Saturday, 27 November 2010

Holy Name

For a good bit of this week I have been attending a conference for bishops (Anglican and Roman Catholic) at St. Margaret's College in Dunedin. It was my first attendance at such an event, and it far exceeded all my expectations, which I suppose doesn't really say much as I didn't know what to expect. Peter Norris, the warden of St. Margarets made a spectacular job of organising and running things. The venue was very comfortable, the food superb and the speakers challenging and entertaining. The company was very congenial and I particularly enoyed meeting, and getting to know the Catholics.

For several of the sessions, we were addressed by John Battle, cabinet minister in the Blair goverment who spoke largely about interfaith issues. He was enormously erudite, informed, innovative and rip roaringly funny. We had professor Harlene Hayne of Otago university, talking about the development of the adolescent brain, and the implications for things such as alcohol law reform. It was information that would have been very useful to me 10 years ago, or, even more usefully, 40.

For me, though, the Eureka moment came, as such moments  always do, unexpectedly and from an unexpected source. We had a panel discussion on youth ministry, one member of which was Father Mark Chamberlain from Holy Name Catholic parish. Holy Name is, by a massive margin, the largest student church in the city. It is, I would think,  the largest church in the city full stop. Many hundreds of young people attend, and a large proportion of them are involved in various forms of parish based Christian ministry. Many of them are Catholics, born and raised in Catholic homes and schools but many of them are not; they are of other denominations, other faiths, or none at all. Many are students at the nearby University, but many others come from all over the city.So what packs 'em in? Not the website, obviously. I have only been once on a Sunday, and it seemed to me to be a fairly standard Catholic Mass with modernish slighly hibrow music. It's not a "fresh expression", not even a little bit, and it defies all the usual church growth parameters for a young person's church -there is not a drum kit or chrome mike stand in sight. No, they come for one reason and one reason only: to participate in the very real sense of God that is present in the community and worship at Holy Name. And this sense of God is mediated, largely, through the parish priest.

Mark is spectacularly busy. he runs this huge parish, he is the University chaplain and he has significant responsibilities within his diocese: that is, he holds down three full time jobs, simultaneously. He also works as a spiritual director, counsellor and social worker and always seems to have an oversupply of houseguests in the Presbytry. He has given up, of late, his clinical psychology practice. Despite the sheer volume of stuff he packs into each day, whenever I meet him I am struck by two things: the sense of calm and stillness he emanates and the fact that when he talks to me he is focussed on me and absolutely present to me. The young people turn up to see him, talk to him and listen to his slightly quirky sermons where he relates in surprising and delightful ways, the events of everyday life and the eternal Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The panel talked around the question of why young people come to Holy Name, and then I had my Eureka moment. I asked Mark what his spiritual practice was. He turned his huge blue eyes to me, wide with surprise and looked a bit flummoxed. "What a question!" he said. Me? I do nothing special. Just the usual ordinary stuff. I get up at 5:30 and pray for an hour. I say the daily offices. I participate in the Mass. I try and take from 1-3 off every afternoon to read and refresh myself. I like to go outside late at night and look at the stars and pray. And I find the examen very helpful. But nothing out of the ordinary." Yeah, Mark.Exactly.

Here is a man whose love of Jesus shines through him, not occasionally but consistently. He spends serious amounts of time each day alone with God and it shows. He is as holy a person as I have ever met, and I've met a few, of varying faith persuasions. His life is rooted and grounded in prayer, and it is this which brings young people in their droves into Holy Name church week by week, month by month, year by year. I asked my question of Mark and was immediately humbled and challenged by his reply. We, the church have nothing to give the world but Jesus. If we don't have him we have... simply nothing.

I came back from St. Margarets to face immediately a long running dispute in our diocese in which people seem determined to treat each other with disrespect, discourtesy and unkindness. My heart sank when I saw how yet again we had managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory, and I looked ahead to yet another sleepless night. And then I did the only thing I could think of to try and make it better. I took my prayer stool and sat down. Thanks Mark.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Brockville Community Church

The Joint Regional Committee is not my favourite institution. JRC is the body which administers co-operative ventures, which is the New Zealand term for interdemoninational churches. I have served in two such churches and have consequently attended many JRC meetings, which all seem to suffer from the same malaise: they take the most sluggish, bureaucratic bits of each of the participating denominations, mix 'em up and make a whole new brew whose complexity and turgidity is positively Byzantine. So you might imagine that I was not looking forward to last night which was my first attendance at a JRC as Bishop. I wasn't. But I was pleasantly surprised. Very pleasantly surprised in fact.

The purpose of the meeting was to receive a review of the Brockville Community Church, which is the small ecumenical church set in a suburb high on a hill on the outskirts of Dunedin. The church building is unprepossessing, to say the least. The people work in the sorts of places where at the end of the day something actually gets made, but some of their neighbours, and indeed some of the congregation, are not working at all for one reason or another and the suburb is not awash with cash. Neither is the church. For many years a small leadership group have struggled on, providing ministry from their own resources; doing it well but getting very tired in the process. Then a year or so ago they entered an arrangement with the local Methodist Synod and with the neighbouring Presbyterian congregation to share in the ministry of Andrew Scott and the development has been dramatic. The church now has two very healthy youth groups, a busy children's ministry, some quite innovative social outreach programmes and lively experimental worship. While the Sunday services are still not bursting at the seams there is a steady stream of new families joining the church as the congregation's profile is raised in the community.  But all this stuff is not what impressed me. As I entered the room last night, the good will and community spirit were immediately obvious. In a way which I might have hoped to see elsewhere, people treated one another with affection and respect and were openly grateful for and enthusiastic about each other's giftings. Despite the fact that this was a JRC meeting, I had a sense of being part of the Body of Christ. It was a pleasure and a privilege to sit amongst them. So that's the good news.

Now for the bad news. All this energy and life has a very doubtful future. The funding from the Methodists will cease next year and Andrew will need to find ministry elsewhere unless the community can come up with sums which are, at the moment, well beyond them. I couldn't help but be aware of the ironies. Our diocese is in decline all over the place but here, where the Holy Spirit is making an obvious and dramatic statement of presence, we may not be able to continue. We have quite literally millions of dollars worth of land and buildings and cash assets scattered around the countryside between the Waitaki River and Stewart Island, but the work of the Gospel in this out on the edge suburb may founder for the want of one stipend.

I have until June next year to mull this one over. Believe me, between now and then, on behalf of the Brockville Community Church, I will be badgering the one who has at his disposal the cattle of a thousand hills.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Wasting Time

In a previous life, when I was Vicar of Sumner in the Diocese of Christchurch, I went to an excellent ministry school at which somebody or other spoke about time management. At the time I was having problems fitting the required amount of activities into the requisite number of hours, so I paid close attention and did what the speaker suggested. I began keeping a log of how I spent my time, making notes every 15 minutes or so during the day recording as honestly as I could where the minutes went and I was horrified. At the end of a couple of weeks the number of hours I had spent doing nothing in particular, sitting, staring vacantly into space was truly astounding. No wonder I couldn't get everything done! Astonishing amounts of precious time were just being frittered away, which was alarming, but easily rectifiable using the useful second step provided by the ministry school. I began to schedule everything, including a 20 minute slot at the start of every day where I made up the schedule and there were two immediate and dramatic consequences of all my efforts: 1) I got a lot more things done. 2) The quality of my sermons plummeted and by plummeted I mean entered a vertical power dive with all engines running and the after burners on. Which was alarming as I then regarded the 20 minutes in the pulpit every week as the most important bits of my life. After a month or so of preaching drivel, I ditched the schedule and went back to daydreaming.

What I hadn't realised up until that point was the enormous benefits to be gained by a bit of stuffing around. I remember reading about somebody or other encountering Albert  Einstein striding around Princeton barefoot and with his trousers rolled up to his knees. "Professor Einstein, what are you doing?" they asked. "Loafing," he replied, "just loafing." The mind is a wonderful thing  and most of its workings are unconscious. We are aware of the surface of it, as we are aware of the surface of the sea, but the huge and powerful and beautiful mechanics of it all happen without our knowledge and certainly without our control, no matter how much we might kid ourselves to the contrary. A learning that Einstein had grasped and which I stumbled blindly into was that the times when we relax our pretences at control are crucially important. To maintain any form of creativity it is necessary to let the mind be fallow; to let it have its own way for a while without trying to cram it into objectives and prioritised lists and schedules.

This has all come back to me with a vengeance as I look back over my first year as Bishop. I"m glad to say that I have maintained, more or less, the discipline of sitting absolutely still every morning and letting the chattering machine gradually wind itself down. I'm aware of the compelling dictates of the stuff that MUST be done, but also increasingly aware of the need to be the sort of pastor described by Eugene H Peterson in his wonderful quaternity of books on pastoral ministry (The Contemplative Pastor, Working the Angles, Under the Unpredictable Plant, Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work) : that is, unbusy, subversive and apocalyptic. Or, alternatively, I could succumb to the pressure to do stuff and become an executive in an ecclesiatical organisation, but I think, on reflection, I'd really rather not.

Tuesday, 9 November 2010

Ron Mueck

In the half hour I had to wait for the Christchurch Art Gallery to open I went and had breakfast in the Art Centre. I had a bagel and coffee in the foyer leading to the room I used to go for psychology lectures when this set of old earthquake cracked buildings was the University of Canterbury and I was a lost and lonely student. I sat there remembering my time there: perhaps the unhappiest three years of my life, grateful for all the distance travelled since then and for all that had been given me since. Then I crossed the road and walked up the street to enter the exhibition of artworks which affected me more profoundly than any other I have  seen, and I have seen some very old ones with some very famous foreign names written on them.

Ron Mueck makes hyper realist sculptures from fibreglass and resin. Almost all of them are of people, rendered in the most meticulous detail. The exhibition appealed to me on so many levels. The works themselves are all quite beautiful; wonderfully proportioned and balanced and coloured. They were well lit and intelligently exhibited, with bare white walls and skillfully placed screens and openings so that none of them unduly interfered with the others and so that they could be encountered at varying distances. Ron Mueck's craftsmanship is simply astounding. Every body hair and pore and crease has been exquisitely observed and rendered so that the humanity of the subjects is laid out with stiletto sharpness. They demonstrate an acuteness of observation which is the real gifting of the artist. These sculptures don't have the greasy, cross-eyed, bewigged sense of unreality  of waxworks, but rather, demonstrate the shape and textures and colours and variety of people so authentically that I expected them to speak or move at any second. Except for one thing: scale. They are all very big or very small, and this gives them a sense of disjunction which allows them to speak so deeply. While the works are almost unbearably human, the size differential allows for a sort of objectivity; there is no sense of voyeurism or intrusion as they are studied and engaged with and admired. But perhaps more than that, the scale works  with some deeply buried instincts and memories. The very large pieces are encountered much as small children must encounter adults: we see them and are unconsciously driven back to our own childhood  relationships with the powerful, huge people in our lives; but now we are seeing through adult eyes and with the adult abilities to understand and to empathise. The very small figures usually speak of aging and death, but they diminish the fears  associated with such terrifying prospects and invite us instead into compassion.
In the entrance to the exhibition, the corpse of a man lies on the floor. He is about my age, lying naked on his back, pallid with death. He is about three feet long, and his diminished size draws me into his vulnerability and fragility.

Near him is the head of the artist, just the head lying on it's side, sound asleep with the mouth slightly open and a tiny dribble of saliva escaping, and a few hours stubble covering the chin. The head is huge, and hollowed behind like a mask. Turn a corner and a heavily pregnant woman stands naked with her arms clasped above her head. Her  face is wet with sweat and tears and shows the pain and terrible burden of pregnancy. Her expression encapsulates at once the great power and the great vulnerability of womanhood. She is eight feet tall and her pose evokes Atlas bearing the world but the great globe of the world is not above her, it is within her. She is a weight bearer, physically and metaphorically. Through a door is a newborn baby, umbilical cord still attached, the body still covered in blood and vernix and bearing the creases of the recent passage into life. The baby is about 3 or four metres long, and as she squints at the world with the perfectly captured, unfocused half gaze of the newborn,  she is at once pathetically vulnerable and filled with enormous power and potential. Nearby a tiny man sits in a boat, personifying millennia of archetypes relating to journey and death. He quizzically peers past the bow, into life and death, adopting a pose and expression that is calm, and curious and appraising  and intelligent and disconcertingly like mine as I encounter him.
Through another portal there is a giant, wild man, stating the power and vulnerabilities of masculinity as strikingly as the pregnant woman  had done for femininity. And through yet another portal  is the work which affected me most. A huge woman lies under a duvet, dressed in a simple cotton garment. Propped on two giant pillows she stares pensively into the distance with a perfectly executed hand resting lightly on her cheek. Every hair on her head, and the light down on her face and the slight imperfections of her skin  have been knowingly and purposefully placed. The lines around her eyes and the texture of her skin tell me she is somewhere in her late thirties. She is thinking about something - who knows what?  She is away in a reverie about the coming events of the day or her money worries or the dream she has just had or... I walk around her and  manoeuvre myself into the position where she is looking directly at me and there is an electric jolt of connection. The uncertainties resolve themselves into a single thought: she is looking at me: suddenly I know her and I am known. And then I remember that this is not "she" but "it". There is no woman here, just a lump of fibreglass. This "woman' is a figment of Ron Mueck's imagination in just the same way that Elizabeth Bennett is a figment of Jane Austen's, and all that sense of connection and recognition has come from me; it is my invention and my projection onto this shaped piece of inanimate material. It is a powerful moment of self knowledge for me.
I drove home grateful to be alone; thinking about the woman in the bed, and about other relationships in my life; about the way I (and I assume all people) see connection because I have projected it there. About the way the unhappiness of my time at Canterbury University was my own creation, for which I had to take complete responsibility in order to overcome it. And, by implication, about the way in which the happiness of yesterday was also my own creation and my own responsibility.

I didn't stop and take any pictures. I thought instead about changes to be made. Ron Mueck's work has allowed me insight into myself and called me into change, as all great art should do.

(photographs are all taken from other sources. copyright is unknown)

Monday, 8 November 2010

The Living Church

It was cloudy and cool when we left Dunedin just before 8 am yesterday and nothing much had changed, weather wise, when we finished the service in Roxburgh about 5 hours later. Not that it mattered. The little church of St James had been full and buzzing with life, a testament to the new energy and purpose accruing to the parish since Petra Barber joined the team a few months ago. Then after the usual parish lunch we headed for Wanaka and a mile out of town the climate changed: not just the weather, the climate. Get over the first hill out of Roxburgh and you are into that clear, strong Central Otago light with the tussock and the schist and the inky blue skies and the lazy summer heat.

We arrived in Wanaka with plenty of time to spare, checked with Denis Bartley, the vicar, on arrangements for the confirmation that was to follow at 5 pm and went to St. Columba's. It was dry and hot in the church, certainly not the weather for a cope and mitre but why drag all that drag all this way and not wear it? 5 pm rolled around, there was another full church, a serious young girl prepared to profess her faith before her friends and family, and a lovely moment or two in the service. After the confirmation Denis invited anybody who wanted to reaffirm their profession of faith in Christ to come up to the altar rail. And one by one, almost the entire congregation came up, to kneel and receive the laying on of hands. There, with the golden sunlight sifting into the old church and the warm air around us, the sense of peace and contentment and conviction was almost palpable. And in the middle of it I blessed a small greenstone taonga for Beth Griffith, our one time diocesan youth and children's worker, and gave it to her as she returns to renew her life in Canada. Moving? Yes. We drove home early, missing the pot luck dinner; but the parish, or at least a key member of it, Ngaire Bartley, had prepared a little picnic hamper which we ate sitting on a park bench overlooking Lake Dunstan as the sun sank into the mountains behind Cromwell. E te whanau we are the body of Christ! I knew that for certain last night.

And then early this morning I drove to Christchurch to attend the memorial service for my former Bishop, Maurice Goodall. The Cathedral in the heart of the shaken but not stirred Garden City is a lively place. It is full of energy and movement and people. In the Dean's vestry where the bishops gathered it was full of wit and laughter and good humor as well. The cathedral was almost full- 800 or so people, I'd guess- sombre but calm and grateful for the life of this good man. I remember him coming to see me when I was Vicar of Waihao. His mission at day was to convince me to become the chaplain of Christ's College. He arrived at our place and immediately took to bed and slept for 20 of the 30 minutes he had allowed himself for the task, so tired was he from the effort he was putting into pastoring his diocese. I found that experience quite moving: that he was prepared to be vulnerable and to be ministered to by the most junior of his clergy. He didn't succeed in that day's mission but he did succeed in his bigger one, of shifting Christchurch away from a very traditional style of ministry into a more contemporary one which, ultimately, allowed for the bustle and liveliness evident in his cathedral today.

It is easy sometimes to be tempted into despair and cynicism about the church. But not today.

I finished my day around 5 pm and GPSed my way to the motel Debbie had booked for me. I could have driven home, I suppose, but I've about had my fill of driving for today. Besides, I really want to see the Ron Mueck exhibition in the Christchurch Art Gallery, so tomorrow I'll have a day off, look at the sculptures and drive home in a leisurely fashion with my camera on the passengers seat, grateful for the life and energy of the Church of Christ.

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Monday, 1 November 2010

Day Off

This weekend was like most of my weekends. Busy. Clemency and I were on the road before 8 am on Saturday, opened some new flats at the Parata home in Gore, spoke at a Dinner in Gladstone, took part in a service on Sunday morning and then drove back to a service and dinner at All Saints Dunedin. In between events, time was filled by pastoral visits and by driving. I got home a little after 10 pm on Sunday, fell into bed and didn't wake until nearly 9 am which was the first great thing about today.

The second was Paul Dyer ringing soon after I woke up to see if I wanted to go sailing. The sky was blue, the breeze was steady and the sea was calm. Did I want to go sailing? Is the Pope a conservative German? There is something meditative about sailing. There is the whole ritual of preparing the boat and then launching it, and at the end of the day, the ritual of taking it from the water and washing and derigging it. In between is a journey that is, essentially, pointless: we sailed up the harbour and across it and back, traveling a few kilometers to arrive back where we started from. The whole journey is conducted at a less than leisurely pace, except for those few moments of rush and tumble to rectify some error or other. There is a slow, measured, conversation conducted as a subsidiary activity to the main business of the day: watching the wind and the sea and the sail and the angle of the boat, keeping all in a harmonious balance. It is an exercise in awareness. Like motorcycling, to do it well requires being present in the now, accepting and embracing what is going on and avoiding the impulse to struggle and impose oneself upon it.

I got home in the middle of the afternoon, and set about making a meditation stool. I've made three in the past week, and I keep thinking of ways to improve my design. This one is a folding one legged model, designed so that it can be carried in a suitcase. I made it from some of the old cedar weatherboards removed from the house when my new study was built. The cedar is 20 years old, so is dry, light and strong and, once it was planed and sanded, a beautiful light golden colour. I have made it so that the height and angle of the seat are adjustable. The first of its several coats of varnish is drying as I write this, but when it is is finished and assembled, I'll put a picture on here. Who knows? You might like to make one yourself, or, if you ask nicely I might even give you one.

Today has been, like the weekend, measured in Kairos, not Chronos; that is, felt time rather than objectively measured time. With lots fitted in the days seem longer and they are deeply satisfying. The sun is sinking behind the trees and the harbor and the hills. I think I'm ready to face tomorrow.

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