Saturday, 31 January 2009

90 Minutes In Heaven


Margaret in our Office lent me this book, 90 Minutes in Heaven by Don Piper, telling me that she had read it in one hit, unable to put it down. Me too. I read it in a sitting, and found it, in places, very moving. But a fascinating book is not necessarily a good book. This one is smallish, 205 pages, fairly well written by Piper's ghost writer Cecil Murphy, and quite undemanding. And it does seem strange, on reflection that a book which claims to tell of an actual trip to heaven and back should be undemanding.

In fact the time in Heaven occupies only 15 pages. There is a brief postscript which does some rudimentary analysis of the whole phenomenon of near death experiences, but by and large, the book is about Don Piper's accident and his gradual recovery from some horrific injuries. On the way home from a conference, while negotiating a two lane bridge, his little Ford Escort was run over by an eighteen wheeler . Piper was cursorily examined by paramedics, declared dead and left in the wreckage of his car for an hour and a half. He stayed there, apparently without a pulse, until another pastor prayed for him, whereupon his corpse breathed again, and he was cut from the wreckage by incredulous firemen. He says that in that 90 minute period he went to Heaven, and gives a brief account of his experience.

I have read many near death experiences. I have had very many people personally relate their own near death experiences to me - I have never served in a congregation where there is not at least two or three of them. I usually find these accounts intriguing and riveting. Strangely, I didn't find Piper's account to be so. He tells of a very literal Biblical heaven, with gates of actual pearl and streets of actual gold. There is the rustle of angels' wings and crowds of departed loved ones. There is a choir singing. All is described in superlatives with the constant admission of a failure to find words for the magnificence he beheld. There is no encounter with God, and no description of the angelic beings. This all left me a little cold. Give me CS Lewis any day.

What was moving, for me, was the long and honest account of his twenty year struggle with pain and with the depression caused by the limitations imposed by his injuries. Moving also was the very real testimony to the power of prayer: the prayer of the man at the time of his accident, the prayer of his friends and congregation throughout his ordeal, the prayer of thousands who had heard of Piper and interceded for him. He speaks with some insight about his own drivenness and inability to accept help. He recounts some of the ministry opportunites which his experiences have opened for him but there is surprisingly little reflection on how his ordeal had changed his view of God, the world and himself. Most surprisingly, given the book's title there is no real evidence that his experience of Heaven has changed him, other than by making his troubles seem all the worse in comparison.

Who knows what happens inside a human mind during moments of extreme duress, particularly if there is anaesthetics and/or physical trauma involved? Who knows whether the many reports of near death experiences are some sort of internal psychological phenomena or are perceptions of some great reality beyond our five senses? Some that I have heard I have suspected to be elaborate hallucinations or even downright fabrications.Some though, do seem to have the echo of somewhere else about them, and having just made that distinction, I am not at all certain that I can clearly elaborate the criteria on which I would judge; and those criteria certainly wouldn't be the incidental details of the recounted experience. If someone did have some encounter with the greater reality which lies beyond death, it would obviously have to be perceived, remembered and analysed in terms of what the person already knew; that is, it would be described in terms of this three dimensional reality whether that description quite fitted or not. If Don Piper did have a real experience of the beyond, of course he would have to remember it and describe it in the terms which are most familiar to him as a Southern Baptist preacher. When I hear accounts of near death experience it is not the details which most interest me, although they are sometimes fascinating. I am, rather, listening for two things: a sense of the transcendent and an impact on the person's life. People will describe their experience in terms of images and concepts they already know, but their description will have the feel of something that is not quite containable in the imagery they use. If you have stepped out of time and space, how do you tell anybody about it? Mostly though, it is the effect on people's lives that is the most persuasive. The fear of death and the conviction of our own mortality unconsciously informs much of what we think and do. When that fear is gone, as it is in many of those who report these encounters, there is a quality about them which is noticeable but not easily describable; it is a quality which I think would be impossible to fake, especially over a long period. These peoople aren't necessarily Saints or spiritual giants; but they know something, and it shows.

Does Don Piper know this? In truth, I wouldn't dare say without ever meeting the man in the flesh. He iseems to be personally convinced of the authenticity of his experience, but his book, for me, doesn't carry with it the rumour of Angels. It does however carry the testimony of faith and courage and the power of prayer. Which is not the same thing, but may in fact be better.

Thursday, 29 January 2009

Gearing Up


We have been reading up about the Camino, looking through our tramping gear, and thinking about what we can make do with and what we will need to buy. It will be a different sort of walking than we re used to: mainly hard surfaces, and with small towns every few miles along the route. There are pilgrims' hostels and restaurants and shops. There will be no need for a tent, a stove or much food. It will be May, and, although the guide books tell us there is still the possibility of snow at the start of the Camino, we will be more likely to encounter some rain, and as the month draws on, quite warm weather. So, it will be small packs, light weight boots, 1 season sleeping bags. One thing all commentators agree on, is the fact that the local people speak no English. Or French or German for that matter. So, today I started to see how much rudimentary Spanish I could cram into my head between now and April. Given today's effort with Spanish In 30 Days, my guess is: not much. I'll have to rely on sign language and hope that a few of them speak Classical Hebrew, Maori or New Testament Greek.

Preparation is part of it all. Scrabbling through the racks at Kathmandu's sale or struggling with Soy Kelvin. Soy clerigo y estudio espanol. Que interestante! builds a sense of anticipation. Forking out the readies for a pair of quick drying shorts and a lightweight polar fleece tells us we really are serious about this. Pilgrimage actually begins here and now. Which realisation is possibly the whole point of the exercise.

Monday, 26 January 2009

Walking the Way


I'm about 2/3 the way through the radiotherapy, have managed to get my innards and tiredness levels under quasi control and have got emotional space to start thinking of other stuff: most notably the trip we will make in the second term of this year to replace the one we didn't take last year.

Things have changed. Apart from the obvious stuff about a sadder and a wiser man he rose the morrow morn there is a shift in global economics and safety. Israel seems like a marginal idea right now, and the drop in the New Zealand dollar has made St George's college a more difficult proposition anyway. So, we are looking at leaving our suitcases with our friends Nick and Louise in Neuchatel, Switzerland and heading off on several small expeditions.Assisi for example. And Taize. Another of these will be to spend some time walking part of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela - the ancient pilgrimage route through Northern Spain. The whole thing would take a month, which is probably a bit optimistic when I'm so soon out of the crisping drawer but I think we'll manage to do the first half of the walk in a fortnight.

Pilgrimage is the realisation of a metaphor. We walk a path that is a symbolic representation of the great journey we are all on and our progress becomes a kind of prayer. In some senses it doesn't matter what the metaphorical journey is: whether it's a half hour walk through a labyrinth or a road trip to our hometown or a walk to some local monument. What is important is knowing that the journey is as important as the destination itself - and in some cases, such as a labyrinth walk there is no destination anyway. It's a helpful thing if the journey has some personal and/or cultural significance and it is very important that there is some sort of personal hardship involved in making it. So on the Camino the food is plain and the pilgrims' hostels won't appear in the AAA ratings guide. And of course there is the effort needed to walk 20-30km a day, every day for a couple of weeks. Pilgrims wear a scallop shell, a badge that dates back centuries, if not millenia, to mark the fact that they are one of a great and ancient company. There is a paradox about pilgrimage: pilgrimage, like the great journey of life itself, is made alone but we make it constantly in the company of others who are all going the same way.

In making the journey through cancer the companionship of those closest to me has been crucial. Clemency and my children have trodden every step with me, reasoned through every decision, felt with me through the losses and disappointments and minor triumphs. Also important has been the companionship of a select group of people: those who have made the same journey - those who know. Now, as this journey is nearing its end it seems important for Clemency and me to be thinking ahead to this next, symbolic and literal step. Stepping into the Pyrenees and beyond will be walking back into life. Stepping out carrying our shells, alone, but in the great company of those who went before and who will follow after. I hope that in a small sense I can take some of you with us, by way of this blog. But more. I hope that we will one day finish the Camino and that others may want to join us for that second half of the journey. Say 2011? Start praying about it now, and salting away your pocket money.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Cometh The Hour, Cometh The Man

copyright unknown

I usually get up around 6:00 so this morning was no exception. What was different was breaking my routine to turn on the TV and watch Barack Obama be sworn in as the 44th president of The United States of America. It was a moving few minutes. Everyone else in Washington DC was togged up against the weather but the new president stood in his suitcoat, calm and strong and not shivering in the freezing noontime air. He then spoke to the crowd in an address which struck me for what I did not hear. I was listening for the carefully crafted phrase: the line which would be quoted back for decades to come. I was listening for the gem which some employed poet, one of a team working in an Illinois office somewhere over the past 6 months, had come up with and honed and refined and reshaped so that it would resound down through the television speakers of the world over the next few decades. It didn't come. Praise God, it didn't come. To be sure the speech was polished and refined. To be sure, it bore all the marks of long hours of rehearsal . But in the final analysis it seemed to have more to do with the man who spoke it than with a team of paid embroiderers. It was eloquent and intelligent. It was delivered in the style of someone who knew what to do before a crowd: body still, head pivoting to the microphone not past it. A gaze which shifted every few seconds, looking at noone in particular but at everyone.Pauses which were as well chosen and as carefully shaped as the words in which they were encased. Here was an orator on top of his game, and he had the one orator's tool which no amount of schooling and training can reproduce: he believed what he was saying.

He drew constantly on the long history of America and its struggle to realise the ideals of the founding fathers. He made a few references to scripture. He distanced himself from the policies of George Bush while remaining generous to the man himself. He started and finished with the grave state of America and the world. Most importantly, for those of us watching from foreign lands, he signalled a new style of international diplomacy. 'America coughs and the rest of the world catches cold', goes the old saying. In real terms that means that the American bankers play fast and loose with mortgage rules and my house in New Zealand drops 20% in value. America wishes to protect its strategic interests in the Middle East and the refugees arrive on the coasts of my country. America begins a 21st Century War on Terror and then promulgates it using 19th Century strategies and we all watch as the Middle East churns and the terrorists spread and multiply. We don't get a vote, but we are vitally interested; and the thought of someone in the White House who has a conception of strength and leadership and change which doesn't necessarily involve blowing people to bits is a relief and a hope profound enough to move me to tears.

I have been to the United States several times. As with any country, there are parts of it which amuse and bemuse me; there are parts which at times disgust me; but there are parts of it I love almost as much as I love my own country. Particularly, I love the sheer gobsmacking grandeur of much of the place and the outlandish sense of space - physical psychological and spiritual. But what has always impressed me most is the general friendliness and decency of most of the people I met there, most of the time. And today I could believe that what is best about the USA -that friendliness and decency - has finally gained the upper hand. Perhaps there is a way of governing which goes behind the cynical deal making of most politics. Perhaps. It's been a hopeful day. Please God, may it remain so.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Meanings


I was a bit tired after church this morning and lay down on my bed. Four hours of deep, inky dark sleep later I woke to an amazing sight. Outside my bedroom window is an old birch tree, tall enough that I look up to it from my upstairs window. It is filled with dead wood, but because the branches near the top are so spindly, there is no reasonable way to climb into it and prune it, so even in the height of summer it has bare branches. The poor old thing lives in perpetual autumn. But not today. I looked out at it, with my head still on the pillow and its branches were filled with blossom: almond blossom. There is was, bedecked in drifts of the palest pink and white and the deep red centres of the blooms clearly visible, even from a distance of 20 metres. It was at the same time an instant reassurance of the eternal springtime of God and a sight so bizarre I raised my head sharply. And on shifting my perspective by even an inch all was resolved into normalcy. There were no blooms, just some cloud behind the tree and the sunlight shining on some smudges on the window.

In our heads we have some marvellous pieces of machinery, including a recognition engine. Our five senses take in raw data by the gallon and fire it all up to the brain which has to figure out what it all means. The recognition engine makes an instant decision about what it is that we're in contact with, and lets us know that we're looking at a cat or smelling a rose or tasting chardonnay. If the recognition engine is momentarily nonplussed, it just takes a stab in dark. So I see almond blossom on a birch tree. Or Joan of Arc hears voices. Or Moses sees a bush on fire. It's a trick of the light. It's not really there. But then again, nothing else that we see or hear or taste or touch or smell is really there either. It's all just our recognition engine, sorting stuff into categories and giving us a good enough approximation to be going on with in the meantime.

What does remain though is the feeling. It's a marvellous thing to wake from a deep and refreshing sleep and to see miraculous blossom. If someone had been with the Maid of Orleans when the saints spoke with her, they may not have heard a thing, but it didn't alter the truth of the message she was given: the English were tyrannical, they did need to be faced up to, and Joan did need to lead the people in doing so. Everyone else heard thunder, but Jesus heard the voice of God and saw a dove and knew one of the deep truths of the Universe: he was the beloved son in whom God was well pleased. The knowledge that the universe is forever new and forever surprising is a deep and eternal truth that I was glad to be reminded of, even if my recognition engine was temporarily a little less (but only a little less) accurate than usual about how the universe's atoms are arranged.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Sunrises


In 1991 I was vicar of a large charismatic parish when a phenomenon called the Toronto Blessing hit town. It was a sort of hyper Pentecostalism which involved people falling over and laughing- the twitch and gibber school of theology. It appealed greatly to some people in my parish but for me, it didn't excite any spiritual enthusiasm at all. Quite the opposite, in fact, when I saw the effects of 'The Blessing' in some people's daily lives. Although I had been a card carrying member of the Charismatic Renewal for a long long time, I was rattled. Is this what Christianity was really all about? Of course a lot of other things were happening in my life at the time, and in the middle of my questioning I took a book off my shelf that someone had given me five or so years before, but which had sat unread and neglected ever since: Gerard Hughes' God of Surprises. The book was a bombshell in my spiritual life. And in one of those odd pieces of synchronicity that happens to us from time to time, I picked up the newspaper on the day I finished the book and saw that Gerard Hughes was in town and giving a lecture the very next day. It was then that the charismatic renewal and I filed for an amicable and, I hope, mutually respectful divorce.

I haven't read God of Surprises in a long time: much has moved on since. But the reason I am remembering that synchronicity is that there has recently been a similar one. Readers of this blog will recall me lamenting and beating my breast over a perceived lack of a modern Christian tradition of meditation. I have been trying to forge my own little tradition out of Meister Eckhart, by way of Anthony DeMello and with not a small amount of Buddhist wisdom stirred into the mix for good measure. Well blow me down, if a week or two ago I don't stumble across a Benedictine called Laurence Freeman, who has written enough books to choke a moderate sized horse, providing of course you didn't cheat and shred the books first. He is a student and interpreter of John Main, also a writer of several books. Freeman, and I assume Main before him, write with great wisdom and practicality about the whole business of Christian meditation which they have been teaching for some decades. There is, apparently a worldwide network of Christian meditators with two (2!) groups meeting in Dunedin! There is a wealth of literature. Laurence Freeman is coming to Dunedin and will hold a workshop here in less than a month's time. Ok. I'm listening. There is a centre for Christian meditation in London where I will be in a few months time. Their catalogue of courses looks really good.

I have been reading Laurence Freeman's The Selfless Self, and finding it, like God of Surprises both a revelation and a homecoming. He teaches a mantra based meditation that is more or less compatible with what I have been doing already, and which I have able to adapt to quite easily.

There is no arrival point on this great inner journey. We set off in search of the one true light and find it revealed to us in a series of sunrises - a sunrise that can only ever happen when we have experienced sunset and night. Of course in the new dawn we realise that what we have left behind at dusk has been the same light that now, again, beckons us forward; and which will no doubt set again. And rise.

Friday, 9 January 2009

One Step at a Time


8 down. 25 to go. It's the same routine every day. Eat. Drink. Crap. Drink some more. Drive to the hospital. Undress. Put on the weird gown and the shorts with no elastic. Lie on the bed with the new fresh paper covering and the small blocks for knees and feet. Watch the machine and the green lasers. Lie still. Stare at the white ceiling. Count the whirrs as the masks are set and the whine as the doses are delivered. 1...2...3...4...5...6...7...8...9...10...11...12...13...14. Dress. Go home. Spend the day getting bladder and bowels in order for the next one.

I feel OK, sort of. There's nothing to feel when it's happening, but there is a continual dull sense of unwellness that is creeping over me day by day. Nothing I can put my finger on - metaphorically or literally - but a feeling some where down there like a mild hangover. A feeling like the last spoonful of Lanes' Emulsion is still sitting pretty heavy in your stomach and your Mum wants to give you another one.

There is a community of sorts amongst the people who are all going through the same thing. Cancer is no respecter of persons, so there's a wide range of types and ages. There are greetings and chat all laced with a certain gallows humour concerning microwaves and crisping drawers. Despite the pile of Jigsaw puzzles, I don't spend much time in the waiting room. The team is efficient, people are processed rapidly and on time, and you don't hang around socialising. The staff are, by and large young, and invariably respectful and friendly. But this is something you do alone. The door is a foot thick and it is closed.

There was a hiccup yesterday. One of the two radiation machines took an unexpected New Years holiday, and everyone got rescheduled. This meant a disruption to the routine by which I carefully manage my interior. Small differences were noted on the pictures. It meant rechecking and remeasuring, and an earlier than usual session for me this morning so that they could give me another CT scan. Different machine Same process. It was all OK in the end, sorry about the turn of phrase, just a slight variation in the pattern my feet make as they plod across this particular dune. Now it's the week end off. Then, on Monday, it's back to eat, drink.....

...and Tuesday...

...and Wednesday....

Saturday, 3 January 2009

Why Africa Needs God

London Times columnist and atheist  Matthewe Parris has written, in his December 27 column, an article on why Africa needs God. Visit this link to read his surprising and provocative opinion:

Friday, 2 January 2009

The Year of the Penguin


The year has started brilliantly. Only two days in and it's been good news all the way. We have a big house: five bedrooms (six if you count the upstairs sunroom) and four living rooms (five if you count the downstairs sunroom) and we began the new year with every room occupied. People in every bed and trundle beds in every place they would fit. We borrowed a trestle table from the parish hall in order to seat everyone for big, shambling, lengthy, noisy meals for which most adults present had had a part in preparation. With people coming and going at different times we had three sessions sitting around the Christmas tree unwrapping stuff and being surprised at one another's thoughfulness.We didn't do much else. We watched a few videos (Anne of Green Gables, Prince Caspian, and, when the kids weren't around, Green Wing and The Office [the real one ie the British one, of course]). Some people went for a daily run or a trip to the gym. I went off to have my innards fried. There were, for some, excursions into town and for everyone, a trip to Sandfly Bay.

Sandfly Bay on the Otago Peninsula is approached down a 100 metre sand-dune - great on the way down. It is a very rugged place which not many people visit even though it is only a quarter of an hour from the city. Most days you will stroll along the beach amongst New Zealand Sea Lions -big, bad tempered, unpredictable animals that for security and olfactory reasons, it's best to stay a few metres shy of. On a lucky day you will see Hoiho - Yellow Eyed Penguins. This was a lucky day. Two of them popped out of the surf and dried their feathers only a few feet away from where we were sitting. These are rare birds. Us humans and our fellow travellers - rats, stoats, dogs and cats - had all but exterminated them, but with protection and good will they are making a new start. They are now on the way back from extinction. And here they were, little no nonsense creatures with muscley black and white bodies and endearing stripy faces, drying themselves on the beach before waddling up into the dunes to get on with the important business of ensuring the future of their species. It was good news to see them.

But better news was to see my son, Nick, who arrived on New Year's Day. On New Years eve he got engaged. There was a balcony overlooking The Sydney Harbour with helium balloons tied to the railing. There was a table with a lace tablecloth and a vase containing a dozen red roses. There was a beautiful ring which had left the jeweller's only an hour before. More importantly, there were tender words spoken. More important still there was someone who meant them, and someone who was overjoyed to hear them, and who had, in return, a few of her own to say.

Who knows what will happen? As I daily come to terms with the limitations of my own life, a whole new horizon opens for Nick and Charmayne. The family which existed before I was part of it goes on into the future and will keep on doing so. Life is rich and full of promise, which is a good thing to be remnded of at the start of a new year. The Chinese name years after animals and this year will be the Year of The Ox. Now I have nothing against such a worthy creature as the ox, but I wish they had included the Hoiho in their zodiacal cycle. Against all the odds, there is the Yellow Eyed Penguin: the very symbol of resilience and the triumph of life over threatened extinction. As it is for my son and his very beautiful fiancee; as it, so far, for me; I wish that this year will be for you, filled with promise and new life and hope. The year of the penguin.