted as conduits for the three things which revolutionised Ngai Tahu society: literacy, agicultural innovation and iron.

Our group was fairly typical of the diocese as a whole. We were predominantly women and mostly of a certain age. Some had never been to Stewart Island before, most had never been to Ruapuke and some had never slept on a marae. Some had done all of these things, and some had connections with the marae and with the strong, dignified watching women . So we gathered, prayed, ate, placed the mattresses in convenient spots and got ready for the night when we were told that Sir Tipene O'Reagan was also on the marae and wanted to meet us. He gave us an impromptu though erudite, eloquent and immensely entertaining local history.

The morning was gray and still. We found our ship, a large diesel powered catamaran at the Bluff wharf and boarded. The nervousness of the poorer sailors amongst us was allayed by swallowing various patented anti seasickness concoctions, and by the fact that today was the day when Foveaux Strait decided, against all precedent, to do an impersonation of a billiard table. Flat. Stable. Gray as slate. Our big launch glided out into it, picked up speed and zizzed over the top with hardly a tremor. We all arrived at Ruapuke, 40 minutes later with breakfast intact.
Ruapuke is an island about 13 km by 6 km, low lying, rocky and looking for all the world like one of the Hebrides. It is now almost uninhabited but was once home to a population of about 200 Maori, and was the site of the first European Christian mission station in the Southern region. In 1844 the Lutheran pastor J.F.H. Wohlers built a house, school and church there and ministered to the local people for the following 40 years. We stood on the site of his church, and visited the graveyards of the local people, guided by three members of the several families with continuing links to the island.
From Ruapuke our bonnie boat sped like a bird on the wing to Stewart Island. Lunch on board was consumed in security as the sea continued flat but the clouds rolled away. Albatrosses obligingly flew beside the boat. Seals and dolphins popped by the see what we were doing. Titi and gulls  and petrels flapped past on the way to important appointments.

We had only a couple of hours on Stewart Island, but it was long enough to stroll up to the recently restored St. Andrews Anglican Church and meet some of the local people. Airdrey Leask, the priest talked about the local Christian presence and we planted a tree in the gardens. We were treated to an afternoon tea for which the phrase groaning board had been invented and too soon, we were heading back for Bluff and the drive to Dunedin.

This first section of the pilgrimage which will, over the next couple of years, take us right round our diocese went faultlessly. The careful and intelligent  preparation b the organising committee and the  hospitality of the local people made it work, but the whole day had a sense about it of God's blessing. The weather was perfect. We had the unexpected company of some wonderful people. Nothing went wrong. For me, and I expect for all who went it was one of those days I will remember for the rest of my life. I look forward to the next leg at the end of April, when we commemorate our gold rush history with a trip from Milton to Arrowtown via Gabriel's Gully.

An album of  some of my photos from the trip may be found here.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

The Truth Shall Set You Free.

When Jesus stood before Pontius Pilate he was given a few brief minutes to explain himself to the man who had it within his power to inflict enormous pain and, eventually death. Jesus summed up his life and ministry in these words: "I have come to bear witness to the truth", which is a statement I have always thought significant for what it doesn't say. Pilate responds by asking "what is truth?" - a question steeped in, soaked, boiled and deep tissue injected with agnosticism. I don't think that Pilate saw anything beyond doubt. All claims to truth, he seems to be saying, were ephemeral and personal and tentative, including the claim being made by this odd Galilean whom he was being badgered into crucifying. What he couldn't quite get was that the truth he was doubting, but who knows? - quite genuinely and ardently seeking - was standing right in front of him. He didn't get it for the same reason we don't get things: growing in our grasp of the truth is not about learning things, it is about unlearning things. In Pilate's case, what he had to unlearn was the idea that truth is an idea. He had to get rid of that before he could grasp that the truth was -IS - a person.

God sets us here in fragile, breakable bodies, swamped at every turn by real and present danger and God does this in order that we become whatever it is that only existence in time and space can make us. But we are not treated in this like so many lab experiments. God doesn't seem to have set the equipment up, chucked us into the middle of it all and then nipped out for a pie and a Fanta and left us to get on with it. God seems rather to have taken a passionate interest in how we manage. God's interest in this small corner of the project is so intense, in fact that God has taken form and participated in it personally. I have come to bear witness to the truth.

If we want to know what is at the heart of the universe we need to make the same journey of unlearning that Pilate was invited to take. The truth is witnessed to by the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The only trouble is of course, knowing where to look for Jesus Christ.

Given what I said yesterday, most of us have an instinct of where to look, and this instinct is one of the things which must be unlearned. "Knowing" as we do that God only likes the nice bits of life we look where we expect God to be found. So God is present in the acts of kindness and bravery but definitely not in the earthquake that makes them necessary. But there is another image of Jesus that I have been thinking about quite a bit lately: Jesus walking on the water. This incident happened when the disciples got impatient with Jesus' tardiness and took off in the boat without him. So impatient were they, in fact that they didn't even take the time to check out the weather reports and it cost them. Alone on the open lake, blown about by a gale and with  the safe shore lost behind the sheets of driving rain, they were unable to sail or row or steer or do anything except hope that their wives would know where the latest version of the will was kept. And then Jesus was there: not on the safe shore; not in the very approximately safe boat; but walking on the face of the great deep, right in the middle of the raging, howling, threatening death and damnation storm. Whatever you  accept about the literal truth of the story, the metaphorical import of the story is astounding. Jesus wasn't trying to fix or chase away or mend or explain the storm; he was in it, just as, later, he was in the calm and the amazed questioning of afterwards.

We have some unlearning to do. When faced with our own metaphorical storms, our approach is usually therapeutic. That is, we want to fix and heal, or at the very least to give a soothing explanation. So I sit in the office of a kind and intelligent man who explains to me with the candour born of his Hindu faith that I am going to die, and all the statistics give a reasonable idea of when. My instinct is to cry to God to take me to the safe shore; to heal, to restore, to fix it up. But for what? So that I can die of something else a little bit later?

Jesus is in the storm.

God's presence in my disease isn't found in the cure which may or may not come, or in my bravely and nobly enduring it, but in the disease itself. You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free, said Jesus, and as much as anything I have ever experienced, my cancer has brought me to truth and thus accomplished the purposes for which God placed me on the planet in the first place. In this experience I have unlearned  the fact that I am permanent. I have unlearned the hope that pain is avoidable and the belief  that it is unendurable. I have unlearned my dependence on many things I once thought were essential to my sense of self. I have unlearned the nonsense that I am limitless and am master of my own destiny. I have unlearned my independence of other people.

We all die of something and for many people, that something first knocks on their door and leaves its calling card sometime in their late 50s. So I'm normal. Of course from the point of my diagnosis onwards I have had no intention of curling up and meekly waiting for the skinny guy with the hood and the sickle: life is far too wonderful for me not to put every ounce of effort into wrestling back as many years from him as I possibly can. But looking at my own storm, and trying to see it as truthfully as I can has set me free. I know that what has happened to me is not karma or the Judgement of God. It is the inevitable result of accepting the gift of humanity: a gift which is, in fact, only ours on loan and never for quite as long as we want it but a gift for which I am nonetheless utterly, profoundly grateful. .

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

Acts of God

I am told that in Christchurch a clergyman went into a shop and was asked by the shopkeeper why the clergyman's boss had sent the earthquake. The clergyman replied that earthquakes are of the earth, but that the acts of bravery and kindness apparent all over the city are the acts of God. It's an answer that got the reverend gentleman off the hook, temporarily at least, but I don't think it would have been a satisfactory answer for the shopkeeper, at least, not when he went home and thought about it later.

I suppose my unknown colleague was defending his boss, not that his boss ever needs defending, and was falling for a trap common to us religious people; namely, thinking that God is only in the good bits of life, and therefore, that the not so good bits come from somewhere else: from Not God. We have an example of this thinking in our own much admired New Zealand Anglican Prayer Book. In our psalter, the committee which put the book together saw fit to go through and take out all the naughty bits: anything that was too "negative" was deemed unsuitable for worship and was replaced by a discreet series of dots. Of course this bowdlerising runs counter to the genius of the Book of Psalms, in which there is nothing, but nothing, but absolutely nothing which you cannot bring before God and have it received with compassion and understanding and healing. I think it also runs counter to a central tenet of the Gospel,  but more of that in another post, later.

When I look down from lofty mountain grandeur 
And hear the brook and feel the gentle breeze: 
Then sings my soul, my Saviour God, to Thee; 
How great Thou art, how great Thou art!

So if God is in the lofty mountain grandeur how come he is not in the earthquakes which formed the lofty mountains?

The shopkeeper's question and the clergyman's answer both seem to assume a sort of static world in which there are things like the Southern Alps and the Canterbury Plains and the Pacific Ocean and the City of Christchurch. These entities are just sort of there, admittedly changing a bit over the years, but for all intents and purposes remaining the same since God and/or the Universe made them that way at the beginning of time  and we all live happily amongst them. God set all this up but exists somehow outside of the system. He (yes, He)  looks down on it all more or less kindly and makes the sun come up and the rain fall down and he finds us parking spaces if we ask him nicely, but every so often he seems to get in a snit with us, perhaps because too many of us are attending the Masonic Lodge, or  maybe too few of us are thinking about him in the approved fashion, so he punishes us by shaking the place up a bit, causing  buildings to fall down on babies and cliffs to crush godly old men.

And yes of course I am caricaturing, but not much, as this sort of worldview is the only one in which the question "why did God send the earthquake?" makes any sense. When earthquakes and tsunamis and floods and pestilence are visitations from outside the system, there must be a reason why they were visited on us. Further, because God is only interested in the nice bits of life, and these events are definitely not nice, the reason must be that the divine knickers are well and truly in a twist over something we or, more likely, some other people,  have been doing lately.

I don't think it works like that, but you knew I was going to say that, didn't you?

I don't think that the universe is a collection of static things; it is a process. Every thing that is and ever was and ever will be had a beginning, when it came into existence and has an end, when it ceases to exist; everything, including mountains and cakes and cities and paintings and atoms and species and civilisations and Christchurch Cathedral never used to exist, and one day will not exist again. In between the beginning and the ending whatever it is we can think of is in a constant process of changing from one state to another. And in the middle of this astoundingly complex, huge beyond our capacity to imagine process we are given the extraordinary gift of life and the astonishing privilege of consciousness.The universe in which we temporarily find ourselves is beautiful and terrifying. It is filled on every hand with wonderful blessings and dangers threatening life and limb. Why do earthquakes happen? because it is the nature of the earth to move as much as it is the nature of a cat to move. Why do earthquakes happen? Why on earth do we imagine that they would NOT happen?

 So why did God put us, poor temporary fragile creatures into such a scary place? Well, that's the question I hope the shopkeeper was really asking. There is an answer which should be seen immediately as a non starter. We are obviously not here to enjoy a permanent state of blessedness and safety, even though most of the statements of the problem of theodicy seem to assume we are. Most of the worlds religions do promise such felicity in some form or another, but not here, not now. For us now, in this place, we are here precisely because

I realise that I have bitten off more than I can chew in trying to wrestle with the question of theodicy in the space of a blog post. I realise also that I have no business addressing the evils of the earthquake from the safety of  a stable little city where the walls still stand and the bogs still flush and and the earth doesn't belch up foetid grey sludge at every turn, but  I do want to think for a bit about the actual experience of life threatening events; so I will do it by talking about the events which threaten me.

Next time.

Thursday, 3 March 2011


When I met Clemency in my English 3 class at the University of Canterbury I found that her father was the Dean of Christchurch, and didn't know what that meant; something to do with the University or some church or other, I assumed. Soon after I went to her home at 80 Bealey Avenue for the first time. I am a boy from the Eastern suburbs, where small, low, close together houses were built by the state. I had never, ever, in my life set foot in a house that large and couldn't quite imagine why one family would need all that space. It was a little overwhelming, and was not made any easier by Dean Underhill who hoped, for the first three or four years of my relationship with Clemency that I was a passing fad like the paisley shirt and would soon go away. Clemency's mother was another story. She and I found an instant rapport and established a very deep friendship that lasted until her death in 1985 and, I hope, lasts still. It was in this house that she shared the Gospel of Jesus Christ with me. The Deanery was a gracious, welcoming house, always a little ragged around the edges but always full of people and music. It was a place for Christmas days and long, long evenings spent around a fire happily talking theology with Valerie and or/one of the many young people who temporarily found shelter there.

It was here we held our wedding reception in December 1976. It was on that day, giving my groom's speech underneath the enormous chestnut tree in the front garden, that many people, myself and Clemency included, discovered I had a gift for public speaking.
I could never pass that place, even after it was vandalised by developers without a pang of love and regret.
All that ended on Tuesday week ago.

Of course before the reception there had been a wedding. 
 Clemency and I were the thirteenth couple married in Christchurch cathedral in it's long history. We needed to be married because a month after the wedding we were headed for Auckland, to St. John's Theological College and living together without benefit of license wasn't going to be a good look. Some years previously I had gone into the cathedral to pick up Clemency's brother Jonathan from choir practice and happened upon an evensong, my first exposure to this beautiful but puzzling phenomenon. During the service some young men paraded in wearing cassocks: that year's crop of new ordinands. Watching them, I suddenly knew with depth and power that I wanted to be one of them. My call to priesthood. So, a few years, many interviews and a time as a youth worker in Avonside parish later, I was standing in the Cathedral getting married. Bishop Alan Pyatt, My Father in Law, Bob Lowe and John Barker all played a part, and I don't recall having much say in things like liturgy and music. Ever since, I have loved this old building and I must say that I was especially delighted with the enormous angels hanging from the roof last time I was there. Now angels, and for all I know the roof they hung from are no more.

Many years and much reading later I was Vicar of Sumner, a time of mixed blessing, but my very little daughter Catherine was very happy there. Every time we drove in or out of Sumner we passed Shag Rock
(note: this picture is not mine, but I wish it was) As we passed the rock, going in or out it would speak to Catherine. Being as cunning as a row of foxes, the ancient rock would assume the voice of one of her parents so as not to alarm the little girl
"Catherine! Where are you off to today?"
"I'm going to Grandpa's and then we're going to buy NEW SHOES!"
"What's wrong with your old ones?"
"They're too small. See."
"Oh. OK. Hurry back Catherine, I'll miss you."
"Bye, Shag Rock."

The rock was the last remnant of a headland that once made Sumner beach even more of the sheltered bay that it now is. During the earthquake, like so much else, it too fell to earth and is no more.

There are other landmarks all gone now. Other repositories of memory and signposts to the past gone, like I suppose the events they are associated with; leaving traces now only in the way they have shaped and formed the living who remain.

Bye Shag Rock.
Bye. See you around.
No. Not this time.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Baxter Poem

A couple of times recently I have used this poem in a sermon, and some people have asked me for the text. So here it is:

Song: My Love Came Through The City

My love came through the city
And they did not know him
With his beard and his eyes and his gentle hands
For he was a working man 
My love stood on the lakeshore
And spoke to the people there
And the fish in the water forgot to swim
And the birds were quiet in the air.

‘Truth’ - he said, and - ‘Love’ - he said,
But his purest word was - ‘Mercy’ -
And the fishermen left their boats and came
To share his poverty.

My love was taken before the judge
And they nailed him on a tree
With his strong face and his long brown hair
And the whiteness of his body.

‘Truth’ - he said, and - ‘Love’ - he said,
But his purest word was - ‘Mercy’ -
And the blood ran down and the sun grew dark
For the lack of his company.

My love was only a working man
And now he is God on high;
I have left my books and my bed and my house,
To follow him till I die.

‘Truth’ - he said, and - ‘Love’ - he said,
But his purest word was - ‘Mercy’ -
Flowers and candles I bring to him
And no man is kinder than he.

- James K Baxter
From Collected Poems
Oxford University press, 1979
p. 477

Tuesday, 1 March 2011


I was in my office a week ago when the venetian blinds began to sway and the desk I was leaning on began to move in time with my heartbeat. By the time I walked through the door to say to Debbie, my PA, "Hey, we've just had an earthquake", David the accountant was fielding a phone call from his relatives in Christchurch, 350 km away and telling us that it was bigger than September and that the Cathedral had fallen over. So for the last week, news has been constant. An app on my iPhone tells me whenever there is an aftershock greater than 4 on the Richter scale and another one delivers the news from Against the habits of a lifetime, our TV is now turned on when we get up and stays on during dinner.

I see the images of the city where I went to school and university. I look at the grey stone buildings where I first met Clemency and took her out for coffee a lifetime - well, three lifetimes, actually - ago. I see the familiar streets and the cathedral tower beside which I waited for the bus to take me home from that first date and near which I first heard the call to ordination and beneath which I was ordained. Ruined. All ruined and broken and smashed to bits. I look at the people, many of whom I recognise and see their shock and know that some of them may still be lying beneath the familiar stones. One of the first of the dead to have his name released was Don Cowie, who mentored me when I was a new Christian in the New Life Centre. Last Tuesday lunchtime, at his home in Redcliffs, he went outside to pick strawberries and the quake struck and the cliff fell.

I don't find myself asking "why?" for that's a silly question. There is no great theological answer to that; well, there is, but it's subtle and deep and I can hardly see it myself, so I won't try to unravel it here. The simple truth is, Christchurch was made by earthquakes. Two unimaginably big slabs of rock, the Pacific and the Indo-Australian  tectonic plates are floating on the top of a vast ball of boiling iron. They move as the currents shove them about: in our perspective they move slowly, but they move with determined and unstoppable force in a great, slow, pirouetting dance that has gone on for tens of millions of years and will go on for tens of millions more. At the place where they meet they push and grind together and force up a crumpled edge which we now call the southern alps. Rain and sun break up the alps and wash them down to the sea where the little bits of used mountain form the flat bit where we built Christchurch, in geological time, a few heartbeats ago. The plates continue to push, move, stick and move again, as they did a week ago,  in their perpetual grinding, stumbling dance. And into this ever changing, never fixed movement we humans are born and we live as islands of consciousness in fragile, temporary, breakable bodies.

Over the last couple of years I have had my own impermanence and fragility sheeted home to me, but last Tuesday we, all of us, shared a reminder that we are not here forever and that the stuff we assemble around us to give us the illusion of permanence is as temporary and as fragile as we are. As I look at the images, I must confess that this time, it's not the scriptures or the great poets that have been running through my head, but a song by Ingrid Michaelson.

Have you ever thought about what protects our hearts?
Just a cage of rib bones and other various parts
So it's fairly simple to cut right through the mess,
And to stop the muscle that makes us confess

And we are so fragile,
And our cracking bones make noise,
And we are just,
Breakable, breakable, breakable girls and boys

And you fasten my seat belt because it is the law
In your two ton death trap I finally saw
A piece of love in your face that bathed me in regret
Then you drove me to places I'll never forget

And we are so fragile,
And our cracking bones make noise,
And we are just,
Breakable, breakable, breakable girls and boys

And we are so fragile,
And our cracking bones make noise,
And we are just,
Breakable, breakable, breakable girls-
Breakable, breakable, breakable girls-
Breakable, breakable, breakable girls and boys

There is something else. Something Ingrid Michaelson may not know or believe and I will talk about it later, but I want to just signal it here. Our fragility and impermanence isn't the end of the story. There is an immense mind whose designs resulted in the great globe of molten iron and the plates floating on it and the thin veneer of civilisation clustered in small, temporary camps on the plates. And that mind knows our impermanence and the pain of it. And that mind has shared in our impermanence and the pain of it and shares in it still.