Wednesday, 28 December 2016

George the Mouse

Ada playing in the Clearview Primary School grounds
Photo taken with Samsung Galaxy Note 5 smartphone

My Grandchildren teach me so much because they are open, simplified exemplars of the processes at work within myself. My own pretence at sophistication masks the fact that I have not actually arrived anywhere; I am, like them, in process and their learnings are only slightly less complicated versions of the stuff which occupies my own intellectual and spiritual explorations.

6 am and there is the usual knock on the caravan door. Noah has got himself out of his bed in the house, and is making his customary early morning call. Clemency stumbles up to let him in, and he climbs into her sleeping bag. He lies there quietly for maybe 5 minutes, and then there is a pattern to be followed. I will play a game which involves a conversation between me and Beebop (Noah's constant companion: the faded, battered, stuffed  rabbit which is exactly the same age as him) in which I  have to assist Beebop by voicing his part as well as my own, or, instead  I will tell Noah a George the Mouse story. Then he will sit at the table and eat a breakfast of milk, shredded cheese, toast and Vegemite. Then he will fiddle about with a puzzle game for a bit,  before announcing that it's time to go inside and see Daddy.

George the Mouse is the protagonist of a series of adventures I have been extemporising for a progression of very small audiences of very small people for...I'd guess, about 35 years now. He lives in the woodpile at Noah's house. He also lives  in Sydney and he has had various other residences since he made his first appearance as an actual mouse underneath the heater in the Morven Manse. This year he committed a significant breach of categories by giving Noah a Christmas present: some cheese and a small Thomas the Tank Engine, all properly wrapped and left under the Christmas tree with a personally written card. Noah thought it was very funny, both haha and peculiar. He had had, only 12 hours previously,  a Christmas Eve conversation with his mother about Father Christmas. How does Father Christmas get down the chimney, Mummy? The chimney is very small. How does he open the door of the woodburner? He accepted the answers given but with the first faint hints of scepticism. He knows the difference between pretense and reality, and juggles the two with a great deal of sophistication as he plays with his lego or pretends to be a robot or a dinosaur. And now, a few hours later, his very favourite fictional character, whom he knows full well to be the invention of Pappa, has left him an actual present. His 3 year old eyes are opening to whole new levels of pretending and dissembling.

Of course it won't be long before he knows that Father Christmas is in the same category as George the Mouse, although he will play along for a while for the sake of his sister and because he likes the benefits the little charade brings him. But once he realises that Father Christmas is just pretending, perhaps he will ask questions about the Christmas story, and about Jesus, as well he should. Although we adults may well fear where that line of questioning will end, it is one we ourselves should never, ever desist from.

The Christmas story as it is popularly told in Sunday School plays and as it is pictured on our Christmas cards is also a fiction. The whole business with a stable and a manger and oxen and asses is an elaboration on a couple of verses  of Matthew's gospel and bears little relationship to life in First Century Israel, nor indeed to what is actually written in the scripture. We don't look too closely at the story as we have received it, though, because if we don't believe that, then maybe a lot of other things we believe about Jesus might need to be questioned as well. Which is not a possibility we should shrink away from. It is, rather, an invitation into a larger God and a a larger Gospel than the one we have comfortably carted about for so long.

We all make up stories. This is the way we make sense of the world and find our place within it. If we didn't make up stories we couldn't function as social beings, nor as solitary ones either. Of course there is no George the Mouse; but there is a time to lie in Pappa's arms and hear a story of daring and adventure, which involves yourself and everybody you love as occasional characters. Of course there is no Father Christmas but there is the excitement and generosity and mystery of this beautiful day filled with surprises and food and conversation and games. Of course there was no inn or stable, but there is the Word, who was with God and who was God, becoming flesh and dwelling among us, full of Grace and Truth.

Our experience of Christmas Day will be a sorry one if it depends on there being an actual Santa Claus. In the same way our experience of incarnation will be limited if we think it depends on the literal truth of a medieval folk story based loosely on a mistranslation of a couple of verses of Matthew's Gospel. George the Mouse invites my grandson into a deeper, warmer relationship with me and with his lived world. The Christmas story invites us into a deeper awareness of our world, and the life giving presence who is there, waiting behind the story for us. 

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Christmas Tree

You know it when you see it. It has to be symmetrical and nicely dense but with enough gaps in which to hang things. It has to reach the ceiling which, depending on the house, means it's going to be broad. It has to be a pinus radiata, otherwise it won't smell right. All the really good ones have been taken days ago by the people who put them up way too early, but our tree will be there, somewhere amongst all those misshapen or badly coloured pines; we just need to keep looking.
Who knows why we have Christmas trees? Pagans used to put evergreen branches into their homes during the Saturnalia, but the first record of a Christmas tree  as we would recognise one, is from France in 1576, which means there is about a thousand years gap between its appearance and the last popular practice of the Saturnalia - which seems a pretty big chasm to jump. More likely precedences are the Adam trees which were used in medieval passion plays, decorated with apples (for the Eden story) and round wafers (for the Eucharist). Christmas trees were commonly used in the 19th Century in Germany, and later in England, when they were brought there by Prince Albert. Whatever their origin they are now a universal symbol of Christmas and Christmas has a cultural power far broader than its historical and spiritual one.
Our entire adult life, Clemency and me, has been based around the needs of the Anglican Church. Our children grew up in a home in which there were always strangers popping in for a meal or to sleep in the spare room. We never had weekends, Easter was busy, and public holidays tended to fall on Monday, which was my day off anyway, so we never really had those either. All year and every year was filled with people, and meetings and more people, which brought huge benefit to our children, but there was a cost, too, so Christmas was special. It was OUR time. Once the final service was done and dusted on Christmas morning the only way anyone gained admittance to our house was by having the appropriate DNA. We are both from largish families, so this restriction didn't stop our house being pretty full most years, but we did guard this one day of the year, and the camping holiday which invariably followed it, with jealous rigour. And this is what we celebrated with the tree. This is why we had one.
There's a ritual to be observed. Getting it off the trailer and squaring the end. Screwing on the stand we bought in Hamilton in, when? 1986? Siting it. Securing it with guy wires. Putting a mixture of water and sugar and (who knows why?) aspirin in the bowl in which its sawn trunk truncates. Then lights, as many as possible without being gaudy, and spread though the tree carefully patterned so that they are reminiscent of the stars. A rope of tinsel spiralling right around it so that there are reflections from deep in the tree and from every angle. The dozen or so jute angels which have been on every one of our Christmas trees since they were bought from the Fair Trade shop as Sunday School presents in 1979. Then the decorations, carefully packed last year, each one with its own history and mana: The Pinocchio bought in Italy and the  hand sewn one with all of our names embroidered, except Catherine's who wasn't born when it was given; the sparkle bears; the astroturf teddy; a Santa knitted by some distant relative and another with a body made from a Marmite jar (yes really. But why? Who knows? Who cares?); the long thin drummer boy and the angels with real feathers; all the others. Then, finally, the standing back and the proclamation that this is, without a doubt, the best one yet.
We had a leisurely day off. Sitting in Starbucks while we waited for Briscoes to open, we agreed that it was unnecessary to have a tree this year, as there was only the two of us at home and we would no sooner go to the trouble of getting the darned thing up when we would be off to Christchurch. We agreed though, that we might go to a nursery and buy a little one in a pot, a sort of token effort especially for Catherine, when she comes home between Christmas and New Year. We went to a nursery and looked at a couple of spruces and agreed that, though expensive, they were quite pretty. We thought we'd decide later in the day, but on the way home the car just happened past the place in High Street which sells Christmas trees. We stopped and bought one. Just a little one, a mere 7 ft or so. It's standing brightly in the corner, right now. I think it may be our best one yet.

Monday, 19 December 2016


This large space spends most of its life as a basketball court, but tonight with the chairs laid out in neat rows and the hoops folded up into the roof it is the space for celebrating the achievements of the pupils of St. Hilda's for the year. The ceremony is about 2 hours long, but I have always quite enjoyed it, and tonight will be my last one, ever. There are speeches, and two groups - a country rock trio and a classical duo - sing with exquisitely honed  talent. I take my turn to shake young hands and give out trophies and books. We applaud the outgoing prefects and the newly announced ones, sing the national anthem, I say a blessing and walk into the night.
This space is also used as a gymnasium, and there are chairs in rows, but both the the audience and the tableful of trophies are smaller.  Again, there are speeches by a number of people including Clemency, and I learn something new about the person I have lived with for over 40 years. There is a photo of us on our wedding day: we are standing under the huge old walnut tree in my new in-laws' garden and I am making my groom's speech. Clemency is looking on in startled, happy astonishment because she did not know, until that moment, that I had any ability at public speaking. And tonight, all these years later, she returns the compliment. She speaks twice: once to farewell her friend Erika, also leaving the school, and once to acknowledge the things said about herself. Brilliant. Simply brilliant. I'm the one who does the public speaking. How had I not known that she does it just as well, if not better?
There are no lights in the little church because the infrequency of services means that it  is just too expensive to keep the electricity connected. We celebrate the Eucharist and Lois plays the Christmas Carols on an ancient, wheezing harmonium. This is where I feel most at home, in a tiny, beloved country church.  Afterwards we drive a few kilometres up into the hills and there is a barbecue: homemade sausages, wild venison, new potatoes and a half dozen delicious salads. We sit around a table with easy seating for a dozen, and our host tells us that on Christmas day they will extend it, and perhaps 40 or 50 will share the meal. It seems a holy prospect. I leave the conversation early so that we can drive the 3 hours back to Dunedin for 9 lessons and carols in the Cathedral.  I wonder when I will return.

We are making lots of trips to the dump lately. We haul plastic sacks filled with 20 years of classroom projects and planning sheets and wall charts and handbooks of pedagogical guidelines. 
I am spending more time in the garden than I have for a long long time. There is so much to be cut back, so many things to be removed or trimmed or shifted. 
This is a time of letting go. And every one of these relinquishments makes us lighter and freer. Each one brings with it a gift of lightness and clarity and freedom. Each one seems to reveal a long hidden treasure.

Thursday, 15 December 2016

Eden to Patmos. Week 3

This morning my reading included the most boring chapter in the Bible to date, Numbers 7. I know that when I reach 1 Chronicles there are even greater depths of tedium to be plumbed, in those interminable genealogies, but today it was 89 (!) verses listing what each of the 12 tribes gave as an offering when the altar of the tabernacle was consecrated. Each of the TWELVE gifts are described in excruciating detail, and each of the TWELVE tribes gave exactly the same thing! Aaaarrrggghhhh!

For the last couple of days, in Leviticus and Numbers, it has all been laws: laws for priests and laws for people telling each group how to set up and then how to run a system in which to keep themselves pure. It has been about establishing the dichotomy between sacred and profane, and how to police the boundary between the two. There are two very brief references to homosexuality in this regard, and there are lengthy and repeated references to the avoidance of touching corpses, either of humans or animals. Which raises for me an issue of the way Jesus used these texts, and the approach to scripture which he seemed to be encouraging in others.

The story of the Good Samaritan in Luke 10 is most often used as an illustration of the need for compassion, and sometimes, also, to show the perfidy of those who are in power. Reading the purity laws in Leviticus again, the focus of the story shifts, and exegesis - the way we interpret and use the Bible - is, surprisingly, revealed as the central theme of the parable. The story is Jesus' answer to a lawyer who has engaged him in an exegetical debate: "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" "What does The Law say about this question?" "How are we to interpret what we both agree the law says?"

Read the purity codes in Leviticus and Numbers and the priest and the Levite are seen, not as heartless and cowardly reprobates, but rather as faithful men, scrupulously obeying the clear and plain commandments of scripture. The texts are completely unambiguous. Don't touch corpses, under any circumstances, but particularly if you are in that heightened state of ritual purity required of priests and Levites performing their sacred duties. Don't do it. Never. Which part of DON'T do you not understand?  And in answer to the question of how we interpret the plain word of scripture Jesus holds up, as an exemplar to be followed,  someone whose nationality places him outside the law and who is acting in complete contradiction to the plain word of scripture. No wonder they nailed him to a cross, when he went round saying stuff like that!

It seems Jesus was inviting the lawyer he was debating with into a deeper perception. He was inviting him to repent: that is, μετανοείτε (metanoiete), think again.If we can only get past ourselves, past our preconceptions and assumptions, there is a deep truth waiting for us.

This deep truth is lying there, I suspect, even in Numbers 7. If only I could get past myself.

Sunday, 11 December 2016


We spent much of the weekend sitting in the car, me driving because Clemency is not confident about towing the caravan. We led a quiet day in St. Michael's Clyde, where we spent the night, then participated in a confirmation in Wanaka, and a lunch in Tarras. The weather was clear and still and warm and sitting beside each other as we drove past the lakes and rivers and tawny paddocks was about the most appropriate thing to be doing, because 40 years ago today we were married, and spent the fortnight afterwards traveling these very roads in our 1962 Volkswagen Kombi.

The people of the Upper Clutha parish treated us today with the most extraordinary generosity and kindness. Clemency and I exchanged some small but significant things and our children gave us gifts which showed a great deal of care and thought and planning, including a USB drive containing 40 pieces of music our children knew and remembered from their childhoods, or that they knew one or both of us responded to. So there was a song from the first LP Clemency ever owned (Cliff Richards, Summer Holiday) and tracks from the Cranberries and Dire Straits for me. There were recordings of songs we sang to them every night at bedtime: The Skye Boat Song (Clemency) or Abide With Me (me) and one that was taught in the Sunday School at St. Francis Hillcrest. There was music played on the long traverses of the North Island towing a trailer full of tents and campstoves and the theme music of films we watched repeatedly as a family. There was music from our adolescence and early adulthood and music that populates our current playlists.  We drove past the 40th generation descendants of the  lupins and gentian blue viper's bugloss which had garlanded the roads in 1976, with the music raising draughts from a deep well of memory. We marvelled at the power of a beautifully conceived and prepared gift to express the deepest love.

It's been quite the adventure. We've had our moments as we've grown through all our adult years in each others' company; but here we are, all these years later with with a depth of companionship and mutual understanding which 40 years ago we couldn't have even guessed was possible.



Friday, 9 December 2016

Santillana del Mar...

I remember a conversation I had with my brother Alistair when I was 4 and he was 8, about cars. My Grandfather had just bought a new car, a Wolseley 6/80 to replace the 1927 Pontiac he had owned previously. I asked Alistair when the new car would start turning square. It was a sensible question. I had noticed that new cars were small and curvy and old ones were large and square. Obviously cars, like people and trees, changed their shape as they aged. I remember it took Alistair quite a while to explain the evolution of automotive coachwork, and I remember the odd, enlarging sensation as my knowledge, not just of cars, but of time shifted.

No one had taught me, obviously, that cars changed as they aged. I'd noticed things in the world around me and made up a story which explained how these facts fitted together. Which is what we all do, all the time. No one has told Noah that the universe is a set of nested layers, but the story making mechanism between his ears has constructed such a universe out of the interactions he has with the world. We all do this, all the time. We make up stories. When we are awake these stories are more or less tethered to the world around us, or at least to our perceptions of the world. When we are asleep the stories are not tethered and are more free- form. Sometimes our stories are reasonably congruent with our experienced world, but mostly they are only approximately so. Soon Noah will learn that the layers story has some deficiencies and he will replace it with another one, just as my stories of the construction of cars have grown progressively more sophisticated.

Our story making capacity is developed in childhood through play. It is expressed in adulthood through yarn telling and novel writing and film making and blogging. Or theology. Or scientific enquiry. Very early we make a momentous discovery, that by consciously adapting our stories we can hide inconvenient truths or promulgate as fact things we have invented. We learn to lie very early, and we learn, or most of us do, to distinguish between the stories we have consciously constructed as falsehoods and those we have constructed believing them to be accurate descriptions of the world "out there". The fact is though, that the difference is not as clear cut as we assume. Almost everything we believe about the world will one day be shown to be like my four year old's theory on automotive ageing.

"I have come to bear witness to the truth," said Jesus, when Pilate held his life in balance. "You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free," he told his opponents. The Gospel call is to allow Jesus to do for us what my brother once did for me: shake loose our ridiculous ideas in order that we might be free of them; that we might be enlarged; that we will be drawn closer to reality and thus made more real ourselves. The process of following is one of letting go, often of things which we had no realised we were capable of surrendering. It is a process of dying, in other words. But as I discovered when I was 4 the dying is, in reality, a doorway into something bigger and better. What is required of us is consent, for God will do the hard work of transformation in us and lead us to the points of relinquishment if we are prepared to allow God to do it.  We are asked for consent, and this consent is best found in us when we make an effort, as best we can, to follow truth and eschew falsehood. Which is what I learned, finally, after all these years, in the Town of the Three Lies.  

...The Town of the Three Lies

I woke in the early morning thinking of Santillana del Mar. It is a village in Cantabria, called el pueblo mas bonito del Espana - the prettiest village in Spain. Which it is not. It is a very well preserved medieval town full of narrow streets and half timbered houses and quirky palacios, but it is too full of tourists to be beautiful.  It is also called la villa de las tres mentiras - the town of the three lies - because it isn't holy (santa ), flat (llana) or by the sea (del mar) as the name suggests.

We walked along a winding hill road with Clemency's ankles showing the first signs of the tendinitis which would eventually force her to spend 8 days in a hotel in Lugo. Earlier, we had picnicked under a tree, during a warm, light, summer shower, but that was hours ago, and now it was time for rest and food. While every second farm seemed to have a big old villa with an abundance of bedrooms, a sparsity of renovation and a sign at the gate advertising habitaciones, and although the next village was, as yet, only a name on a map, we turned down the opportunities for immediate rest and walked on in the hope of  a decent cafe.
And there it was, at the end of a long, gentle descent, Santillana del Mar, with its ancient collegiate church and its cobblestones and a cafe in every second building. We found the small and very new albergue, showered, bought coffee and tapas and looked around.
The next morning we decided to have a rest day, so took a room in a 15th Century palacio. The old house was crammed with antiques and our room had a balcony with a view into the street. We rested and made decisions.The camino is a place to think. It is a place for the Spirit to act. The repeated task of walking is itself a spiritual exercise, and in the daily rhythms of the journey much that has long been hidden is surfaced and dealt with.
What we decided there - to walk the Primitivo instead of carrying on with the Norte and for Clemency to take a few days out if necessary - changed the shape of our camino. But like everything else on this sacramental path, the decisions were actually deeper and truer than we imagined at the time. The spiritual path is a journey away from falsehood into truth. And the journey had surfaced for me one of the most deeply cherished lies I had told myself about myself.

We lie when we knowingly deceive, either by stating falsehoods or by withholding truth. When we lie we present to the other - or to ourselves - not the truth of who we are but a fiction; a version of ourselves which we hope will be safer and more presentable. Lies, therefore, make true communion impossible.

So, this morning I woke in my lovely house, more than a year after being in Santillana del Mar and remembered a commitment I made there, to myself and to God, to walk towards truth and away from lies.

We continued our camino the next morning, out of the ancient town and along the path towards Comillas; towards Asturias and Lugo and Santiago de Compostela; towards the future kept in store for us, waiting for us to be courageous enough to receive it.  

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Eden to Patmos - Week 1.

The road above En Hakkore in the Maniototo
I'm reading the Bible right through, using the Nonesuch edition of the KJV. There are no chapter or verse numbers and while this is quite an old book, the paper is still crisp and white. It's a surprisingly easy read.  It's a long time since I've read the Authorised Version, and the language takes a bit of adjusting to, but the old words have an entertaining sort of quaintness about them - Begat, wherefor, bakemeats, Earing (ploughing); ouches (sockets for jewels); pilled (stripped off).

I have a bit of trouble turning off the inner Biblical critic. Reading Genesis and half of Exodus in a week means the overall pattern and structure of the text is very plain to see: the seams in the joining of the sources in the story of Joseph are pretty obvious, as are the puzzles of timing - Isaac is more than 21 years on his deathbed, for example, and Ishmael is about 14 years old when his mother abandons him under a bush to die. Abraham tries to pass his wife off as his sister twice and Isaac tries the same trick once, with a king named Abimilech featuring in 2 of the stories. The synchretic nature of the narrative is very obvious with this kind of reading, but that's not what I'm here for. Neither is the fairly obvious agenda of the compilers. The Lord of the Creation appears, for example on Mt. Sinai, but instead of letting us all in on the meaning of Life, The Universe and Everything, or giving us a few hints about quantum theory or relativity, gives instead, painstaking detail for the construction of the box in which his souvenirs are to be carried about. He seems to fill an agenda, in other words, laid out by a bunch of priests in post-exilic Babylon; but that is oddly reassuring for its humanity and accessibility. God is present in these human stories and in their human compilers. Rollicking through, I hear the stories as they would once have been told; as folk stories full of repetitions, the rhythm of whose language shines through even in translation. I find myself caught up afresh in the lives of the ancient ones.

There are the two stories of creation and all the ancient oddities which have somehow stumbled into the text and got stuck there before a decent editor happened along - the Nephilim and the Tower of Babel and God trying to kill Moses only a few days after sending him on a journey. There is the flood with all  its variously counted cargo. There is Jacob struggling with his dreams and with God and with himself. Joseph runs naked from his lascivious owner and then, later, weeps to be united with his little brother. Names are filled with meaning, and none more so than the Ground of All Being who is revealed to Moses in an only apparently burning bush and whose name is not a proper noun so much as a state of being and a verb. And then there is the long story of the boy who was raised between two cultures in a time of genocide, and who became a shepherd and then a seer and then a political activist and then a baffled and exhausted leader of his rebellious people. I try to forget the 20th Century question how did these stories arise? and try instead to let them entertain me and inform me. Letting go of all my educated preconceptions of these stories is like any other form of self surrender: a door through which the never absent divine can speak.

Friday, 2 December 2016

Retreat March 2017

I will be leading a six day silent guided retreat at the En Hakkore Retreat Centre in the Maniototo from Sunday March 5, to Friday March 10, 2017.

The cost will be $475.

En Hakkore is set in the old TB hospital in the hills above Waipiata. The surrounding landscape is vast and open and beautiful, and provides ample scope for long and varied walks. The facility itself is spacious, quirkily interesting, and, while a little basic, very comfortable. There will be a rhythm of daily worship, which retreatants can enter into, or not, as they choose, including daily Eucharist and some teaching on thepractice and principles of centering prayer. I will be one of the three experienced spiritual directors available for daily conversation. Each day will include some group meditation sessions and there will be ample time for private refreshment.

En Hakkore is about 2 hours drive from Dunedin, and public transport is not available. A few places may be available in the cars of others attending - I myself may have a couple of spare seats. 

For further information, or to reserve a place leave a message in the comments section (your comment won't be published) or contact our diocesan office.