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Saturday, March 16, 2019

The problem with "us/not us" thinking

In the wake of the atrocious terrorist attack on two Mosques in Christchurch yesterday it is understandable that we all try to find words to express our horror and grief. But I do think there are dangers in being quick to talk in us/not us terms. As Dr Paul Buchanan helpfully pointed out in a TV 1 interview, these kinds of attacks are motivated by fear of the other.  So as soon as we are quick to label some people as "us" and others as "not us" we can unwittingly generate exactly the same "fear of the other". It's just a different "other" this time. Of course it is true than in general New Zealand and the majority of New Zealanders are welcoming and accepting of different ethnicities and religions. So to say "This is not who we are" may be a helpful reminder and rallying cry. But it is a short step from there to divide people into the "us" and "not us" categories. Hard as it is to admit, there are in NZ, many people who fear and (therefore hate and attack) various groups as "other" than themselves. Think of gang violence for instance. These people are part of the corporate "us" of NZ. Of course that doesn't mean we condone or in any way support their actions. We automatically put ourselves into the "us" group that is good and without blame.  Maybe we need to think a bit more about Alexander Solzhenitsyn's quote that "The line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being."

Friday, March 8, 2019

Why me?

Usually the "why me?" question is asked when things are bad. "How come I'm the one losing my job... getting cancer?... having a family member die?" Fair enough. It's natural to feel the shock of unexpected tragedy or loss. We subconsciously think this will happen "to someone else but not me."

Yet this morning as I enjoyed the luxury of a leisurely morning walk I asked the question in a different way. "Why me? Why should I have so much freedom... a healthy (enough!) body... live in such beautiful surroundings?"
I pondered how since early childhood I have been drawn to solitude and silence in beautiful places.
I am forever grateful for childhood summers spent on Ponui Island in the Hauraki Gulf.
Getting there by dinghy and launch was part of the adventure! Sadly I have very few photos of that time. This one was taken approx 1953 with me at bottom of picture holding onto another child to keep her from falling in and Mum at top right with big sunhat.

I did not take this photo but it brings back memories!
I remember the freedom of being able to wander off through the bush or on the beach on my own or with a friend and explore without fear. Ponui being a privately owned island made it safe for my parents to allow such freedom. I'm grateful that they did!

Living in Auckland meant that there were plenty of beaches, parks and hills to enjoy. Cornwall Park and One Tree Hill have always been special places - still enjoyed today.

Then I lived in Torbay with Long Bay beach just down the road:

After 15 years there we moved to Orewa where we are spoilt for choice as many of my previous Blogs have shown - lake, estuary, beach, bush walk - all within easy reach. I'll add just two photos:

So you see why I say "Why me?" There's no answer of course. I could have been born in a refugee camp, or to a poor family struggling to survive in a city slum. I could have been brought up in an abusive family or have lived all my life with a serious disability. The list of "could haves" is endless. Sometimes I even feel a bit guilty to have been given so much ... but receiving what I have been given with gratitude is more appropriate - and that I certainly do - every day. 

Living gratefully and enjoying to the full the gifts of so much time surrounded by beauty has undoubtedly shaped who I am. There's mystery in what we have been given and how it shapes us. I trust that the mystery of my privileged life has, and does, bear fruit in the way I live it out.

Monday, February 18, 2019

Family history on my finger!

I've had a box called "family archives" in the garage for years! Every now and then I dip into it although it all feels rather overwhelming! But today I discovered something rather special.

On an envelope addressed to my mother containing her Dad's 100th birthday cards and telegrams, I noticed for the first time the customs declaration.
The top line reads: "Wedding ring of deceased parent".
I've always known that the ring I wear was Grandpa's wedding ring re-sized to fit Mum and bequeathed to me after Mum died. But somehow seeing the actual envelope in which it travelled (safely!) from UK to NZ in 1977 was a special link to the past.  
Grandpa was born in 1876 and died four weeks after his 100th birthday. Sadly he had a fall and broke his femur just two weeks before his birthday. The Home for Retired Teachers, where he had been living had planned a wonderful party for him and were very disappointed that he had to celebrate his birthday in hospital.
The beginning and end of the article read: 
"Boxing Day was to have been the proudest day in the long life of Mr Frederick Emlyn Phillips, of Trentham. A fabulous party was planned at the Teachers Benevolent Home, New Park, and visitors were due from all parts of the country to attend Mr Phillips 100th birthday celebrations.

And the 40-odd residents and staff were also excited and ready to make the occasion one to remember. By alas, the big party was forestalled by an accident. Mr Phillips suffered a nasty fall and was taken to the North Staffordshire Royal Infirmary, where it was found he had fractured a femur.
Miss Sarah M. Jones (social secretary) and Mr. Albert Arrowsmith (administrative officer) were also very disappointed at the cancellation of the party. "He is a gracious person and one of nature's 'true gentlemen,' said Mr Arrowsmith."

How's this for his telegram from the Queen!
Amazing to think that the Queen who had this sent to my Grandpa in 1976 is still our Queen today!
Grandpa in his younger years (note the tie-pin!)

Monday, February 4, 2019

An Ocean of Light

I have just started reading the third in the series of books on contemplation by Martin Laird. In order they are:

It is best to read them in that order as Laird takes you step by step from the edge of the ocean into deeper and deeper water. I have read the first two books twice and gained so much each time. I'm only a few pages in with the third but this morning the following sentence provided my Lectio Divina for today! 

"Contemplation and the lifestyle leading to it and flowing from it, asks but a single question, 'What does kindness look like at any given moment?'"

I am struck by the simplicity of this statement and its question. Why did Laird choose the word kindness rather than love, or compassion? Perhaps for the very reason that it is so surprising. I would have expected the word love or perhaps compassion. But kindness is such a simple, gentle, unassuming quality. Anyone can be kind. Kindness does not require any special skills, forethought or preparation... aha ... there's the conundrum! It's true that kindness is shown by many people quite unexpectedly and naturally. That's wonderful. However, I think what Laird is saying is that the practice of contemplation develops a lifestyle from which kindness flows. That makes sense. Contemplative prayer (and contemplative living) are practices of letting go the self focussed narrative of thoughts and motivation. Less self focus allows more spaciousness for God and for others.

As I ponder that, I think I am a more kind and gentle person now than I was some years ago. I can't be sure that is necessarily the fruit of my contemplative practice but I'm happy to think the two may be linked. And I smile ruefully at the fact that between writing the previous paragraph and this one I was out for few hours and was very impatient and frustrated at the incompetence of a "customer service" situation! Ah well, the reminder that I'm still a beginner is no bad thing. I think I am  quicker to recognise my own faults with kindness even as I hope to do better. 

Monday, January 14, 2019

The cool of the evening

One of the things I really love about daylight saving is that I can walk in the cool of the evening. There's a quiet stillness as the sun is setting and the light is fading. The rush and bustle of the day subsides and those out walking are doing so because they choose to not because they "have to get somewhere." I'm fortunate to live where I can wander around the small lake behind our house as I did this evening.

Two things came to mind as I strolled. I thought of the biblical account of God walking with Adam and Eve in the cool of the day.  "Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day..." Genesis 3:8. I imagined this was a regular occurrence and wondered what they talked about - or if perhaps they walked in companionable silence. (Sadly the end of the verse is "and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden because they were afraid.") 

Then part of an old hymn came to mind: "I come to the garden alone, while the dew is still on the roses. And the voice I hear falling on my ear, the Son of God discloses. And he walks with me and he talks with me and tells me I am his own. And the joy we share as we tarry there, none other has ever known." True, the lyrics are more doggerel than poetry but the sentiment is meaningful. A solitary walk with the One who embodies love, friendship and intimacy is a rich source of joy. There is no reason to be frightened and hide - even in the full awareness of our frailty and imperfection. 

I am grateful that I was brought up knowing the Bible well and singing hymns and songs that are rooted in my memory. They become one source of the "the voice I hear, falling on my ear."
My walk in the cool of this particular evening was a gentle and deep delight.

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Christmas gifts

As I look back on Christmas I have a mix of feelings...

There's a lot of sadness that the true meaning of Christmas seems less and less evident in the rush and bustle and stress and shopping. As I previously posted - it is hard to find any Nativity scenes but Santa is everywhere.

There's sadness too as I hear from quite a few people that Christmas is time of negotiating difficult family relationships - or the loneliness of having no-one at all with whom to share the day.
Mary and Joseph didn't have it easy on the first Christmas day either! It doesn't sound as though there was a warm family welcome for the unmarried teenager and her "badly timed" delivery"

Then there's the newsworthy(!) reality of the many unwanted gifts that are for sale on TradeMe by Boxing day. By the way - I doubt if many people know the original meaning of "Boxing" day.

Boxing Day is an old custom going back to the Middle Ages. The main feature is the giving of gifts to workers or to poor people. The name has many different histories. The term might have started in England. There, servants would get money or gifts on the day after Christmas. These gifts were called "Christmas boxes". (Wikipedia)

I'm delighted that the trend towards giving "Good Gifts" or "Gifts that last" is growing. Many charities both within NZ and overseas advertise that they have a range of gift cards that represent a donation the buyer has made to someone in true need of practical help. This is precisely the spirit of "boxing day".

In our family we buy one gift for one other person and this year we decided it would be "Good gift". There were sixteen of us so that's sixteen needy people/families who received a gift that will enhance their life (and not end up on TradeMe or in the landfill!) I don't have a list of all the gifts that were given but here are some of those I gave or received from family or friends this year:
  • A drought tolerant tree which grows quickly and provides nutrition for a family in Kenya.
  • A pair of glasses for a young boy after cataract surgery.
  • Reading tuition for a girl in Nepal
  • Books for children in Liberia.
  • A reading light for a child to do homework in a home with no electricity.
  • A goat to help a family start a self sustaining lifestyle.
  • Training for a trauma counsellor working with Rohingya refugees.
  • A multi purpose generator for a family to use a water pump, plough and truck.

Saturday, December 22, 2018


Advent means coming, arriving, beginning... we might say: "That was before the advent of computers."

Advent as a season in the Christian year is a time of anticipation, of getting ready to celebrate once again the arrival of God in human form. The fact that the human form chosen for this astonishing event was a vulnerable baby should make us gasp in wonder."No, surely not! If God is going to show up surely it would be a more obvious and spectacular arrival."

Those of us who have been brought up on the Christmas story have probably become immune to the astonishment and wonder of the birth of Jesus. That's a great pity! In the commercialisation of Christmas, and even just the familiarity of the story, the invitation to be fully human and divine ourselves is overlooked.

This morning I read this poem which felt to me like an Advent poem and a Resurrection poem. See what you think!

Ursula K. Le Guin

In the vast abyss before time, self
is not, and soul commingles
with mist, and rock, and light. In time,
soul brings the misty self to be.
Then slow time hardens self to stone
while ever lightening the soul,
till soul can loose its hold of self
and both are free and can return
to vastness and dissolve in light,
the long light after time.

Monday, November 26, 2018

And then a wedding...

When Andrew was diagnosed with brain tumours at the end of September his daughter Lydia's first cry was "I want Dad to be at my wedding!" Her mother Lynn's response was: "Well you'd better organise it soon." Lydia and Phil had been engaged for some time and were saying, "We'll get married next year." But now it was urgent for it be much sooner.

Lydia being a great action person and organiser got on the phone the following day and had pretty much everything booked and arranged within 24hours. The date was set for 21st November.

Various treatment options were still being discussed for Andrew. But very soon it became apparent that there was no viable treatment and after two weeks in hospital he was transferred home  for palliative care. There was still hope that he might "make it" or at least still be alive by the wedding day. But even that hope soon became unrealistic as his condition declined rapidly.

So the decision was made to have a wedding blessing ceremony at Andrew and Lynn's home while Andrew was still able to be alert and witness it. It was an occasion just for the immediate family.

It was a very poignant ceremony of course - but beautiful and very meaningful. The family have shared some photos, one or two of which I can share here.

A few days later Andrew lapsed into unconsciousness and died a few days after that on 3rd November. The funeral took place on the 8th.
Less than two weeks after Andrew's funeral the "real" wedding took place. Lydia's brave mother Lynn walked her down the aisle, both I think, holding back tears. Andrew's absence was appropriately and sensitively mentioned several times during the ceremony and the reception. Like everything else about this family and Andrew's death, it was all faced honestly and openly. 

It was a happy occasion of genuine celebration for Lydia and Phil surrounded by friends and family. Even the Wellington weather cleared up just in time for the wedding and the photos to follow!

The wedding party

The immediate family

Looking back, and writing about this now I am amazed and grateful at the way we have all negotiated the sorrow and joy of these last fast moving weeks. Lynn and her children have been wonderful. Of course now is the time when the adrenaline recedes and the reality dawns in new ways. In many ways it still feels surreal. How can Andrew be gone - so quickly and so young? As I said in my last post his presence is now to be found in that new mysterious reality of having disappeared into God. In the album Point Vierge: Thomas Merton's Journey in Song are the lines "to disappear into God, to be submerged in his peace, to be lost in the secret of his face." A comforting reality.  

Saturday, November 10, 2018

On being a pallbearer

Being a pallbearer at my brother Andrew's funeral was a very special and moving honour. It felt a significant part of saying farewell. I've never been a pallbearer before and when Lynn (Andrew's wife) asked me I was surprised at my instant response: "Oh yes! Thank you... I would love to do that." When the time came it felt a great privilege to escort his earthly body to the hearse for its final journey.

Often there is a time for people to visit a funeral home before the casket is closed for a personal farewell. Because of distance I wasn't able to do that so I had asked for a photo so I could truly take in visually that the real Andrew was "gone". The photos I was sent absolutely confirmed that! What was in the coffin was just the shell of my lovely brother. I think that made it easier to walk into the Cathedral and see the casket. I knew he had already "disappeared into God" as Thomas Merton described it.

I also had the privilege of giving a personal reflection on behalf of the three of us remaining siblings. It was wonderful that all three of us were present. My older brother Peter (82), and sister Merrie (80) both had significant challenges in making the journey. I was able to read a short reflection from each of them as well as my own.  Here's what I said:

"I was only four years older than Andrew so the closest in age. We shared a lot of our lives together both as children and adults. Andrew and I had similar personalities– for example both being introverts and both being 5’s on the Enneagram! If some of you don’t understand that code language it means that we were always happy to go for long walks without talking much and when we settled in for a chat it was often about the latest good books we’d read or resources we'd found for retreats!

Our spiritual journeys have followed parallel paths too. We we were both drawn to the contemplative focus of retreats, and spiritual direction. In fact I think Andrew would say, as I do, that we were deeply formed by the opportunities made possible in the very early days of Spiritual Growth Ministries. Later of course we each in turn trained as spiritual directors and retreat facilitators. Over many years one or other of us was part of the SGM workgroup – Andrew co-ordinating it for many years.

Another parallel for Andrew and me has been the opportunity and privilege of teaching spiritual formation: Me at Laidlaw College in Auckland and Andrew at Booth College here in Wellington.

So as you can see our lives have been deeply intertwined. Andrew I will miss you hugely as a brother, a friend and a colleague. As Thomas Merton would say - you have now “disappeared into God” but that is the sacred dimension where we are all one. I just have to get used to finding you there – probably more closely connected than ever."

I'm writing this just two days after the funeral and I know there will be many months of both grief and happy memories. I'm already thinking of how much more I wish we had shared... but most of all I am wanting to enter even more deeply into that dimension of one-ness which of course is what Jesus prayed (John 17) we would all come to realise. Andrew certainly knew he was entering in to "the Palace of Nowhere" (Merton again). When I visited him in hospital and again when I last talked to him on the phone I said "I'll meet you in the palace of nowhere"... a special farewell message we both understood.

This is my favourite photo of Andrew about a week before he died. Sleeping peacefully after giving his blessing to daughter Lydia and "soon-to-be-husband" Phil since it was clear he would not be alive on their wedding day (21st November). The flower was his "corsage" matching Lydia's bouquet.

PS (added later) Here's the link to the audio of the whole funeral. I'm putting it here mainly so I know where to find it! But of course anyone who wants to listen is welcome to do so.

Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Love in suffering

It has been hard to Blog in the past month as I have been adjusting to the huge shock of my younger brother Andrew being diagnosed with brain tumours. He is now very close to the end of his earthly life. The decline has been rapid.

During this time I have been blessed by the daily email meditations by Richard Rohr. Two quotes from this morning's meditation on Loving the Presence in the Present:

"God is revealed in all things, even through the tragic and the sad, as the revolutionary doctrine of the cross reveals!

All spiritual disciplines have one purpose: to get rid of illusions so we can be more fully present to what is. These disciplines exist so we can see what is, see who we are and see what is happening. What is is love, so much so that even the tragic will be used for purposes of transformation into love."

 I am experiencing the reality that tragedy sadness and love are tightly intertwined. Love does not dilute or smooth over tragedy and sadness.