From the Vicar
Sunday, 20th December 2020
As our very unusual year draws to a close, it’s good to be able to look forward to a straight-forward Christmas and summer holidays. We must of course continue to be sensible and not forget our Level 1 responsibilities but with (hopefully) no lockdowns in the offing, it feels nice to be having something “normal”. In this we can count ourselves lucky; looking around the world there are many places where a “normal” Christmas will have to wait until next year. Yet, I wonder, can Christmas ever really be normal? There might be a sense of normality in our favourite Christmas traditions, in our gatherings or in things like having hot ham or watching the Queen’s message (or whatever it is you like to do). But Christmas itself? There’s nothing normal about it.
When something is so familiar, as the birth of Jesus in a manger will be to us, we can forget just how truly incredible it is: at Christmas God comes to us. At a point in human history, God enters in. Not as a vision, or an avatar or a metaphor but as one of us. Of course God has always been present in the world, but at Christmas he becomes a part of it. He chooses to enter into its dimensions, its physicality, its chronology and life. Christmas is both a divine action and a human event. A child is born, and human history will never be the same.
Do we ever fully understand what it means that, in Jesus, God came to be among us? Almost certainly not. But we can begin by recognising that, by coming to us in Jesus, God has crossed the divide between humanity and the divine. We can know God because he came to be with us at the first Christmas, and because through Jesus he will come to be with us again if we are willing to ask.
“Behold” said the angel, “I bring you good news of great joy for all people!”. For Emmanuel has come to us.
Sunday, 13th December 2020
How busy is your December “to do” list? Are you beginning to feel the pressure of all the “only X days until Christmas” ads. (As if we needed the reminder that the year is rapidly running out.) Or perhaps you are sitting pretty, one of the very well organised with all your presents purchased (and wrapped?) and other chores done, watching the rest of us scurry around as you settle back to enjoy the start of a hot summer. If so, you are to be envied. I was reading a guide on Advent disciplines this week and one of its suggestions for marking the season was to have a rule of no Christmas shopping during Advent. Well, I thought, maybe next year.
There is an obvious tension between what the season of Advent invites us into - a time of expectant waiting, looking for God in the stillness - and the reality of life when year-end tasks, Christmas preparations, end of school and oncoming summer holidays all collide together. Actually, I quite like our summer Christmas; it seems right that the year culminates in the celebration of the birth of Jesus. But all the rushing around beforehand still isn’t conducive to a season of reflection and expectation.
I am reminded of the old English battle prayer, “O Lord, thou know how busy I must be this day. If I forget thee, I pray thou do not forget me!” I can certainly think of times and occasions when such a prayer seems appropriate (thankfully none, so far at least, requiring armed conflict). But if there is a meaning to the season of Advent it would be just the opposite; that in the midst of all the hustle and bustle of our usual December busyness we do not forget Jesus but instead turn our focus and our hearts towards him.
You might think this requires silent retreats and days committed to meditating on our Advent readings. It doesn’t. Sometimes we are busy, that is the nature of things. But it is still possible to make space for God in the midst of all the busyness. To put aside time at the start and end of the day, even just a few minutes, to stop, focus on God and know his presence with us. To involve him in our daily tasks, like monks who have learned to talk with God as they work in the fields or wash the dishes. To share a prayer with a friend, to give thanks for what we have been given, to think about Christ’s coming and to pray with the rest of the Church the prayer of the ages, “Our Lord Jesus, come.”
Sunday, 6th December 2020
According to the Church of England guide to Advent the season “falls at the darkest time of the year, and the natural symbols of darkness and light are powerfully at work throughout Advent and Christmas.” Writing this with the late-afternoon sun baking my study I confess I don’t immediately connect with the depiction of a sparse and wintery time of reflection. Even were the mercury not rising, there is too much colour around us in blue skies and bluer waters and all the vibrant brightness of a New Zealand summer.
But though we might miss out on the atmosphere of cold, austere mid-winter nights we need not miss out on the heart of Advent. In this season of expectation we are encouraged to prepare; not for Christmas, but for the coming (adventus) of Jesus to be with the world at the first Christmas and for his final advent at the end of time. For this reason our readings point not only to the birth of Jesus but also towards the final judgment. Here the Church of England guide offers something of greater relevance for sunburnt Kiwis, noting that it is by way of these Advent readings and liturgies that the Church “challenges the modern reluctance to confront the theme of divine judgment.”
Who wants to talk about judgment just as we are preparing for holidays and celebrations? Almost no one I would expect. But Advent reminds us that, just as Christ came that first Christmas, so he will return. The good news - and it is literally Good News - is that because Jesus came to us at Christmas, because of the Son of God in a manger, we need not fear the last judgment. Instead the question which Advent asks us is are we people of expectation, people who live in the truth of that final day? Are our lives marked by the knowledge of the coming of Jesus?
Sunday, 29th November 2020
In 1920 the Auckland City Mission was established by our Diocese as an outreach to the city’s poor and needy. As the City Mission’s website explains the first Missioner, the Reverend Jasper Calder, “challenged the Anglican Church to be responsive to the needs of the neglected poor. Under his dynamic direction the Mission took on a prominent role in administering social services. He oversaw the establishment of a night shelter incorporating a soup kitchen and medical clinic, ran children’s health camps and instituted a clothing jumble shop to help fund the Mission’s work.” One hundred years later that challenge is ongoing as the vital work of the City Mission continues in the face of increasing demand. It is against that background that the Mission has developed the HomeGround project.
HomeGround is the redevelopment of the City Mission site to create a new, purpose-built, housing and social services facility - unlike anything seen in New Zealand before. The development, due to be completed in 2021, includes a low-cost healthcare centre, state of the art detox facilities, rehabilitation and training centres, a commercial kitchen to provide community meals (and teach basic cooking skills), and 80 apartments to provide safe, permanent shelter for the homeless while offering wrap-around support services. It is not just a bold and visionary plan, it is one that promises to be transformative to many of those most in need. While the HomeGround development is already well underway, the City Mission is yet to meet the full costs of the project, having raised some $105.7 million of the $110 million needed.
One of the early drivers of HomeGround was the late Bishop Jim White who was the Diocese’s representative on the City Mission board for 11 years, and Chair of the Board for 4 years until his retirement due to ill health. Bishop Jim was very much a champion of the Mission’s work, encouraging parishes to consider supporting the HomeGround project however they could.
This month Vestry agreed that we as a Parish should make a donation to the HomeGround project in memory of Bishop Jim and his ministry to us. We have therefore chosen to make HomeGround the focus of our Advent Appeal. If you would like to take part in the Advent Appeal by donating to HomeGround, you may do so by transferring funds to the Parish account (using the reference “HomeGround”) or by placing money in a marked envelope in the offering. We will be collecting until Wednesday 23 December.
Sunday, 22nd Nov 2020
On the night of my induction into the Parish I mentioned that my earliest memory of Christ Church was going to a service there as a child while on holiday with my family. For me the service was notable because I was wearing my first tie, a red one. Admittedly it was one of those ties on an elastic-band but I felt very important with it on (can you see why I became a lawyer). With a bach at Algies Bay we were often visitors at services taken by Pare Nathan at Christ Church (for Easter we would sometimes go to St Leonard’s where my father would take the service). Part of my memories include going down to the Sunday School rooms with other kids.
I mentioned this then, and again now, because I think it is good to remind ourselves that children and families have long been a part of our parish life and church community – including much more recently than when I was a child! In this we are very much a classic Anglican Parish. The DNA, so to speak, of Anglican parishes is of local churches that minister to all generations. It is who we are.
Over the last couple of years Vestry has been looking at our Parish and priorities and where we want to be investing. This led to the very significant decision in about September last year that we as a Parish should commit to the rebuilding of a ministry to children and families. This is no small undertaking, nor is it a short-term thing. Since then (as much as Covid will allow) we have been working to lay groundwork for developing this area of ministry.
Next week we take a significant step when our newly hired Children & Families Ministry Leader joins us. Hayley Clarke grew up at St John’s Anglican Church in Kerikeri and will be moving to Warkworth in early December. She comes to us after a career in HR development but with a passion for working with kids and sharing the love of God. I look forward to introducing Hayley to the Parish and know that you will all make her very welcome.
But, as Hayley joins us, we should remember that growing our ministry to children and their families will take a lot more than simply hiring someone and wishing them all the best. Like most everything else that we do, it will be something that is a work of the whole Church. Next year we will start exploring different ways that we can each be involved in or support this area of ministry but for now can I ask that we all pray for Hayley as she comes on board and for our Parish that God will draw new families to worship among us.
Sunday, 15th Nov 2020
If you are someone who is constantly flooded with emails you might want to take a leaf from the late H. L. Mencken. An American journalist, Mencken often wrote contentious commentary pieces that would result in mail bags of letters coming his way. To these, usually argumentative, correspondents he would send the same reply: “Dear Sir or Madam, You may be right. Sincerely yours, H. L. Mencken.” Of course these days phones and computer programs are happy to suggest replies for us so we don’t even need to think of a response, just click a button and off it goes.
I sometimes worry that I adopt a similar approach to prayer; praying rushed, hurried pleas while I race to do something else. For if prayer is foundational to my relationship with God, if it is through prayer that I can know God’s love and peace, it deserves much more than the equivalent of a quick “Ok” text.
That is undoubtedly true but it is also true that the pressure to make our prayers sufficiently “religious” or “spiritual” can equally be a barrier to discovering the rich fullness of prayer. In his book Say It To God the Benedictine monk Luigi Gioia reminds us that, as part of our personal relationship with God, prayer should be entirely free and exquisitely personal. He suggests four directions as useful to growing a life of prayer:
Keep it simple: As we often see in the Psalms, a sentence, a cry, even just a word are enough if it expresses what you are going through.
Keep it short: Pray only as long as you need to, in time you will find yourself drawn to pray longer out of desire (not obligation).
Keep it frequent: The bells of a monastery will ring each hour to remind the monks at work to say a prayer, even if just a whispered thanks to God. Make a habit of stealing ten seconds each hour to do the same.
Keep it real: The most important reminder of all: there is nothing we cannot say or bring to God in prayer, so say it all to Him.
In a couple of weeks we will enter Advent, a time when we are bid to a season of preparation for the coming of Jesus at Christmas. It is also for most of us one of the busiest times of year and, therefore, not the most conducive to the types of studies and disciplines familiar to that other season of preparation, Lent. But, at the end of this extraordinary, disruptive year, perhaps a good preparation would be to follow the suggestion of Brother Luigi to take whatever is on our hearts or minds and say it to God.
Sunday, 8th Nov, 2020
My earliest political memory is of being in primary school and sending a card to a classmate who was away ill for a month. To cheer him up I included the biggest joke of the year, “What goes up and never comes down? Muldoon’s prices!”. The tragedy for me was that the 1984 snap election then took place with Muldoon losing, so by the time my friend returned to school he told me that my joke was all wrong and that it should have said “Lange’s prices”. Such was my introduction to the vagaries of politics.
This last month has been something of a festival for political junkies with first our own election and referenda and then, this past week, elections in the United States. Of course, like a World Cup final, the nature of elections is to have winners and losers and so some of us will have been delighted by the results of our own ballot and others of us will be counting the years to the next vote and a chance to try again. The elections in America are more distant but, this year in particular, I think we have all been keenly interested and might even have had our own (sometimes strong) views about who should win or lose.
Is there any guide for Christians when thinking about politics? Can we claim that God is on one side or another? In the past I have heard preachers claim exactly that - unfortunately they don’t always pick the same side!
This year I have been reminded that a lot of what Jesus spoke about is very relevant to the political season, especially perhaps in countries where the divisions are the greatest. What am I thinking of? Teachings like, “love your enemies” or “bless those who curse you, bless and do not curse” and even “turn the other cheek”. I am not suggesting that as Christians we shouldn’t be interested or involved in politics, nor am I saying that we shouldn’t campaign and advocate for those ideas, policies or values that we believe in. Quite the contrary, I believe that part of our call as Christians is to be active in the public space - to use the opportunity we have as citizens of a democracy to influence our nation.
Politics matters, as do elections. But the Kingdom of Heaven is much bigger than who sits in the Beehive (or the White House) for the next term. In a world where politics is about winners over losers, which (in some countries at least) sees political differences as grounds for division and hostility, we should remind ourselves that for Jesus the priority was not to beat our opponents but to love them. For in doing so we testify to the power of the Gospel to transform our world.
Sunday, 18th Oct, 2020
The cathedral at Salisbury is considered one of the best examples of Gothic architecture, although it is its spire (at 123m the tallest in the United Kingdom) that gets all the attention. Visitors come to marvel at its spiky heights, or to look with unease at its supporting pillars - which noticeably bulge from carrying the weight of the tower. Perhaps such unease is warranted, it has now been discovered that some of the cathedral is held up by workmen’s lunch wrappers (well, in a manner of speaking).
This week it was reported that masons working on the restoration of the cathedral have discovered that gaps between the stones have been plugged with hundreds of oyster shells. It is believed that these were the remnants of medieval stone masons’ lunches, they would have carried the oysters up with them and (when done with lunch) used the shells to pack out the stones as they were laid. Today’s restorers use more modern techniques but still, struggling to replace one block that weighed 380kg, they marvel at what masons in the 13th century were able to achieve.
There is of course something of a parallel between the restoration of an old church building and the process of renewal in a local church. Indeed, the Catholics call this process divine renovation. Renovation is a concept with which we, as DIY property-mad New Zealanders, are familiar. It is not about the full-scale demolition of what has gone before but at the same time it is more than a fresh coat of paint. It’s about getting in and restoring and reinvigorating what is already there, while also updating and replacing where needed. It is divine because as we seek the renewal of our Church – and this should be our constant prayer – we are asking God to be the builder.
As Anglicans we are proud to enjoy a wonderful heritage of worship. But that doesn’t mean there is no need for renovation. To a certain extent elements of our worship have always been changing and so from time to time you will notice some changes in our services or music. The intent behind this is the same as with any renovation, it is to enhance what has gone before by bringing what is needed for a new generation. As we begin to plan for ways for bringing children and families back into our Church life, these are things we will have to consider and try. In the meantime, hearing the story of Salisbury’s physical renovation I am very grateful for our (comparatively) younger, and easier to repair, old wooden buildings!
Sunday, 11 October
I recognise that my writing this probably guarantees the next few days will be overcast and chilly but some of the weather recently had me believing that spring was done and summer already here. Clear skies, warm sun, and light evenings (thank you daylight saving) it felt more like late December than early October. (Though one or two intrepid swimmers tell me that the water is still very much September temperature).
And so we enter that strange period of seasonal adjustment, where one afternoon you find yourself putting on a jumper or turning on the heater and the next you are leaving the windows open and enjoying the early evening warmth - only to go back to the jumper again the next day. Such variety can make planning things more complicated: should we order a tanker now or hold out for more rain, will next Saturday be good for a picnic or should we arrange to go to a cafe instead? Though perhaps we should be grateful for the variation, I heard it once said that the reason the English talk about the weather is that it is always changing and so is interesting and worthy of comment compared to, say, the weather in Spain which barely changes.
I have mentioned before that there is then something of the promise of eternity in the spring. That as a time of transition it both offers us a glimpse of what is to come (summer days) while also reminding us that we are not quite there yet (cold nights and rainy Sundays). In the same way, we as Christians live a life where there are times and seasons that offer us a glimpse of what is to come, in blessings, in answers to prayer, in experiencing the closeness of God, but we also experience cold evenings and rainy Sundays that remind us we are not there yet. Theologians call this living in the tension, the reality that the Kingdom of Heaven is here - but not yet here in its fullness. Just as we might have to wait until summer before the water is warm enough for swimming, so there are some things that we will not experience fully until that time has come.
But as we have seen in some of our readings from Philippians recently, the knowledge that summer is coming (or rather that God’s kingdom will come in its fullness) is meant to encourage us, to help us to continue with hope and even rejoicing. As Paul says in this week’s reading, “rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, rejoice”. Like a sunny spring day the Bible reminds us that we are people who have something to look forward to, who have a hope that we can rely on - the greatest hope in fact. While not every day will feel like it, every day can be enlightened by it: the certainty of eternity and our hope in the new life of Christ.
Sunday, 4 October
Returning to services after six weeks of gathering at home and online it’s perhaps understandable if one or two things are a little rusty. At least I hope so, as I try and remind myself what Sunday services look like. I think I’m getting there but if you see me looking lost on a Sunday morning just point me in the direction of the sanctuary and we should be good to go!
Truth be told the two lockdowns that we have experienced have been very disruptive to the normal routines of church life, and understandably so. We must also acknowledge that we are not yet back to “normal” and may not be for some time, even after we return to Level 1. In one sense this no bother, as a Parish I think we have shown ourselves to be very capable of adapting to the challenges of the year with great faithfulness.
As we slowly move toward Level 1 my feeling is that our focus now needs to be on renewing and rebuilding the rhythms and habits of our worshipping life. As I mentioned in my sermon last Sunday, St Augustine wrote about how our hearts are built to search for God’s and that we are therefore defined, our lives determined, much more by what we love than by what we know. Part of what we do in our weekly church services is to make time for, and to tend to, the love we share with God: in our worship, in our prayers, in listening to his Word. You might call these things rhythms of devotion - ways we teach our hearts to speak the love languages of God.
For the last few months of this very up-and-down, disrupted year, then, I think it is enough that we focus simply on renewing these rhythms of devotion, on re-establishing the habits of worship and prayer that help form us and tend to our love for God. It is in fact a significant thing to gather together weekly in God’s house, with God’s people, in God’s presence and we are grateful to be able to do so once again.