by way of contrast


Earlier yesterday Anne and I took the dog for a walk around beautiful Hagley Park.  The frosty morning and early light in the trees made for some great photographic opportunities…

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earthquake damage

Anne and I visited friends today whose home is to be demolished as part of the NZ Government EQ package for affected homes.  They are philosophical – the damage to their once delightful home and land is irrepairable.

The drive to their home was horrendous – one of the pictures attached indicates what happened to their street just 12 days ago.  If we hadn’t had our high wheelbase vehicle we wouldn’t have got to the house by the route we have usually used.

Our friends asked me to take pictures of their house for their own records.  The house is empty and badly broken – they suspect that it has only held together because of the high quality steel roof.

The swimming pool out the back tells the story of the forces at work – it has come up several metres out of the ground. I had photographed it lopsided after the September 2010 quake but the February 2011 quake lifted it out of the ground and on its frightful lean.

Photographing their home was a sobering experience.

earthquake update

The quakes on Monday were a further morale tester for our beleaguered city.  The jolts were as big as the devastating February ones but of a different type – less like a trampoline and therefore not as hard on buildings, although many previously damaged buildings were not able to withstand it.

The heartbreaking part of it is the effect it has on a third of the city’s residents who find themselves surrounded in liquefaction sludge, blocked drains, burst water pipes and back on the portable toilets.

One wonders how much more they can take.

On a positive note yesterday I received $12,400 for our walk the streets with supermarket vouchers thing that we will probably carry out in July. The total is now over $30,000 – with a target of $50,000 before I seek the support of the supermarket chains.

50 – music of the last year

As with every year for the last while I prepare a list of songs that I have enjoyed listening to through my 50th year and burn them onto a CD.
The list contains some new tracks and a number of old ones – some rediscovered, others really ‘heard’ for the first time.

[The last year included getting to the following concerts U2 in Melbourne, Leonard Cohen, Pink Floyd Experience, Dave Dobbyn all in Christchurch, NZ]

The List (in order of what sounds nice):

The Rip – Portishead Third 2008
[My favourite Portishead track brittle yet powerful]

Radiohead – Exit Music (for a film) Ok Computer 1997
[More brittle yet powerful]

One – U2 & Mary J Blige Duals 2006/2011
[Thanks U2 for releasing duals to the diehard ever poorer but always richer fans!]

Stranger Here – Cowboy Junkies Renmin Park 2010

Grind – The Church El Momento Siguiente 2007

All Along the Watchtower – Jimi Hendrix The Best of Jimi Hendrix
[My way of giving thanks for the great Bob Dylan on his 70th birthday]

Falling Dove – Crowded House Intriguer 2010
[Melancholy at its best]

Wire – U2 The Unforgettable Fire 1984 re-mastered version 2009
[Play it loud!]

Thistles & Weeds – Mumford & Sons Sigh No More 2010
[On an album with many fine tracks this one stands out – I particularly like the last third of the album]

Sour Times – Portishead Roseland NYC Live 1998
[What fascinating music!]

Cicadas – Cowboy Junkies Renmin Park 2010
[An unusual style for the Junkies – it grew on me]

Isolation – Crowded House Intriguer 2010
[Neil Finn always comes up with lovely new songs and is joined by his wife]

The Lady Don’t MindLittle Creatures Talking Heads 1985
[What a joy to buy the CD and remember this song on what I believe to be their most accessible album]

My City of RuinsThe Rising Bruce Springsteen
[A very pertinent song after our large earthquake in February]

Girl, Make Your Own Mind UpThe Sun Came Out Don McGlashan with 7 World’s Collide 2009
[Don is a NZer formerly with the Muttonbirds & Front Lawn]

Moment of Surrender – U2 No Line On The Horizon 2009
[this is on for the third year running – a great song]

Not on this mix but would if I could have found a way to download them in time:
Supernatural – Cowboy Junkies from their latest release Demons, where they cover songs of the late Vic Chesnutt http://latentrecordings.com/cowboyjunkies/

Girl With One Eye – Florence & The Machine Lungs 2009

A question: why do bad things happen to good people

A reflection being delivered on 12 June at St Stephen’s…

12-6-11 St Stephen’s in Bryndwr
2 Cor 8:1-14 & Matt 5:38-48
Why do bad things happen to good people? Or, why do good things happen to bad people?  

This is the start of what I hope will be a series of sermons based on your questions and requests on themes or passages from scripture that intrigue and puzzle, or are simply of interest to my congregation.  The question why do bad things happen to good people?’ has been suggested to me.  It is an old old question – ‘why do we suffer?’ is the question behind it.  If God is good and God cares, why do bad things happen to faithful people?  It is an age-old question and to a degree the answer to it is always going to be elusive because all of our questions of God sooner or later are going to come up against a ceiling of sorts – the ceiling that is the limit of human understanding – the ceiling that is the mystery of God.  But there are some approaches to the question that I want to suggest we can take that might satisfy the person who asked it.  And whatever I have to say I am grateful that it has been asked – there is a place for all of our questions here and I want you to feel encouraged to ask them.

If I was naughty I would summarise my answer to the question of why bad things happen to good people with two simple words – ‘why not?’  I will try not to be naughty but by the end those two words might prove to be sufficient.

The ethical teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount offer us a useful platform for our enquiry.  In the context of teaching that we are to be about loving all people, including our enemies, Jesus states: ‘…your Father in heaven…makes his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.’  In other words God doesn’t make divisions in the bestowing of the blessings of life according to whether people have been good or bad.

These divisions are ours.  We are the ones who insist on making moral judgements.  We are the ones who label people, who dismiss people, and who either look up our noses or down our noses at people.  We are the ones who demarcate people according to standards we have set.

Thus when bad things happen to bad people we feel that that is justified – it is their fault – they have put themselves in the situation and that is their problem – they are simply paying the price for their badness.

And in the same way, when good things happen to good people we feel that that is justice – that is how the world should work… that is what is fair and right.

But we get mystified when life doesn’t always play that game on these terms – when something bad happens to someone we admire and who seems to be ‘one of us’, we begin to ask questions.  We look for excuses to justify their change in fortune – maybe so and so wasn’t as good as we thought.  Maybe something has caught up on them.

But I wonder if the problem is really ours in that we have been brought up to think that our good behaviour is to be rewarded and people’s bad behaviour deserves to be punished.  Maybe our values are too hard and narrow.

My son smokes cigarettes.  He has done for quite a few years now.  In some circles we walk in that news is treated with moral indignation.  Behind that indignation is a justifiable concern for his health, but some of the expressions of that concern are incredibly damning of him.  It is as if this one ‘bad’ thing is a determiner of the rest of his character.  In the consternation over his smoking what gets overlooked are what we believe to be the truly important things like his give-the-shirt-off-his-back generosity, his loyalty to friends, his sense of fun, and his principled work ethic.  Some behaviour that we might consider ill-advised does not make a person bad.  In his circle of friends smoking is not a reflection of your character – being loyal and looking out for a mate is a test of character.

Anne and I have been watching an absorbing and disturbing TV series on DVD called The Wire.  Based in Baltimore in the U.S., it follows the interactions between the police and the criminal element with all its rawness and ugliness.  It is not an easy watch and probably not to your taste!  One of the things that stands out in it is the mix up of good and bad.  The cops are good and bad – the criminals are bad and good.  Two of the characters we enjoy the most are from either side and while they are deeply flawed we find ourselves wishing the best for them… we like them and even admire them and we hope they will make it through.  We are able to forgive the worst parts of their actions because they have a code – they both have principles that guide them even if these wouldn’t fit our usual descriptions of good and bad.

Perhaps you may see that there is an initial problem in the premise of the question of why do bad things happen to good people.  It is wrong to assume that there can be a straight-forward separation between the good and bad in people in order for God to be able to bestow favour.  It is wrong of us to miss the good as we elevate or focus on the bad.  And it is wrong of us to presume that we are in some lofty place to make such judgements.

Added to that is a significant theological problem in the question with regards to our understanding of God’s favour.  In asking the question are we not implying that God’s grace is limited in some way?  Are we saying that God’s kindness, blessing, favour, mercy and love is to be limited only to those who have first done something to deserve it – like be good?

“If you are naughty then Father Christmas won’t be coming!”  How many of you were brought up on that one?  What is the question that Father Christmas asks the little children on his knee?  “Have you been good?”  The implication is that the gift will only be given if you are good, but just imagine how horrible Christmas would become if that were true.  On those criteria no one would ever get a present for no one is perfectly good – neither the children on Santa’s knee (who can never be perfect), or the parent who has just lost the plot by screaming at a screaming child, or the person playing Santa himself who might well have had a lustful thought as he saw down the top of the mother passing the child over to him.

Is God to be some kind of Father Christmas figure only bestowing gifts if we have measured up?  Are good things rewards for our good behaviour as if there is a divine ledger where all our deeds are listed?  Are bad things God’s judgements on our bad behaviour?  Can you hear again the chappie who popped up here at our church after the February earthquake and told us that God was punishing us for our sins?  We dismissed his bad theology then – shouldn’t we also dismiss the bad theology implicit in the question why do bad things happen to good people?

Maybe we have to dismiss the question altogether because it frames things in the wrong way.  It suggests that good and bad can be easily separated and it suggests that God only gives to the good – whoever they are.

But two questions remain.  One – why be good?  And two: why do bad things happen when God loves us?

In response to ‘why be good?’ the 2 Corinthians reading offers us some insight.  Paul is asking the Corinthians to help support the mission of the churches around them.  He doesn’t frame his request in terms of a judgement coming on them if they aren’t generous, but rather that they see their giving as a response to all that has been given to them.

Our Lord Jesus became poor so that we might be rich – he gave everything without counting the cost, thus you do the same.  We be good because God is good.  We be good because God calls us and enables us to live life in its fullness.

We could be bad, but in our gratitude for God’s generous love we want to live in God’s ways.  We don’t always get that right but we know that God’s goodness is not determined by us and our response, but by God and God’s love.

“Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions,” writes the Psalmist “[but] according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O Lord.” [Psalm 25:7]  The measure of goodness is God not us.  We do good not because God is an ogre out to get us if we slip up, but because God is good.

And the second question is the real question… why do bad things happen when God loves us?   When I look at the promises of God they are not so much you will come to no harm but ‘I will be with you.’

We are mortal creatures – our bodies begin to deteriorate as soon as they are born – it is just a plain old fact that some bad things are going to happen to our bodies in the course of our lives.  Some of the shops in the centre city had high-pitched low sound alarms running outside on the street-front.  Anyone over the age of 20 couldn’t hear them – their hearing had already deteriorated to such a degree that the sound was impossible to hear.  But teenagers heard it and would move off to get away from it.  It was the simplest way of deterring gatherings of young people from blocking shop entrances.  These devices used the deterioration of our bodies for an advantage.

We are mortal and things go wrong.  Our bodies don’t resist diseases as much as we would wish.  Cars crash.  Earthquakes cause buildings to collapse.  Innocent people get caught up in other people’s bad choices.  Should we ask that God wraps us in cotton wool?

We have met some parents who have tried to shield their children from any calamity only to discover in time that their children haven’t got much of a backbone – they cannot handle pain or conflict or the everyday pressures of life.

Skinning our knees as children is part of living.  Allowing that to happen to our children is part of loving.  We can love our children and hold back from protecting them from every danger because we have to do this in order for them to be free.  Sometimes there is a cost to that, but like God we are committed to them – our ‘I will be with you’ is what we offer.  It is enough – not always enough to protect them from harm but enough to give them a road to walk on.  Can we allow God to do the same for us?

Why do bad things happen to good people?  Because bad things happen to all people.  Where is God when we suffer?  Not causing it because we have done something wrong (we can be certain about that!) but with us in our struggle – in faith we can say that!  And, in the end, that might be all that really matters.

sermon I have been preaching as a primer for the fundraising effort

22-5-11 St Stephen’s in Bryndwr Luke 10:25-37
‘Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.’
Reflection by Mart the Rev

The 5th century desert fathers described loving your neighbours as the hardest commandment to keep and the hardest spiritual work in the world.
The preacher and author, Barbara Brown Taylor says, to love your neighbour as yourself is to “encounter another human being not as someone you can use, change, fix, help, save, enrol, convince, or control, but simply as someone who can spring you from the prison of yourself, if you allow it.  All you have to do is recognise another you ‘out there’ – your other self in the world – for whom you may care as instinctively as you care for yourself.  To become that person, even for a moment, is to understand what it means to die to yourself.  This can be as frightening as it is liberating.  It may be the only real spiritual discipline there is.” [An Altar in the World p93]
Brown Taylor highlights ways one can begin the practice and picks up on one of my favourite pastimes – the person at the checkout.  I decided 30 or so years ago that I would nice to checkout people – whose days must be a real grind – the same old job over and over again and, with the advances in technology, less and less use of your brain.  You don’t even have to be able to count anymore because the till will tell you how much change to give.  So they put your stuff through, ask if it is eftpos or cash, ask you to swipe your card, ask whether you want the receipt, and, whether it is early in the morning or last thing at night, their parting word is, ‘have a nice day!’ – whatever that means!
I decided that the checkout is an opportunity for interaction – sometimes playful, sometimes just taking an interest.  So I always look them in the eye and greet them or thank them by name.  Sometimes I ask after them or joke with them.  One of the part-time girls around the road here is a school girl named Cecilia.  Not a name you get a lot these days – probably because of the Simon & Garfunkel song!  One day I looked at her with a serious look on my face and said: “Cecilia – you may not know this, but you are breaking my heart, and you’re shaking my confidence daily… Cecilia, I’m down on my knees, I’m begging you please to come home – come on home!”
She looked at me with the look that says – yes, I’ve heard that one before but are you really doing this to me in front of these people?  But we ended up having a good old chat, and now, when I go through the checkout, she remembers me, and I haven’t had to sing the song that is always in my head whenever I see her – much as I have wanted to!
This might seem like a trivial thing, but I have done a lot of watching in the checkouts over the years and they are among the most dehumanising places – the checkout people are bored, the people in the lines are tired and drawn, there is little interaction and not a lot of joy.  I could have joined the crowd – but I am committed to love my neighbours – for me that involves the discipline of relating with them despite my feelings and my tiredness.  The rewards, I have to say, are many and deep.  It has become a highlight in my life – who would have thought that being at the checkout could be such fun!
We, of course, get to practice loving our neighbours on a regular basis in our church community.  The church community is a kind of microcosm for experimentation and fine tuning.  People who we might normally not associate with have to be tolerated, worked around, and even endured, despite their quirks and inconsistencies.  All are welcome – that’s how God operates and that’s what we all agree to and find a way to put into practice.  The key concept here is hospitality – making a space for someone else – the stranger and sojourner, the lost and the broken, the least and the last.  The theology is simple, as God has made a space for us, so we are to make space for others.
I count the hospitality shown to me by the church when I was vulnerable as one of the most wonderful gifts in my life.  I had a few fairly tormented years as a teenager – for some reason I was the target for the aggression of a bunch of testosterone-filled idiots who were unsure how to handle themselves and others.  I daresay they had their own demons to face, and like most people with demons, they project their stuff onto someone else – in this case, weedy uncertain me.  It was quite tiresome, sometimes frightening, and very isolating – other more reasonable characters avoided me lest they became targets by association.  My life-line was my church family.  In that community I was liked and valued and interesting.  In that community I had space to grow and room to be forgiven.  Whatever the failings of that community, I count their care of me as a triumph. God bless the people of St Paul’s in Timaru!
I daresay there has been such a community for you in your past.  Can you bring to mind the names and faces of those who nurtured you?  Given your behaviour on Friday night, I see that you continue to provide such a space today.

A key dynamic of what I feel called to offer in my ministry among you is exploring how we take the goodness of what we have in our community life here at St Stephen’s and offer it in service of the community around us in a new and interesting ways.  The hospitality that we experience together is not for us alone – what we have here is not a club for our pleasure, but a springboard for service – a training ground for the godly business of loving our neighbours.  We are placed here to serve the people around us.  Not so that we can recruit, use, change, fix, help, save, enrol, convince, or control people – but simply because those around us, like us, are loved.  The hospitality of God has been given to us and it is also given to them. It might well be that without our care of those around us, they might not see God’s hospitality for what it is – what we do for those around us – with music and play, caring for feet, serving afternoon tea, providing cheap clothes and goods, and an after-school club – all modest things in themselves – without these things and us in them – people might miss God’s making a space for them.  That’s what makes our efforts so important – that’s what makes these efforts holy.

In the Bible, the Greek word for hospitality is philoxenia.  Philo – one of the four Greeks words for love, and xenia – for the stranger.  Love of stranger.  Not xenophobia but philoxenia – loving our neighbours.  “Love your neighbour!” says Jesus, says Moses, says God.  “Who is my neighbour?” asks the teacher of the Law – and we know the story.  The neighbour is the least expected, the last choice, the person written off as lost… it was the hated Samaritan who offered hospitality to the robbed and beaten left-for-dead stranger.  “Go and do likewise,” says Jesus.

A story and a challenge:  In Dunedin when Anne and I were residing there, there was a heightening of grumpiness in the city because of raucous student behaviour.  More and more people were calling for a crackdown on the students, with some even saying we would be better off if they weren’t there.  One of the issues was that most of the students lived in close proximity to the university and gradually over the years all the permanent residents in that area moved out thus removing any moderating influences away.  It was easy to fire pot-shots at the students because increasingly the permanent city-folk didn’t relate to them.  The permanent citizens benefitted greatly from the student’s presence – the university is the life-line of Dunedin – without it the city would lose its largest business – but because the city-folk didn’t relate to the students it became easier to fasten in on some behaviour and elevate the grumpiness.  I decided to challenge my parish to handle this with hospitality rather than hostility.  I suggested that in the week before examinations we could go out in pairs and take bags of homemade biscuits around the student housing area.  It was clear to me that the only way to break down the ‘them and us’ mentality that was growing in the city was for the permanent residents to attempt to relate.  We offered no strings attached hospitality.  The experience for the church people was profound.  In some cases they were invited in – they had conversations they never imagined would have been possible – they enjoyed themselves.  And, most of all, they realised that the vast majority of these young people were ordinary human beings – the kind of loveable human beings their grandchildren were.  After that experience the people of the parish were slower to judge and faster to speak up for the students in the city.

It was interesting to read Dr Rod Carr’s comment in the newspaper this week that over 85% of the university students in Christchurch live within 2-3km radius of the University of Canterbury.  This is fast becoming a situation like that in Dunedin.  How are we in the city going to manage how we relate to them?  How can we offer hospitality rather than hostility to our neighbours?

A month ago Anne and I popped over to Avonside to deliver a cheque for a $1000 to a young couple living in a very badly affected part of the city.  Friends had told us of their plight and we had been given some money from the Highgate Parish to distribute to people in need.  Driving into the Avon loop zone was a profound experience – the place was desolate – it was a real shock to us.  I cannot say that it has been the hardest hit part of the city or that the people there are the people in greatest need, but their lives are seriously affected – and they still don’t have the sewerage system restored.  I wrote that experience up on my blog and received a lot of feedback.  Some people in Wellington wrote to me and offered $15,000 for that kind of ministry.  Others also offered money.  Here’s what I want to do… I want to offer you the opportunity to go out in pairs one Sunday afternoon and door knock in the Avonside/Dallington area, with bags of homemade biscuits and $200 supermarket vouchers for any people you find at home.  If we west-side, less earthquake affected people go with my $15,000 that would mean we could visit 75 homes and offer some hospitality in order to make life just a tiny bit easier for them.  In the meantime, because of my writing that visit up, two other people have said they would like to give $1000 for that kind of thing – that would make it $17,000.  It has got me thinking.  What if I was to approach the supermarkets over this side of the city and invite them to match us in some way – maybe even dollar for dollar?  We could turn that $17,000 into something as high as $34,000 and connect with 170 homes.  And then what if we involved St Giles and maybe St Mark’s and invited people to donate money for vouchers as well as baking and walking the streets, maybe we could top $50,000 and get to 250 homes!  I know that this would create a logistical nightmare, but there are people who are good with systems.  But what a gesture of hospitality this would be – some west-side Presbyterians doing something for their east-side neighbours with a Kingdom of God-like gesture.  Biscuits and vouchers not because you have proved need or done something to deserve our generosity, but just because we know that this is the way of Jesus and that we believe, as it says in the book of Proverbs, that ‘the world of the generous gets larger and larger and the world of the stingy gets smaller and smaller.’ [Proverbs 11:24 The Message]

What do you reckon?   Is this the kind of ‘moving a mountain’ offering the hospitality of God challenge that we could take up?

door to door, a copy of a posting I sent out today


Hi there

I wrote a while back about a trip Anne and I made into a hard-hit area of town to give $1000 to a couple who, with their young children, were struggling (you can track the story on my blog listed below).

I want to update people on some of the outcomes to that story.  Like many things around here in Christchurch, one things seems to lead to another, and one act of kindness seems to generate other acts.  It really is the gospel in action in so many ways, among so many people.  Our cups are depleted and then they overflow – such has been the kindness of generosity of so many.

A week or so after I wrote that story up the members of a trust indicated to me that they would like to donate $15,000 towards works of that nature!  $15,000!  They did more than indicate – they sent the cheque!  I have been preaching in a few churches here (St Stephen’s, St Giles & St Mark’s this week) about a grand idea – to turn that $15,000 into $200 supermarket vouchers and that people of the three parishes walk door to door in a hard-hit suburb one Sunday afternoon and give any people we find a voucher and some home-made biscuits and fruit.  I have also indicated that I will be visiting some of the westside supermarkets to buy the vouchers and encourage them to consider matching us – maybe dollar for dollar!

The response has been very warm – even enthusiastic.

I know that there is consistent prolonged help needed in these hard-hit suburbs where I have heard that a recent survey has indicated that about one quarter of people are quite depressed – but maybe our one-off gesture will help people understand that they are in the thought and prayers and consciences of the people in their city – even 3-4 months after the dust has settled.  There might be agencies we could donate the money to but I feel very strongly that we need to walk in their streets and meet people at their doors as well.

Anyway – since then, $2,200 has been pledged from some of my parishioners and from a small women’s group in Timaru.  And I learned overnight that approximately NZ$6000 is about to be sent from a group of women in Stonehaven, Scotland (where our colleague Fyfe Blair now ministers) – so it is up to $23,000 already – that is $200 to 115 homes.  What a week!!!

I wonder if anyone else wants to help us.  Because the cup seems to be overflowing without all that much of a sales-pitch, I want to dangle the idea out there to any individuals who might want to partner with us in the gathering of money.  I have a modest target of $50,000 before I talk to the supermarket chains.  What if we could get to 250 homes or 500 homes?!!!

I am aware that people have given sacrificially already to the PCANZ national appeal – I am not asking for more from you and yours… but maybe you can spread the word wider…

Any donations can be sent to St Stephen’s Church, PO Box 29-346, Fendalton, Christchurch – we will offer a receipt for tax purposes!!!

Have a good whatever you are having!

Martin