The waking breath

One of the things I am trying to do is attending to the first waking breath of each day – to notice it, and contemplate it and the ones that follow.  I am hopelessly miserable at it.  I miss the noticing almost 90% of the time, and I am trying!

I have 55 years of habit to break!  A habit of taking for granted the fact that I can breathe and live; a habit of assuming that the air I breathe has sufficient oxygen to do what it needs to do to make my body work; but also, most importantly for me, a habit of failing to dwell in the simple amazement that I get to live, to breathe, to experience, to engage, to think, to grow, to wonder.

I can spend most and sometimes all of the hours in any one day simply not noticing or treasuring the fact that I get to live.  I can be alive but not living.  Now I am wanting to form a new habit.  The habit of noticing.  I am trying to cultivate an attitude of amazement.  And while I am struggling with attending to the phenomenon of the first conscious breath of each day, when I do, the day that follows seems to have a deeper richness to it.  Those days become laced with gratitude.

Who started it?

Jan city (1 of 1)-10This lovely piece of street art was tagged recently – the artist Ash Keating acknowledged that the white paint tag was probably an expression of distaste at the initial vandalism by Ver0 – an insurance company not always appreciated in post-earthquake Christchurch.

It does give one cause to ponder the nature of vandalism.  If it is a dedicated sign does that legitimize it over what someone does with a spray can?  I am well over random pointless tagging around the city, so I am no advocate for that expression of street art.  If people have something to say and it is clever (like Banksy) then bring it on within reason.  But I think I do understand the second time the Keating piece was tagged – but the Vero tag is what dishonoured Keating’s work.

An article I wrote published in the Christchurch Press newspaper today

Race Relations continues to be an issue here in Aotearoa – maybe extent of racial prejudice is not to the scale of what happens in some other countries, but there is a place for ongoing coaching so that what we have achieved doesn’t slip…




Preening & Prancing and a Culture of Entitlement

Over the last few weeks Anne and I have been reflecting on the observations Jesus made (in Mark 12:38-44) about the preening and prancing of the scribes… “Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honour at banquets! They devour widows’ houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.”

The contrast is the widow who gives her all, ironically, to fund the preening and prancing scribes.

A sense of entitlement is prevalent in our society and has been picked up by the advertisers who keep telling us that we deserve things.

I wonder about the challenges this sense of deserving more and more presents for our society and world?  It seems that we have developed an expectation that the world owes us a good living.  If that means that a significant proportion of the world’s human population has to live with the smallest proportion of things in order to prop up our lifestyles – then so be it.

Coupled with this is a mentality that the earth owes us something and we are prepared to plunder and exploit its resources for maximum profit and, if we cause climate change and some of our poorer low-lying countries sink, well, that is just collateral damage!

In Psalm 24:1-2 it states: ‘The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it; for God has founded it on the seas, and established it on the rivers.’

I wonder where we got the idea that the earth is ours and all that is in it?
That represents a major theological shift from the stated position in Psalm 24!

In this land of plenty it is challenging to counter the cultural forces that suggest that we deserve more and more.

Maybe a way to live in another framework is to cultivate gratitude for what we have rather than give into the cravings for more.

Brené Brown has some useful things to say on this including this quote:
“I don’t have to chase extraordinary moments to find happiness – it’s right in front of me if I’m paying attention and practicing gratitude.”


Grumpy Driving

A friend posted on Facebook about his rising angst at the frustrating experiences of driving on roads that have other people on them… He wrote: ‘I’ve seldom got frustrated let alone angry behind the wheel , but lately I find myself fuming when I miss the green light because of the inattention of some twit in front of me who is concentrating on texting or checking phone messages and is slow to react. Has anyone seen a site on which photos of these dorks and dorkesses can be featured? What can be done apart from me taking more deep breaths and calming down?’

My response was this:

‘There is something about motor vehicles which has cultivated in us an expectation of running everything to the wire,
thus we leave things to the last minute,
we reduce our connection with the people around us
(thus we feel we can swear and curse at the
m from inside our metal and glass boxes),
and we operate in constant states of tension…

I don’t think my grumping at car drivers is going to improve by a few deep breaths on my part,
I think I probably should walk more, or take public transport,
or leave half an hour earlier to get over what I have been sucked into.

What worries me the most with my grumping (which is a behaviour I very rarely display in any other human interaction)
is that one day the person I am cursing turns out to be a friend
and she or he recognizes me, and kind of doesn’t recognize the me that is on display!’

David Cunliffe and the media

I am ever so greatly annoyed at the role the news media played in the demotion of the Labour Party member of parliament David Cunliffe.  David is a long-time friend of mine, so I will reflect a bias in my opinion, and politics is a dirty game and the motivations of any parliamentarian are always hard to read.  But I haven’t talked with David since his demotion to the back-benches on Tuesday, thus what I write is not in any way reflective of his opinions about anything, though, I am sure Continue reading

a murderous mob

I’m immersed in the John Dear book Jesus the Rebel.  Looking through the lens of a nonviolent Jesus (is there any other Jesus but a non-violent one?  Surely not a violent one!), Dear proceeds to tell the Jesus story – highlighting how Jesus stands against the systems that perpetrate violence on people – especially the poor.  In the chapter ‘The Mission’ he reflects on the passage from Luke 4 when Jesus reads from the scroll of Isaiah in the synagogue.  In announcing that the words are being fulfilled in the hearing of those gathered for worship, there is a reaction – “…the pious, religious congregation explodes with anger and violence.  Feeling insulted by Jesus’ political accusations [the references to Elijah and the widow, and the Syrians], the devout congregation screams, ‘How dare he ruin the liturgy by speaking of God consorting with the enemy and implying that we are not on God’s side in the pursuit of justice.'”
Dear goes on, “Luke describes the transformation of  a religious congregation into a murderous mob: The people are filled with fury; they rise up as one; they drive Jesus out of the town; they lead him to the brow of a hill; they intend to hurl him over the cliff.  How do the faithful respond to Jesus’ call for justice?  They try to kill him!  His words unmake their murderous hearts, their allegiance to structural injustice, and their hostility towards their enemies.  Jesus exposes them; they are not people of prayer and faith… rather, these devout people benefit from the empire’s oppression of the poor, its imprisonment of captives, its marginalisation of outsiders, and its class divisions that keep the land and economic resources in their pious and elite hands.”  Jesus the Rebel p18-19

I have observed earlier the behaviours of crowds and systems and how easily they become mobs.  In an attempt to do what they believe is right, they do wrong.  In the name of the One who is sent, by God, to be as one of us – sent to the margins to gather us in, we marginalize people whose differences we cannot accept.  We say that people who are of the same-sex cannot make covenants of marriage before God without first attending to how we handle ourselves and our power.  Just because we can, should the majority act in God’s name in ways that marginalize people?  Isn’t this contradictory with the heart of the reign of God as unfolded by Jesus?
This needs to be talked about – but the church I belong to, chose not to talk or even allow a conversation in the church about this issue.  No, in a spirit of pious certitude, the majority made its statement and insisted that there was no conversation to be had.  We not only marginalised people, but we chucked the possibility of discussion and discernment over the brow of a hill.
Jesus made his way ‘through the midst and went away.’ [Luke 4:30]
Later, much later, the mob finds its way to do the job properly – they side with their oppressors to create a superpower, they haul Jesus before their leaders and have him tried.  Flimsy evidence is empowered by a shouting crowd and the ultimate betrayal of God ‘We have no king but Caesar!’  He is whipped within an inch of his life and hung on a cross to die in agony.
But this reign of God is of such force that even death cannot stop it – on the third day he is raised.
Yet, here we are, after the fact, gathering as mobs and acting as if the reign/kingdom of God has not come and God’s will has not been done on earth as in heaven!  And what is worse – we do it in God’s name!  Blimey!

General Ass #3

I have just updated #2.  There have been a series of very good post General Assembly reflections by a number of colleagues that have been very thoughtful and interesting.  We have a system in the PCANZ that provides boundaries and gates for how we handle the business of being the church nationally.  It is a great pity that we continue to bind ourselves to them in the way that we do.  The reflection process would be so helpful if it could contribute before and at the Assembly, but there is little opportunity for this to take place.  We get 2 minutes to challenge the powers.  Little time to ask the base questions like: is this the best way to frame what is going on? and, is it appropriate for a majority to claim that they represent the truth after any particular vote?
Interestingly, we started the General Assembly at a marae – our national marae, Te Maungarongo.  On the marae the korero (speech) honours the speakers – take the time you need – you won’t be interrupted.  There is space for reflection, sleep, kai (food) and a walk.  You meet under/within the body of the ancestor and within the story of what has gone before.  It is a place of truth-telling and story – sometimes brutal, but always with a view to reconciliation.
And, if at the end of the hui (gathering), the differences cannot be resolved, there is a sense that there will always be another day for more korero, for, the experience of mingling breath in the hongi (pressing of noses and breathing out as you do it) is ultimately a commitment of respect.
Maybe we have more to learn before we can be too confident that we are right and therefore others must be wrong.

General Ass Part 2 updated

The first part of this entry was before the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand General Assembly – this second part is a few days after…
I said in the first entry that we take it all too seriously and I still think so. Actually, I think that ‘it’ takes itself all too seriously and that is the worry. The General Assembly becomes an ‘it’ – an entity – a power – and it sometimes manifests behaviours that we wouldn’t countenance or expect of ourselves when it does its thing.
I spent four days with some of the loveliest people around – women and men who seek to do their best to live in Christ (and by his Spirit, Christ seeks to live in all of them – and me – and manages to some degree from what I can see!). I like these people – they are my whanau (my family) and, as always, the snippets of conversation (not much time for much more than the odd snippet darn it!) were always interesting. Thank you all you lovely people for being who you are!  I learned how to walk in your company and I limp with you still.
In so many ways we all get caught up in something by being together that is at times very special: the laughter, the tears and the aroha – especially at Te Maungarongo marae, through the preaching and leadership of the Moderator Ray Coster, through the quite startlingly real and potent and attentive worship leading from Malcolm Gordon (and his cellist, keyboardist & drummer), through the provocative prodding of Tim Keel, through the prophetic, humble, and hopeful witness of Mod-elect Andrew Norton, and during the presentation of the PI Synod gaining Presbytery power, this was us at our best.  The Te Aka Puaho Moderator, Rev Wayne TeKaawa’s speech of welcome to the Pacific Islanders was us at our very best.  At times we climbed so very very high.  Or was it that we were lifted?
But I also spent some moments in these days struggling with some downright ugliness.  Our church is a curious beast.  I attended an Assembly for the first time in 1982.  I was a youth rep in the days when there were just four of them.  We were an experiment.  I observed some patterns in the debates (and there were a lot of debates – days and days of them!) that were ugly.  It seemed that whenever a person of a more conservative persuasion got up to speak that the majority of others seemed to find it amusing when procedural motions (like, ‘I move that we proceed to the next business’) were put and won.  There was chuckling and back-slapping.  It was a mob victimising the minority voices.  It was prejudice.  It was bullying.
These days, the tables have turned – the more conservative positions have a clear majority in our church.  They now hold power.  The victim becoming victor is dangerous ground though.  Will the one who was beaten now beat?  I can honestly say that it is not as ugly as it once was.  I think there is less vitriol than there was in 1982.  I think that the more conservative folk work harder at trying to be Christ-like in their personal conduct.  But there is still an ugly side when there is a crowd.  And there is bullying.  I find it increasingly sickening the way the Presbyterian Affirm machine works.  I understand that the connections in that circle are encouraging to many. But some of the manifestations of the machine offend me.  The pattern over the years has been that several characters insert themselves into most debates in ways that are designed to instruct other people how to vote – green light/red light.  They might claim that they don’t do this but I am not convinced.  Let the truth be at the surface!  I think that we can be better than this.  It is a form of ‘ism’ – the Assembly becoming an ‘it’ – a power and, at times, a graceless victimising mob.  I am reminded of the haunting words of John 11: 49-50 “But one of them, Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, said to them, “You know nothing at all, nor do you take into account that it is expedient for you that one man die for the people, and that the whole nation not perish.”  Here was the dominant religious institution justifying becoming a mob that would single out a scapegoat.  Didn’t that one man go to his cross that we might be free of any justification for institutional or other violence?  Thus can I ask this: is it right for the majority in the church to ostracise the minority?  Doesn’t the very thing they hope to protect – the gospel – become lost in these very acts of ungraciousness?  The Rev Margaret Schrader prophesied many years ago that there will be a ‘third way’ that God will make clear.  I still long for and pray for that day.
The worst expression of ‘it’ has been identified clearly by my friend Bruce Hamill in when the Assembly wouldn’t disallow discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.  What have we become?  We have become a mob and we hunted out, on more than one occasion, people different from the majority of us.  We hunted them out and we pushed them further out into the margins.  No room in our inn!  No conversation to be had.  Go to jail, go directly to jail… I hope and pray that these people can understand that the Gospel is bigger than how our church behaves.  I hope the day will come when the impulse of our church is not as God’s gatekeepers as if God needs a babysitter!  (or as Bono puts it: ‘Stop helping God across the road like a little old lady!’).  I know that some feel that the very gospel itself is at risk if we think that some carefully held points of view can be questioned – even changed.  But behind that is an assumption that everything is either or with God.  We are products of some very questionable modernist dualisms and we operate out of them all too readily.  The gospel needs to be rescued from cultural enslavement!  Maybe we need to learn how to genuinely listen to each other and ‘walk in each other’s shoes’ before we are ready to make laws and rules (which we Presbyterians think is our birthright to protect with laws and rules!).
Those issues notwithstanding, I treasure much from this Assembly.  I detect what I have been longing for all of my ministry, that there is an increasing willingness among many to talk and struggle together and even disagree, but to do so with an attitude of humility and respect and an expectation of keeping communion.  I look forward with hope to the day when we can freely admit that we don’t know very much at all really – we might be right, but we might be wrong –that one day we might be able to say something like this:  ‘In you, my friend on the other side of the argument, in you I see the face of Christ, in you I might hear his voice, and because of that, I am committed to you and I am willing to give myself for you just as Jesus calls me to.’
The last word is a quote from one of our ministers in training in her excellent blog entry Turangawewae – a place to stand – and her identifying just where Jesus stands:

General Ass…

Anne and I are off to the Presbyterian General Assembly tomorrow – we are looking forward to the powhiri and opening of the Assembly at Te Maungarongo marae – our PCANZ national marae at Ohope.
Rev Ray Coster is being installed as our new Moderator.  He is a great choice for the church – he has the unique combination of warmth, robust faith, enthusiasm for the church, and an ability to, and passion for, relating to a wide-range of people.  I am sure he will serve us well.  When Ray began his ministry in Timaru I was a weedy teenager, and I valued his wise mentorship.  I have enjoyed his friendship in the years since.
As for the content of the Assembly itself, I hope that it provides a positive inspirational role in the life of our Presbyterian Church.  Personally I think that our General Assemblies take themselves too seriously.  I do not rate national meetings as being especially useful when they seek to dictate – top down – the life of the Presbyteries and congregations.  Resourcing and encouraging – yes, – yes please! Prescribing the fine detail of the faith and doctrine and management from a distant place removed from the life of the congregations – no.
But there are systems at work and people within them that will try to do this, behaviour that I feel is totally inappropriate in this day and age when we are needing to be less institutional and more relational in our way of being in the kind of society we have.  I find the whole ‘westminister style’ of governance increasingly out of step with the way most of our churches function on a week by week basis.  That style leads to dominance by the more articulate, the disenfranchising of those who cannot be there, an adverserial approach to issues, and an unhelpful polarisation of the church where our differences are accentuated a way out of proportion to our commonality.  Our strong commonality, experienced at virtually every other level of the church’s life, rarely seems to get a good look in when we meet nationally.  I hope and pray that the Assembly doesn’t make an ass of itself!