Saturday, 28 June 2008

A Different Light

The Universe seems to me to be a giant consciousness making machine. It throws up ever more complex organisations of matter and ever more complex and self aware ways of being. The Universe does this by evolution; the complex forms arise out of the less complex; they don't just appear.

One place where this is seen is in the most complex single thing known to humankind: the human brain. This wonderful instrument of being didn't just arrive fully formed but developed from less complex brains, and they in turn from less. It seems that God doesn't go back to the drawing board and redesign from scratch. God develops by adding things on, and changing what is already there ('redemption', we call it, in Christian jargon). This growth is seen in the structure of the brain itself which has "layers". At the core, in the physical centre, is a brain stem which is similar to the brain of a reptile and is responsible for those functions we share with animals of about similar complexity to a skink: breathing, digestion, basic defences, all that stuff. Laid on top and around is a brain of similar complexity to that of other mammals and responsible for those things we share with mammals, such as basic cognition, and the kind of love C.S. Lewis called Storge). On Top of that brain again, there is a complex structure which operates those features we share with other animals of simlar self awareness, and those which we humans alone seem to possess ( the ability to write sonnets or to despoil the planet, for example). The needs catered for at the deepest levels of our brains are those most required for survival as living beings. At the outer levels of our brains the needs catered for are those we need to develop to become a little lower than the angels and the body of Christ and be born of one spirit into one body.

Now this is a long prolegomena to telling you how I am this Saturday - the first day in a week when I have worn actual clothes and been outside into actual fresh air. It seems that as we are threatened we retreat deeper into the layers of our brain and deeper into our most basic and primal selves. My body has been offered quite an insult: an operation is the equivalent of being in a slow motion car wreck. Bits are sliced and stitched. Blood leaks out. Highly unnatural chemicals are pumped in. The body protests by going into shock. The brain hunkers down and waits for better times.

So, this week, I have not thought any powerful or complex thoughts. I have not been wonderfully self aware or self reflective. What I have been is very mammalian, reptilian even. I have been occupied by the basic processes of living - most particularly eating, drinking and peeing - because these have been difficult and painful, and because the brain knows that if it doesn't get these ones right it can forget all that fancy stuff.

What I have noticed though, is that I have been more deeply, less cognitively, more instinctively, less reflectively aware of God. Perhaps it's the great cloud of prayer I know I am surrounded with at this time when I have found it hard to pray and impossible to contemplate. Right now it's not the scholars who speak to my soul but the poets.

The force that through the green fuse drives the flower
Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees
Is my destroyer.
And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose
My youth is bent by the same wintry fever.

The force that drives the water through the rocks
Drives my red blood; that dries the mouthing streams
Turns mine to wax.
And I am dumb to mouth unto my veins

How at the mountain spring the same mouth sucks.

The hand that whirls the water in the pool
Stirs the quicksand; that ropes the blowing wind
Hauls my shroud sail.
And I am dumb to tell the hanging man

How of my clay is made the hangman's lime.

The lips of time leech to the fountain head;
Love drips and gathers, but the fallen blood
Shall calm her sores.
And I am dumb to tell a weather's wind

How time has ticked a heaven round the stars.

And I am dumb to tell the lover's tomb
how at my sheet goes the same crooked worm
-Dylan Thomas

Tuesday, 24 June 2008

One Step At A Time

First the easy bit: How am I?
Well, I'm home a day or two before anybody expected, and it's snowing. Thick, soft gentle snow settling on the roadway outside my window and on the leaves and on the window itself. I am making good progress, though my body constantly reminds me it's taken a fair old hammering lately. In fact, I am still in the middle of a fairly serious and complicated medical procedure, which will end on Friday week when Mr. Samalia removes the last of the temporary plumbing. The smallest task exhausts me, including some, for example eating breakfast, or having a shower, that I never really regarded as tasks before. I have learned that, disappointingly, bionic bladders are not as much fun as they are cracked up to be. I seem to get a whole lot better every day, although I'll have to be careful of overextending myself. One step at a time. I've learned, with a vengeance, that I am mortal.

I've learned something else, too. Or at least relearned it. In 1983-4 at San Francisco Theological Seminary I was privileged to be taught by Prof. James Chuck, one of the wisest men I ever met. A trademark saying of his was "It's not that important." Sometimes he would expand it into: It's important but not that important." So whether it was the closing date for an essay, the filioque clause, the desirability of completing your degree, or the place of existentialism in 20th Century theology, he would smile sanguinely and say "It's not that important." It's a version of detachment, I suppose. Or Groundlessness. Or Matthew 10:37-38. Lying awake through the night I remembered Jim Chuck and how much was not really all that important. And quietly, gently, that thought made clear all that really was.

Sunday, 22 June 2008

The Journey Goes On

Hello all, Catherine Wright here writing on behalf of one whom because of his current position, cannot make contact himself. After many weeks in a state of limbo, yesterday morning my father had the surgery which would remove his troublesome prostate and make sure we will have him round for a few years yet. My mother and I drove him to the hospital at around 9am where he was promptly fitted with an attractive gown and special leggings to prevent blood clots. All he was lacking was a pair of heels and he would have given Liza Minnelli a run for her money.

At 10am he was given a pill to make him drowsy before he was given anaesthetic. He told us all that these sort of medications never work on his alert personality and was promptly snoring within five minutes. A little after 11 a team of very kind nurses wheeled him into theatre where he was nipped and tucked for about four and a half hours. During this time Mum and I had a quiet lunch at a lovely cafe by the beach then sat in the family waiting room, wanting to be as close to dad as we could. The beautiful Sister Mary visited us throughout this time, giving us all the gentle care and attention that her many years experience, and high status in the hospital could afford. Dr Samalia rang us just before 4 to let us know that Dad was in recovery and would stay there for a couple of hours as they monitored his blood pressure which had (quite understandably) dropped a bit. They have sent what was removed off to a lab to be examined and we will hear in a week or two the results which will tell us how successful the surgery really was. However, we are quietly hopeful for the best possible outcome.

We were finally able to see him at about 5pm. He was very pale and still under the influence of many drugs, but we sat with him for the few hours while he slowly came too. The nurses who were constantly in and out of his room, checking the many monitors and tubes running in and out of him assured us that he was doing very well, and by the time we left he was alert enough to watch a little of the rugby, and engage in some light conversation with the man across the way from him about the blunders of both teams. We were exhausted when we got home but immensely relieved to have that part of this journey over.

Today we returned to the hospital to find Dad sitting in a lazyboy by the window patiently waiting his lunch. Though he is still uncomfortable and has a long way to go, his night was good and he was even able to attempt a short walk during the course of the day. It is a testimony to the prayers of all those who have so kindly lent their thoughts towards him how rapidly he is recovering from his surgery. We gratefully thank every person who has offered support in whatever measure over this last period. We have felt so cared for in so many ways and it is impossible to express how deeply we have felt your love. There is still a great way to travel on this road but we have no fear as we face it. God bless you all.

Friday, 20 June 2008

I'll See You Around

I'm ready to go. I've seen the surgeon and the anaesthetist. I've had my drink of fleet (DON"T ask. But let me assure you it works very well indeed). I've packed my bag - all the important things:

* Bible
* Cellphone charger
* Ipod charger
* PDA charger
* Bits of gear to attach to the above
* Pajamas, Dressing gown and slippers
* Toothbrush and shaver and all that stuff

Now the tricky part. What books to take? It's only 4 days or so and I'm going to be unconscious for one of them and queasy for the rest, so let's not go overboard.
* A couple of New Scientists (thanks Alan)
* Playing God (a book of poems by Kapiti Coast doctor and poet Glenn Colquhoun.)
* Love Poems From God. Twelve Sacred Voices From East and West (Spiritual poems from a variety of religious traditions)
* All Shall Be Well... (a novel by Tod Wodicka)

Poems you can give as much time to or not as you please. Let them make you think or just appreciate them for the beauty of the words. Read one or a dozen. It doesn't matter. Magazines: great, just so long as there aren't any pictures of Britney Spears or the Duchess of Cornwall, so New Scientist is usually OK. The novel looks good, but I'll see how I feel.

So tomorrow I report for duty at 9:00 am. I will be operated on at 11:00 or 12:00 (depending on how long the guy before me in the queue takes) and the operation will last about 4 hours. I'll be awake in time to watch England get resoundingly thumped, yet again, by the All Blacks but I'm not counting on staying awake for the whole game. In a few days I will bang my ruby slippers together and say "there's no place like home." Until then, I doubt I'll be adding much on here. I am deeply grateful for your friendship, your interest, and particularly, your prayers.

I'll see you around.

Flying Cormorant

I have always been pleased with this shot, even though it's not your classic ornithological portrait of a shag. Today this guy left the following comment on it:

"“The day you teach the child the name of the bird, the child will never see that bird again.” – Kristnamurti. I want to add to that and say that the day you give the child a camera, the child might see the bird again."

It's great when someone gets it.

Thursday, 19 June 2008

Surrounded by so Great a Cloud of Witnesses

The day after tomorrow I have an appointment with a very sharp knife and tomorrow is sort of dress rehearsal day. I have to have a blood test: if the guy with the knife sneezes or I otherwise spring a leak, they want to know what to top up the sump with. I also have to meet the guy with the ether and the gauze cloth, exactly why, I'm not sure. It's been a long time coming and I'm almost glad it's finally here. I can honestly say I am not frightened or even particularly worried about the outcome; we'll face hurdles as we come to them, and I'm sure God has enough things left for me to fiddle around with to delay my departure for at least the medium term. Since I wrote this, I have had an amazing gift of time for reflection and thought. The undeniably tentative nature of my own existence has been a background to that, and perspectives have been considerably rearranged.

While this inner stuff was chugging around things have been happening in a universe far far away, namely the Anglican church. I look at it, publicly disemboweling itself over issues no-one else in the world could give a violinist's flatulatory episode about and wonder ' is this the organisation I have given my life to? Why?'

I don't wonder that when I look out of my kitchen window and see St. John's church and the people quietly moving about our lovely gardens. I have been vicar here now for nearly ten years. My parish is an extraordinary group of people. Of course most of them earn their livings nursing or studying or teaching or running houses and businesses but if you come over all poorly in a service you are in imminent risk from the stampede of doctors rushing to your aid. We could paper a reasonably sized house with the PhDs I preach to on Sunday mornings, and whatever subject you care to name, odds are we could find you a professor of it. We have artists and sculptors and actors and writers and dancers and singers and players of most things that can make a noise. But it's not all that which astonishes me about these people. Rather, it's the way they can calmly and patiently and generously absorb into their number some very damaged people whose cries for attention and help can sometimes be well... let's say trying. It's the way they do what other churches only talk about, in terms of initiatives for hurting people and for protection of the planet. It's the way they are, as individuals quietly engaged, without fuss or self advertisement in almost every project of cultural or social worth that is happening in our city. And over this past six weeks they have cared for me with exquisite wisdom: knowing when to call and when to stay away; when to speak and when to stay silent. Every day another visit or email or card in the letter box. Every day another sign of someone's prayer and support and love.

Which signs also come from closer at hand, emotionally if not geographically speaking. My three brothers and my sister and I are closer than most siblings of our generation. It's because our early life was not always easy and facing difficulties together does have a bonding effect. The people amongst whom I grew are all materially successful, emotionally stable, psychologically robust and intellectually agile. All have a deep spirituality, although we do vary in our willingness to express it. All have displayed impeccable taste in partners and all have produced children to be proud of. It has been a natural thing, when life suddenly seemed fragile, to seek their company and counsel. Over the next few weeks many of them will come to Dunedin, just to be here.

And closer still are the ones who are my very body and blood. Catherine has been home on mid term break, Bridget arrives next week, Nick is Skyping from London every chance he gets, Clemency is home from tomorrow onwards, all of them supporting and cajoling and instructing and questioning and suggesting: loving me in a thousand little ways.

Today my archdeacon (and friend and Christian brother) came to anoint me with oil and pray for me. Colleagues visit, phone and text. My Rotary club have been quietly and sincerely supportive and present. In the last few months I have also strengthened friendships with school friends: people who knew me over 40 years ago and who have a depth of understanding and perspective impossible to reproduce elsewhere. Kathryn - oh how I pined after her when I was in form one - is now living in Perth but has written and been to visit. Alden, who posts on this blog and on his own two has been one of my most valued friends since I was 16. Buddhists are dedicating the merit of their practice to me. Catholics are saying masses for me. A candle is burning for me in my church right now. It seems that God has drawn about my shoulders a kahu hururu of relationships, old, new and rernewed

Indeed my perspectives have been considerably rearranged. I am reminded of what I should have known all along: that it is in the closest relationships that the deepest truth is found; that God works best in the small scale and in the personal. I am reminded daily that I am surrounded by dozens, scores, maybe hundreds of people who respect and love me. All else: the ideas I struggle with and the church I despair over pale into nothingness beside that.

He aha te mea nui?
He aha te mea nui o te ao?
Maku a ki atu
He tangata! He tangata! He tangata!

Wednesday, 18 June 2008

Finding Authority

More important than the question of how Meister Eckhart used the scriptures is the question of how Jesus used them. This morning my set readings led me to continue to plough through Leviticus, and I suddenly saw something which has been right there under my nose these past thirty years but unnoticed; overshadowed by my own preconceptions about the meaning of scripture. Leviticus was written in the exile by the priests, and has a great concern for regulating priestly behaviour and for making sure that the priests get well provided for by the sacrificial system: a concern, which, as a priest, I heartily approve of. There, in the middle of chapters devoted to making sure that the holy blokes are pure enough to offer the peoples' sacrifices are some regulations about touching dead bodies. Corpses are ritually impure, and the priests are told, unless it's your immediate family, don't. And in ambiguous cases: what part of DON'T do you not understand?

Scripture is just as unequivocal on this point as it is in the bits about gays.

Why had I not seen this before? It casts a whole new light on the parable of the Good Samaritan. When Jesus tells people that the way to justification is to love God and love your neighbour, a lawyer asks a fair enough lawyerly type question, "who is my neighbour?" Many bits of the law refer to neighbours, and it's easy to get tied up in knots playing one bit of the law off against another, until you don't know what to do. When trying to sort out duty to neighbour, you must first understand who exactly is my neighbour?

Jesus responds by asking "have you heard the one about the priest, the Levite and the Samaritan?" I have retold this story myself a thousand times and waxed artistically lyrical on the self righteous, lazy or frightened priest and Levite. How wrong I was. The priest and the Levite are merely obeying the plain word of scripture. Leviticus leaves no room for interpretation, no not even a little bit. Their duty to God and to their neighbour as laid down in scripture is to keep themselves ritually pure, at all costs. When they see the poor guy in the ditch, apparently very short of breath, and they think about lending a hand,they have one choice and one choice only: what part of DON'T do you not understand? (Lev. 21:1-4)

Think about it. A lawyer asks a question about the law. Jesus tells a story about two men who are faithfully obedient to the law and one, who because of his birth, is outside the law. He ends by telling us to emulate the latter. So what is Jesus modeling for us in his use of the Torah? His use of the Bible is consistent here with another record of his use of scripture, namely in the synagogue at Nazareth. There, when handed the scroll of the book of Isaiah he breaks tradition by taking the scroll in his own hands, turning to a passage other than the one opened for him, reading a section and leaving off the reading in the middle of a verse before pointedly closing the scroll and sitting down.

What, indeed, is he modeling in the way he treats the holy scripture? What is he telling us about the way we should live, and from whence we draw our authority?

Monday, 16 June 2008

The Zen of Photography II

A fine window dedicated to a former vicar dominates the interior of my church from it's position in the East wall, above the altar. If you were there on a clear morning with the sun shining through it this is what you would see:

Raise your camera to your eye, carefully compose the shot and press the shutter button and this is what you'd get:

The reason the top is skinny and the bottom is fat is because this is what it actually looks like. You don't see it that way because you brain has recognised the effect of things getting smaller the further they are away from you, done some very clever maths, and compensated for it without you even noticing. What you see in normal, everyday life is not the actual window, but an idea of what the window should look like; you're seeing an ideal version of the window, if you like. To make the camera take the picture you have in your brain requires one of two things: either a very expensive tilt and shift lens, or some jiggery pokery with a piece of editing software; in this case, Photoshop, the same program which lets me take out the extraneous bits of altar and also change a perfectly decent brown Port Chalmers door a fetching shade of blue.

Why change the colour of a door? it looks better. Why straighten up the sides of the window? It looks better. At least I think so, because I am not seeing the actual door or the actual window, but some idealised idea of what the door or window is or should or might be. We often see the world not as it is but as we'd like it to be. We often look at what is actually there only in comparison to some ideal that we have inherited from goodness knows where.Which is harmless enough when it's just a photo we're talking about, but deadly to us and to others when we're talking about other things.

Our own bodies for instance, which never match the airbrushed pattern of what they should be like that we take out and lay over the top of our own extraordinary and beautiful machinery every time we look in a mirror.

People for instance. We in relationships don't see the miraculous human being we are partnered with but some ideal spouse we have garnered from a pastiche of novels and magazines and experiences, and the poor partner always fails in comparison. So, much work is expended in trying to make the light of our lives fit the mould of what we know the light of our lives should be. And even if by energetic persuasion of a thousand sorts we succeed, so what? Our cajoling and manipulation and bullying would mean that we are partnered not with a real human being but some sort of Frankenstein monster of our own creation.

Or churches for instance. I read with morbid fascination the writings of some of my fellow Anglicans who are sick of the old flawed, multifarious church and who long to set up the new improved version with purity of doctrine and 57% more morality, especially in those matters that really count (and, no no, we don't mean oppression, destruction of the planet and those other trivialities. We mean the issues that have to do with your dangly bits and where you put them). It's the same old same old. The ideal church is constantly in mind and of course the real church must pale beside it. But what commentators like this have overlooked that even if they managed to set up their version of heaven on earth, who in their right mind would want to join it? The reformers themselves would find, within a year at the most, that whatever they set up fell far short of the ideal: how could it not? For many there would be the need to move on to something even purer. The rest of us would never manage to achieve the standards of moral and doctrinal purity required for membership.

Odd isn't it when we claim to have a gospel of Grace: that is, of complete unmerited acceptance by God? Odd when we follow a saviour who dined with thieves; who embraced and called 'daughter' a woman who had carried her stinking ritual impurity around with her for twelve lonely years, far too filthy for the righteous people to speak to, let alone touch. Very odd indeed.

Saturday, 14 June 2008

The Zen of Photography

People sometimes ask for my advice on buying cameras. The camera they have now doesn't give them good shots, and they want something with mysterious dials and switches and buttons so they can take photographs they can be proud of. I usually tell them a little of what I know about cameras, but seldom what I am really thinking: that buying a new camera to improve your photography is like buying a new pen to improve your writing. If you are taking rubbish now, a new camera will only deliver you more sharply focused and better exposed rubbish. A good photographer will take stunning shots with a $199 point and shoot. Consider photographs like his or like his, or like hers; Although all these were taken with fairly good camera gear, it's not the equipment that mattered - it's possessing a photographic eye. (and since writing this, I have stumbled on this blog which eloquently proves my point)

Which is what? Well, hard to explain really, but you know it when you see it. It is (sorry) the ability to know it when you see it; to look at the world around you and recognise the photograph that is just sitting there, pretty much all the time, waiting for someone to take it. Anybody can acquire a photographic eye. You don't have to learn anything. But you do have to unlearn a whole lot of stuff.

You look at the world through a truly miraculous optical instrument, the human eye. What you see is processed by a truly miraculous piece of graphic software, the human brain. Your view is constantly auto focused, auto exposed, auto zoomed, adjusted for distortion and screened for irrelevancies, and all done so quickly and seamlessly that you never notice it happening. Which is fine until you try to take photos. Suppose, for example, that one enchanted evening, you may see a stranger, across a crowded room. What you see is this:

You raise your camera, press the shutter, and get this:

Because you are focused on the face you want to record, you just don't notice that all that other stuff - the stuff that fills 90% of the picture - is edited out by your brain; but not, of course, by the camera. In fact you will be slightly surprised when your picture is developed or pops up on the screen because 'that's not the way it was at all. I must need a better camera.' The camera, no matter how pricey it is or how many knobs it has to twiddle with, is a stupid little piece of machinery that slavishly records anything and everything before it. Your brain and eye are sophisticated instruments that record only what you are interested in or need to see. If you want to take good pictures, until you can build a camera as sophisticated as the brain / eye combo, you've got to start seeing the world as a camera sees it. Which means shutting off the automatic adjusters between your ears; quietening the internal editor who, unobserved, works so relentlessly. It means teaching yourself to see what is actually in front of you. I've been taking photos for about 40 years now and I guess I'm about halfway there.

Anthony De Mello says there are three basic rules of spirituality: 1) Awareness 2) Awareness 3) Awareness. For me, photography is about awareness. This process of seeing what is actually there is an act of contemplation which can be, for me, a form of prayer. For me with an intuition which runs autonomously most of the time, it is a great act of calming and discipline to hang a camera about my neck and walk into a garden or along a beach. It means that I consciously shut off the internal editor, and am present to what is actually before me. Even if I come home with no shots at all, at least I have spent some time actually seeing. Often (usually?) the photographs are irrelevant and I hardly bother with them.

As with photographs, so with all types of prayer, and maybe all types of learning. Adding new learnings is never the problem. Letting go of old learnings, that's the problem. Because, before you let them go, you first have to recognise them, and that's the really tricky bit.

Thursday, 12 June 2008

Looking Closer

One of the odd things about Meister Eckhart for a 21st Century reader is the way he uses the Bible. His quotations are , to be polite about it, imprecise and he treats the whole Bible as a sort of allegorical source from which to pluck illustrations. He uses the Church Fathers as often as he does the scriptures, and also makes heavy use of pagan philosophers, and these he seems to treat as reverently as he does the Bible. It is all very medieval, which is, of course, precisely what you might expect for someone living in the late 13th Century. His use of the Bible, his methods of scholarship and exposition, his understandings of people and the world are all limited by the culture and environment in which he grew.

Nowadays we know better.

Well, actually, no we don't. Nowadays we know differently. Somebody reading my sermons in 700 years time will no doubt say, "strange way that bloke uses the Bible. Strange way he thinks." If Meister Eckhart could be allowed to look forward in time and read a contemporary Biblical scholar, he would say "strange way that bloke uses the Bible, strange way he thinks." It's not just 13th Century people whose ways of thinking and preconceptions about the Bible are culturally conditioned: it's all of us. All the careful scholarship methods and ways of exegesis I was taught are as much a product of the 20th Century as Eckhart's metaphorical methods are of the 13th.

Now here's the bit that ties our brains up in knots. It's not just the ideas that are culturally conditioned. The ways of thinking we use to get the ideas are also culturally conditioned. So, my logical exegesis is a product of my culture, but so also is the idea of logic on which it is based. Our mental landscape might look like solid ground, but actually it's all just shifting sand; and if we dig down to the bedrock on which that sand is sitting we find - oops, sorry - just more sand. All things are as temporary and ephemeral as a flower, no matter how solidly they appear to us; and the "invisibles" - the ideas and concepts and presuppositions on which our lives are founded - are as much things as trees and houses and petals.

It's as though the truth we want to get to is obscured by a large body of water. We are handed a bucket with which to remove the water, but the bucket itself is made out of water

The Meister says that the soul, by which I think he means our consciousness, is never able to 'take into itself' any thing.' Instead it takes into itself a picture of the thing. In other words, we are never directly aware of reality. We are instead aware of the picture our minds have constructed of reality out of the bits and pieces bouncing off reality and captured and presented to us by our senses. Our senses are not entirely accurate, they are not very precise sometimes, and the way we put that picture together is determined by things well outside of our control: the way evolution has pieced our brains together, and what we have experienced of life so far on the journey. We see the world, as someone has said, not as the world is but as we are.

This idea is all a bit confusing. Thanks for persevering so far. And for those who buggered off five minutes ago to make a cup of tea and watch tv: possibly a good choice, for this realisation often seems like a philosophical party game used to fill in the time of people who don't have a lot to do right now. In daily life, it's not an awareness that can be easily carried around. When paying the checkout girl, for instance, it's time consuming to be reflecting on the temporal and culturally derived origins of the supermarket, the stuff you've just bought, money, the whole idea of buying and selling and the desires which led you to pick whatever it is off the shelf. Instead, you just swipe your card and think about what you're going to cook for dinner the way you usually do. But says the Meister, this realisation is crucial if you are going to encounter God. And, unfortunately, party game or not, once you start being aware of all this temporariness, it's very hard to stop, even if you are in the supermarket.

We inhabit a realm of shadows which are cast by lamps which are themselves shadows. But says Eckhart, there is a light; or to change metaphors to the one Eckhart is most fond of, there is the ground.

The ground is.... well, blowed if I'd know really. And I've trespassed on you patience for long enough, so I'll leave it for another day.

Tuesday, 10 June 2008

Upon This Rock

I managed to see my older brother before I left Nelson. Alistair is a ship's engineer and he arrived home from a trip just as I was leaving. Despite pressure of time we did manage a good conversation on two topics. Firstly motorcycles. He showed me photos of the 1951 Ariel Square Four he's just acquired and a brochure for the brand new KTM he's about to acquire. He has, after all, only 5 bikes in his garage at the moment, so stocks are getting a bit low. There is no need to look up Wikipedia on the subject of motorbikes when Alistair is around. If it has two wheels he's probably ridden one, he's possibly owned one, he might even have pulled one to bits. I have been thinking of getting another bike myself, purely as a selfless ecological response to the issue of peak oil, you understand, and wanted his opinion. A classic BSA Lightning ( solid investment value, expect only 40,000km between overhauls, watch the crankcase bearings in the early ones, be prepared to tinker ) or a modern Triumph Bonneville (solid, should run at least 200,000km if serviced properly, smooth engine, stable, easy to acquire low mileage examples from guys now over their mid life crises ). It's a helpful thing to have access to someone with knowledge

We also talked about prostates. He's recently had the same investigations as me, although his were thankfully clear. It was not a conversation many people would have wanted to eavesdrop on but I found it informative and comforting. Again, it was helpful to share knowledge, although in this case a different sort of knowledge: not just facts and figures so much as an understanding which comes from facing the same fears, experiencing the same discomforts and weighing the same options. He lives a long way away, and we only managed a couple of hours, but I feel infinitely less alone because of that short time.

Which is, why community is as great a factor in our spiritual and psychological formation as anything we have going on inside us. Why the solid rock on which we build is not so much our knowledge as our behaviour - that is, our relationships.

The presence of one who knows - who really knows - is the meaning of the incarnation. Emmanuel, God WITH us. Jesus told Peter that an understanding of this is the rock on which the church is founded.

Sunday, 8 June 2008

Wiping the Window Clear

Earlier this week I had a most pleasant few hours sitting in the sunset at a table by a fishpond discussing life, the universe and everything with a couple of Buddhists. The Buddhists had the advantage of me because they had both once been Christian, but I have never been a Buddhist. We talked of many of the things discussed on this blog: the relationship of Buddhism and Christianity: the many similarities and the yawning, irreconcilable differences. It was a growing time for me, especially when one of them explained why she had changed faiths. "Buddhism produces enlightened people," she said. "Christianity doesn't." It was a statement that stung a little, and, as statements can only ever hurt us if they are, to some degree or other, true, I had to think a bit about what she said.

In terms of the ordinary Buddhists I meet in daily life and the ordinary Christians, I don't think the statement is, in fact, true. Both faiths seem to be filled in similar proportions with good people of varying degrees of holiness trying to live their lives according to the light they have been given. The truth of her statement starts when we move past the individuals and into the organisations we belong to. Consider for example, my honorifics, "The Venerable Doctor".

I am called "Venerable" because I am an archdeacon. Archdeacons are chosen by a bishop, and although I've been an archdeacon for some years now, no-one has ever really told me what an archdeacon is supposed to do. By default it is an administrative and pastoral position, whereby care is taken of clergy and some operational tasks are furthered. It is also a mark of standing in the church, especially in my case as I am archdeacon emeritus and don't actually have to do or be anything in return for the title. I compare this to one called "Venerable" in the Buddhist faith, a lama. A lama is one who has undertaken a three year retreat. In the course of that retreat he is constantly watched and assessed by the already established lamas, and at the end of it he is examined to see how far he has progressed spiritually. If he is deemed to have made sufficient progress in his spiritual practice he is ackowledged as one suitable to teach others and bears the honorific. In Buddhism, in other words, "The Venerable" is a mark of advanced spirituality. In our Anglican faith it is the mark of an administrative position. The Doctor bit comes because I once did some study on communication and know how to write a bibliography and couch things in the accepted dialect. No one ever thought to check out my belief system or ask me if I knew how to pray when either of these titles was bestowed. And here is the rub.

Our Anglican dioceses are largely administrative units. No matter how indignantly our cathedrals try to claim otherwise, at the centre of all of our dioceses is a suite of offices. When we talk of "the diocese" we invariably mean, not the bishop, and not the cathedral but the diocesan office. When we meet in solemn assembly it is not to further the life of the spirit. It is to refine our ever burgeoning sets of rules and, sometimes, to hatch plans to try and arrest our declining numbers. It's ironic that our decline is precisely because our organised religion has almost forgotten the religion bit in an ever increasing absorption with organisation. Buddhism is also an organised religion, but the organisation is entirely oriented to one end: the spiritual growth of individuals. Our dioceses are administrative units, but adminstering what? And for why? It seems that often the purpose of a diocese is to preserve the existence of a diocese. People are starving for the living bread and we have become so obsessed with cookbooks that somehow we have forgotten how to bake.

I'm not saying anything new here. I think most Anglicans know this. Our difficulty is in knowing what to do, and invariably we make the same mistake. We think we can address our spiritual malaise by discussing it in synod and by passing resolutions and setting up task groups and committees and inquiries. Our problems aren't administrative - we're actually quite good at that. Our problems are spiritual and can't be solved administratively, but rather only by spiritual means; that is by people learning to pray and reflect and grow in the life of the Spirit. And that can only happen subjectively; that is, in the hearts and minds of individual people.

How do we save the wider church? Forget the wider church. Let it sink or swim as the case may be. It's been around for a long time, and it will be around for a long time yet with or without me worrying about it. The wider church is a bit like a tar-baby. If you try to fight it or change it you only end up stuck to it, and the harder the struggle the more embraced and stuck you become. I must work instead with what I can actually change. I am called to wipe my own window clear and to help others - probably only a few others - to learn to wipe theirs. A diocese will be renewed when and ONLY when parishes are renewed. Parishes will be renewed when and only when individuals are renewed

Lord renew your church, starting with me.

Saturday, 7 June 2008


I will have my operation on June 21 - the solstice. Not that the solstice means a lot to me; just because the earth has got to a certain point in it's annual journey round the sun doesn't mean that I have to go dancing naked around a dolmen. I am, after all a hemisphere away from the nearest dolmen. And it's June. And it's Dunedin. The solstice does mean, though, that the year is exactly half way through, and it's a bit staggering to think of what has happened in this year.

In January my father died. For better and for worse he had a huge influence on the shaping of my life and so my family gathered in Motueka for his funeral and for a deeply significant time of talking and healing. Almost immediately I was a candidate in the election to choose a new Bishop of Christchurch. Episcopal elections are conducted in front of an employing committee of 150 each member of which feels obligated to comment at length on the candidates' belief system and pedigree. It's much like dancing naked around a dolmen, in June, in Dunedin, in front of a large and warmly clad audience. Then, even as the world was settling back into normalcy Clemency and I planned the sabbatical we had been anticipating for years. And just when it was all signed, sealed and on the brink of delivery my GP rang and asked if I could pop in and see him, first thing tomorrow morning.

The year is now half way through. It's time for the reserve to run onto the field with the plate of oranges and for us to swap ends with the team from the other school. It's time for the coach to stoop down 'til he's looking us in the eye and tell us to play the ball, not the man and remind us it's a game of two halves and it's there for us to win or lose, it's all up to us. At the end of the match there is likely to be the one about it not being whether we win or lose but how we play the game that's important.And that last speech is the true one, the one we didn't, but always needed to, truly understand.

This has been an interesting year, but it hasn't been an annus horribilis. It has been one of the most significant and powerful and affirming six months of my life. We learn not by addition but by subtraction. Growing into truth isn't a matter of acquiring new learnings, it is more a matter of removing old ones: of wiping clear the glass in order to let the light shine through. A lot of cloths and windowlene have been expended on me this year, and for this I am profoundly grateful. And I note with alarm, and excitement that the year is half way over. Only half way.

Monday, 2 June 2008

A Wedding In The Anatoki

From Kaiteriteri, which is itself hardly the centre of civilisation, it's an hours drive over the Takaka hill into the Takaka valley. I once negotiated the last mile of the Motueka side of the hill in a VW Kombi with no brakes whatsoever, and my survival of that trip remains in my consciousness as one more irrefutable piece of evidence for the existence of God. On Sunday the journey was less eventful. Once we were safely in the valley we turned off beside the Anatoki river and followed the side road far past the point where the tarseal gives up in disgust. A rutted, scarred, one lane dirt road through a narrow valley gives out, after a while into a broad roughly circular basin in which are sited, side by side, two maturing communities: Happy Sam and Rainbow Valley. These both began life as hippie communes back in the early 70s. Rainbow Valley was the more organised and purposeful of the two. It now has a small collection of modest houses each built in varying versions of early 70's alternative style, but each now showing the patina of thirty years of habitation and thirty years of wear and tear. It looks a bit like an elf village, such as you might see in a Peter Jackson movie. Happy Sam's early history was perhaps characterised more by the word 'hippie' than the word 'commune'. It has a large, adventurous, visionary but still incomplete communal building surrounded by a number of small, and more or less finished houses. All around are mountains and forest. There is a cliff face with caves. There are wide paddocks with a few cattle and some horses. There is a river with a shingle bed and deep green swimming holes.

It was here, sometimes anyway, that my niece Tania grew up, and it is to here that she returned to be married. If you want excuses for failure, go ask Tania. Her early life was not exactly Enid Blyton, and she has plenty of excuses, but seeing as she has no use for them herself, I'm sure she'd be only too happy to lend you a few. She is a lovely young woman with a generous, expansive, adventurous personality. She's tall and is someone whom it is all but impossible to ignore if she's in the room. She notices people. Reaches out to them. Laughs a lot. She is a qualified chef and a committed mother who yesterday wished to publicly plight her troth to Aidan, lucky bugger. Aidan is a good man, and a fitting match for Tania. So we gathered:Tania's and Aidan's families; old hippies with their children and grandchildren; workmates and friends, all in this wonderful, strange, hidden place.

We men gathered by the river, down near Rainbow Valley, about 50 or so of us. All were given carnations to wear as button holes because we were, all of us, acting as best man. There was a bonfire, and some children playing on the flying fox. The women gathered at Happy Sam, and when the time was right, walked in procession with Tania down through the farm, through the gardens and past the sculptures of the Rainbow village, and down through a grove of trees to meet us. And there we celebrated this couple. A very young Church of Christ pastor led us all through this lighthearted but deeply serious event. Promises were made and vows exchanged. We held hands and prayed. Incense was put on the bonfire. The air was filled with irridescent soap bubbles. Earth, air, fire and water. Two lives were made a little more whole for finding each other and deciding to face the future as one.

And then it was back to the Happy Sam lodge. There was conversation and a huge feast. The feast gave me something of a dilemma. All the women in my life are making a concerted effort with my diet: no animal fat, no processed sugar amongst other well meaning but annoying rules. There was a whole roast sheep, and lots of other rule breaking tucker. I decided, in an enormous act of self discipline, to eat only the flesh of vegetarian animals, and because I was so diligent about the first course, to allow myself some leeway during the second. It worked for me, and I hope, for my womenfolk. There was music. Wonderful, skilled, joyous music: folk music from Armenia and Latvia and Poland and Israel played on a violin and drum and guitar and hang drum. There was a bonfire outside from around which came the smell of tobacco and other, more herbal aromas. The rain began to fall and the sun went down. Inside in the half dark with a hundred ancient hippies and their kin, I danced until my shirt was soaked.

Surrounding me were people who had chosen a very different path through the one life they had been given. Eschewing the things that many of us grasp to give our lives meaning, they had struggled with the same sorts of issues that are our inescapable challenges in this vale of soul making: relationships, earning a living, relationships, children, relationships, providing shelter, relationships, finding meaning and relationships. There were one or two walking shipwrecks, but by and large they seemed like whole people whose company was well worth the trouble of cultivating.

We left early, at around 10. My 81 year old mother could only take so much Armenian folk dancing and we had to get her home. My lovely niece and her husband embraced me and thanked me effusively for coming. I felt humbled. It was me who had gained from this exchange.

Sunday, 1 June 2008

Truth is Beauty, Beauty Truth

I woke this morning in my sisters house. The guest bedroom has two walls with large picture windows: each about 6' by 10' I'd guess. The curtains were pulled so I woke with the sun and through one window I could see the lights of Nelson still shining in the dawn light across Tasman Bay. Through the other, looking out towards the Abel Tasman National Park, the sun was rising, outrageously red because, apparently, of some eruption in Chile. I didn't raise my head from the pillow. I didn't dash to get my camera. I've taken just such sunrises from just this spot many many times before and I know now it will be completely different, though just as beautiful tomorrow morning. I have long since given up any hope of truly capturing it; I've only got a camera, after all.

I tell people my sister owns the best view in New Zealand, and therefore, the best in the world, which of course is hyperbole. Comparing views is like comparing songs: it's all a matter of taste. This one would be hard to beat though. From Te Hiwi, Val's house, you can see a sweep from Adele Island and the Abel Tasman, across Tasman Bay to D'Urville Island and French Pass, around to Nelson and beyond to the Richmond mountains. On a clear day, Mt. Taranaki is just visible, peeping out of the sea to the north. Wander across to the other deck and there is a domestic view across the fishpond and through the trees to the huge garden my brother in law Michael has painstakingly and skillfully sculpted around the hillside and further, out to the woodlands beyond. Below is the Kaiteriteri campground - just close enough for people watching but far enough away to insulate noise. There are boats in the bay, and tuis in the trees and an ever changing pattern of clouds above. At night the air is clear and in the ink black sky you can see exactly why the milky way is so named. It is healing just to see it all.

Somebody in one of the comments on this blog mentioned the Fibonacci sequence: an odd set of numbers that crops up again and again in the universe, and which has a complete, settled, peacefulness about it. (see also, Alden Smith's account of it here) Paintings and photographs and sculptures based on this sequence look beautiful, restful, whole. Why this sequence? No-one knows, other than that it is one more piece of evidence of the wholeness and order of the universe. Beauty is not entirely in the eye of the beholder; our appreciation of beauty is a deeper than reason response to some of the patterning which is all around us, and by which we ourselves are constructed. Keats is right.

Beauty IS truth. Truth, beauty.