Saturday, 31 December 2011

Home Sweet Home

 Otago beaches. We're not short of 'em.

I have driven 40,000 km this year, and sat in far too many aircraft seats. In the end, the thought of yet another flight  followed by a week or two in some rented room or other and days of eating commercially prepared food seemed more of a burden than a relaxation. So, we have been at home and Dunedin has co-operated very generously indeed: this is the warmest, calmest, driest summer that Dunedin has delivered since we arrived thirteen years ago. We have a comfortable house and a lovely garden. There are a score of beaches within a quarter of an hour's drive and a few, in fact, within a quarter of an hour's walk. We have a pile of DVDs, books and classy magazines. A few minutes away there is a vast shallow harbour and a boat shed containing a nice little sunburst. There is a jigsaw puzzle waiting for the rainy day which has, so far, failed to obey the forecaster's instructions and arrive. There is beer in the fridge and whisky in the jar. We walk or read or skype or pray or watch classy British TV or work in the garden or sit on the deck and admire the view. And I am so very glad that I am nowhere else.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

The Reason for the Season

I must say I am heartily sick of the whole Jesus is the reason for the season routine that I am supposed to be spouting at the moment. Let's get real! In solidarity with my distant pagan ancestors, I  have a decorated tree in the corner of my living room and over the next few days fully intend to indulge in the ancient, pre-Christian practices of feasting, giving gifts and singing carols. What's more, I will be doing the whole darned thing on the Saturnalia,  December 25. We humans had been celebrating in this way for centuries before we Christians wandered into the festivities, looked around, liked what we saw and surreptitiously forged our name on the bottom of the ownership papers. Of course it is all a load of pagan nonsense, but that's the point really.

Emmanuel. God with us. God fully present in the human condition, as much in the raucous celebration of the Saturnalia as in the witness of a peaceful sunset. As much in the worried crowds on Christmas Eve combing through the bargain racks on George St. as in the half hour of silent prayer. God is not, cannot be absent. Although, of course, our perception of whether God is present or not may change, that is about us and not about God.

When our Christian ancestors first observed our pagan ancestors making plum puddings and putting holly branches in their homes, and were told that all of this was a celebration of the great cycles of nature in which the new life of Spring invariably triumphs over the death of winter, their reaction was not to try and stamp all that stuff out. It was rather, to recognise that the pattern expressed mistily in the cycles of the seasons derived ultimately from the God who made the Heavens and the Earth; and that it was expressed in its fullness and with crystal clarity in the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus. The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is responsible for the patterns of the planet he made, and therefore can be discerned in the celebrations of those patterns. The bit our Christian ancestors added was the flabbergasting insight that  God is willing to come and be present with us in both pattern and celebration.

Emmanuel. God with us.

I suppose also, our Christian forbears added one thing more important. That is that God is always Emmanuel. Always with us. The purpose of a celebration is not so much to elevate one day above all others but to remind us that every day is an occasion for God to be present with us. "What separates us from God," says Thomas Keating, "Is the idea that we are separated."  The celebration of a sacred day is one more small hammer chipping away at that most foolish and most obstinate of ideas.

Monday, 19 December 2011

A Sweet Little Chap

Last Sunday I preached and celebrated the Eucharist at St. Nicholas' Waverley. As is their custom (they have done this for all the bishops in recent history), they presented me with this: a little sugar bishop who looks remarkably like the old bloke in the mirror. He is, apparently, fashioned around a chocolate rugby ball, so the shape is very authentic indeed. My daughter in law makes beautiful cakes but I am absolutely certain she has never made a bishop. I will ask her how I can preserve it, as for a number of reasons, even though we are entering the sugar ingesting season,  I don't want to eat it.

I am continually astonished at the kindness and generosity of the people of the Diocese of Dunedin, and last Sunday in particular, of the Otago parish and of St. Nicholas.

Monday, 12 December 2011


Yes I know that if you've had much to do with me over the past couple of months  I've shown you a thousand pictures of my grand daughter, but just before you nod off, here's one more. This one was taken about 6 weeks ago when she was two months old, and she is, as you can see, underwater. Her eyes are open, she is holding her breath and, so I have read,  if her mum were to let her go she would be able to swim to the surface in a completely co-ordinated fashion. Of all the photos I have of her this one maybe doesn't show off her cuteness as well as many others, but it fascinates me.

How is she able to do this?

She goes weekly, along with about a dozen or so other children of her age to swimming lessons, but nobody taught her the necessary skills to survive underwater; she was born with them. And this is the fascinating bit. Somewhere in the long evolutionary history of our species it was necessary for new born babies to be able to survive in the water and consequently a whole suite of related behaviours became genetically imprinted: holding breath, opening eyes, moving in a rudimentary dog paddle, seeking the surface, grasping. Desmond Morris theorises that  our species was, for a period of its development, aquatic; that our lack of body hair, the distribution of our sub cutaneous fat and these particular instincts point to a time when we spent much or even most of our time wading or swimming. Other palaeontologists note the behaviour of the great apes when they are in water and speculate that the necessity to wade in some ancient time of great climate change led to the development of our upright stance. Who knows? but it makes sense to me. At only a few weeks old Naomi (and of course other babies) will startle and splutter and look concerned if water is splashed in her face, but will emerge from  complete immersion without the slightest trace of concern but with, to the contrary, every sign of enjoyment.
 Whatever their specific genesis, these instincts are a remnant of the long path trodden by our species through goodness knows what difficulties and obstacles, from the trees of the African forest to Beethoven and iPhones and  heated indoor swimming pools. Naomi's swimming lessons will help keep her safe in the water and perhaps help her also, one day, to develop her mother's prowess as a competitive swimmer. Be that as it may. She swims for fun but her long forgotten ancestors did it to survive. Her retention of their skills is an awe inspiring reminder that we are in process: individually and as a species. We come from a forgotten but still present past and the path from then to now can be intelligently guessed giving a sense of  the direction and trajectory of our as yet incomplete evolution.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Red Billed Gulls

A few weeks ago I was sitting in a cafe in Sumner, idly looking out through the window at a flock of red billed gulls. Amongst the group of a couple of dozen or so there were two who were in the process of hooking up for the upcoming breeding season, and I thought of some lines from a song by Crash Test Dummies: How does a duck know what direction north is? And how to tell his wife from all the other ducks? Two pretty much identical gulls had decided that the other was the one they had been waiting for all their life and they were setting up the pre nuptial contract. To a non gull such as myself it was a bit mystifying how they had made their choice, and how they were going to maintain it for long enough to get the eggs laid; and indeed, which of them was going to do the laying and which of them the other bit. But they knew what they were doing.

The first thing they did was to clear a circle of about two or three metres across of any other gulls, and they both policed their little vacant dance floor with noisy rigour. Then, once they were clear of distractions they played a little game of Simon Says: racing about with their heads at funny angles, fluffing their feathers, squawking, running back and forth. One would start and the other would copy exactly;I think they had turns at being leader, but who can tell?

As I was watching them another pair of gulls landed. They soared in side by side and dropped neatly down onto the runway from about a foot in the air in a swift, perfectly executed little landing manoeuvre, the two of them absolutely in sync. And then they stood there, side by side, still absolutely in sync. One of them stood on one foot and instantly, so did the other one. One picked at a chest feather and so did the other. One looked left and both heads turned. One ran a little to the right and they both moved together.It seemed that the bond between them was not based on the particularly attractive curve of a jawline, or the length of a thigh but on something more ephemeral: some sort of psychological, psychic even, linking. The formation of such a bond makes sense of the little pairing up dances, and the clearing away of other  gulls who might interfere with the linking process, and it is not so spooky-action-at-a-distance-ish as we more brainy bipeds might assume.

When we humans are in rapport with one another we mirror one another. When we are deeply engaged with one another, we will walk in pace, and speak with the same rhythms and using similar vocabularies. We will breath at similar rates and our body languages will be similar. This is something taught in counselling classes, but unless you are actively looking for it, it is completely unconscious: we do it quite naturally and unselfconsciously, and we use it to bond together in ways that are only slightly more sophisticated than the seagulls. When we want to increase the efficiencies of a team doing hard physical work we sing shanties or spirituals or we chant; and to build a sense of communion with one another we do things in sync: we sing in choirs and engage in the inanities of ballroom dancing.

How does the duck know... how to tell his wife from all the other ducks? the same way I guess that two friends silently know to turn left at this corner when they are walking beside the river or the alto knows that the overall sound will be improved if she sings just a fraction softer. The beauties and power of deep communion go further down the psyche than mere logic, and further down the ladder of creation than we civilised beings might have assumed.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Soup for the soul

The more astute amongst you will have noticed nothing: ie the sum total of activity on here for a few weeks. Over the past month or so I have discovered new depths of meaning to the word "busy" which has meant that on my weekly sabbath I have been able to muster the energy to wander alone down an empty beach and drink in the strange quality of light as the weather shifts from insistent Northwest to sulking Southerly but not for anything else. It's nothing to complain about. I want things to change and many of the things I am involved about are because of present or imminent change, and it's all starting to ease back a little as the holiday season approaches.

Yesterday I had a gentlerday. I drove to Invercargill, had a chat with a prospective ordinand, talked to a parish about a prospective new ministry arrangement, talked to a techie about a prospective change to the diocesan website and drove home again. In between chats I visited the soup kitchen at St. Johns.

Every Friday between 11 am and about 1 pm  over 100 people drop into the old hall at St. John's Church in the main street of Invercargill. They are seated comfortably and given a free bowl of very good soup (yesterday: vegetable or pea and ham) a couple of bits of toast and a cup of tea. A small group of parishioners make the soup, serve it and clean up afterwards and some of them are, not to put too fine a point on it, not exactly spring chickens. They do it because, as in any other city, Invercargill has its share of vulnerable people and the regular as clockwork ration of nutritious food and a comfy place to sit for a while provides a little anchor point in the day for them. It is a safe place. A harbour for those who are more than usually storm whipped.  I sat and ate my vegetable soup and toast with a young woman who could not make eye contact with me. There was a group of aged bikers covered in tats and a young man I guessed to be the victim of brain injury. A friendly bloke about my age seemed to be there as much for the company as the food. The staff seemed to know them all, and engaged in familiar banter as well as the occasional more significant conversation. It was hard work for them as they served these fellow children of God. "go forth from this place and preach the Gospel, and if necessary use words" is a quote whose provenance I don't know but whose fulfillment I saw being lived out yesterday.