25 February 2011

Three weeks

I may be a little spotty (which may mean 'silent') over the next three weeks.  It is concert time again.  Tomorrow, Saturday the 26th February, is our first rehearsal.  Sunday we will go up to see Eddie and Eveline and the kids.  The following week-end we have rehearsals both days; and the week after that rehearsals Thursday and Friday evening, and concerts both week-end days.

Many have asked about the Christchurch earthquake.  This was the second, of course - the first having occurred last September.  The second was, as the world now knows, more destructive, and involved (current count that I have heard) 113 deaths and some huge number of other miseries.  For those unclear about New Zealand geography, Auckland was not affected.  We are about 750Km away from Christchurch.

Something like this is stunning.  We are not, thank God, Haiti.  But this is us.  There really is nothing I can usefully say about it myself.  None of our friends have lost family, though some, at least, have lost homes.  The lunchtime Mass at the Auckland cathedral today was a special Mass for Christchurch.  The bishop was the celebrant.  We opened singing the 23rd Psalm - and closed with the national anthem.  It was not possible not to shed tears.

God have mercy on Christchurch.  God have mercy on Haiti.  God have mercy on Libya, on Palestine, on the whole of our aching, self-destructive world.

19 February 2011


Susan and I were married 20th May 1972, and in the summer - July, I think - we travelled to the mainland (from Hawai'i, where we lived) to visit a variety of persons - her mother and father, her uncle, aunt and cousins; her great-aunts and grandmother.  At the time of that trip I had been a Christian for about two and a half years.  Although I had begun my church-going in a Lutheran church, and was baptised there, we were by, I think, the end of 1970 or early 1971 attending a Baptist Church - International Baptist Church in Honolulu.  We had been married there, in fact, and many of our Christian friends were members.

Our trip took us to Portland, Oregon - the town where Sue had spent her early childhood, and where many of her relations lived - and whilst there I visited Western Conservative Baptist Seminary - now called just "Western Seminary" (I wonder if that means they are no longer conservative :-)) - with which I had corresponded from Hawai'i, asking about seminary education.  I planned to finish my PhD in linguistics at the University of Hawai'i, and then Susan and I would move to Portland where I would become a Baptist minister.  Talking with a man there cemented this idea in my mind.

In August, 1972, shortly after we had returned to Honolulu, I received a telegramme - a real paper telegramme! the only one I think I have ever seen - from Bruce Biggs, who had been a friend, teacher, and part-time employer at the University of Hawai'i, and was now Head of the Anthropology Department at the University of Auckland - saying that there was a three-year lectureship in linguistics open at the University of Auckland - would I like to apply for it?

Sue and I were quite distressed by this.  We had planned our move to Portland.  That move was attractive in a great many ways.  In addition to the fact that I was keen to be a pastor - God knows whether I would have been a good one, but I was keen, with new-convert zeal! - almost all of Susan's relations lived in the northwest United States, in Portland and in Seattle.  We believed we had discerned God's will in this matter.  Here comes this telegramme from out of the blue.

We went to talk with our pastor, Jim Cooke.  Somewhat disturbingly, he put the question back on us.  Quoting Psalm 37, verse 4:
Delight thyself also in the LORD: and he shall give thee the desires of thine heart.
"What," he asked, "is the desire of your heart?

Gee, thanks, Pastor Jim :-)

We decided that I would apply and see what happened.  On 2 February, 1973, we landed in Auckland.

'Vocation' means 'calling.'  God, we say, calls men to this or that.  I remember, when I was in process of becoming a Catholic, wondering about the 'call' that one heard people talk about - men being 'called' to the priesthood, men and women 'called' to 'religious life' (which I thought an odd term for living in a monastery - don't we all try to live religious lives??).  Did the people hear actual voices from God?  Was there a kind of certainty implanted in their minds?

I still wonder, because some - and not only Catholics - talk as though they did experience such a certainty.  Some, perhaps, even hear voices.  I have never had any such certainty of an external call - I have only, in each case, known what I wanted to do, even before I was a Christian:
  • study astronomy (as a youth)
  • marry Edna (1962)
  • change to linguistics (1964)
  • turn to Jesus (1970)
  • marry Susan (1970 - though it took two more years to make it happen :-))
  • take up the job lecturing in linguistics (1972)
  • move to Yap to work on Yapese (1975)
  • move back to New Zealand (1984 - but more on that below)
  • become a Catholic (1994)
  • be involved with Opus Dei (1997)
And no doubt other, lesser, 'calls' along the way.

It was that 1984 move back to New Zealand that prompted me to think of this post.  Because in that case, I was decidedly uncertain.  Indeed, I am quite sure that in great part my motives were selfish - therefore, at least in one sense, sinful.

When we moved to Yap in 1976, I was very much filled with the sense of God's calling for my life.  I was to be the great apostle to Yap (you know, converting all those heathen Catholics to the true Reformed faith :-)), and to be the Samuel Johnson/Noah Webster rolled into one, of Yapese lexicography.  I reflected on the providences of my life that had led to this calling.  I had myself done much toward making the job in Yap possible, for in 1975 I had spent two weeks in Yap talking about language work and it had been a result of that trip that had prompted the Yap Department of Education to bring me there to work.

The reasons why we left were several, but central to them had been the fact that I was doing less and less Yapese dictionary work, more and more computing for the Education Department - and I found, in fact, the computing work to be far more fascinating than the linguistic work.

Yet I know that I had somewhat of a bad conscience in leaving.  I told myself - and told some people in Yap - that in five years I would have persuaded my Reformed church in New Zealand to send me back to Yap to finish the Bible translation work that had been partly-, and well-, done by Sister Thieme and Sister Eberhardt of the Liebenzellermission.

This was certainly self-deception.  I could have known that the Reformed church in New Zealand was not going to work together with anything but a fully Reformed group in Yap - and there was no possibility of such a group being able to work in Yap.  The reality was that I wanted very badly to work in computing.  When, in 1983, a computing job was offered me, I accepted it.  We arrived back in New Zealand on our 12th wedding anniversary, 20th May 1984.

I tell the story in order to say what I believe - that God's calling to us works through our own choices - and even, at times, through our less-than-righteous choices.  The work I persuaded the Yap Department of Education to bring me there to do came to nothing in the end (at least as far as Yap is concerned.  I am working on trying to get the materials we produced onto the web for the use of linguists).  The idea that I would go back to Yap as a missionary was a sop I fed to my troubled conscience to excuse my following the 'desires of my heart.'

Yet it is transparently obvious that our situation in Yap was bad for us as a family.  Due in part to the isolation - and in far greater part to the religious isolation of my narrow Calvinism - my wife and children suffered, would, at least, have been badly served by being kept in that situation.

And far, far above any other benefit of our return to New Zealand, we were here brought to the Catholic Church, to the incomparable blessings of the fullness of the Gospel, of the Sacraments, of the Body of Christ.  It is, indeed, ironic that we left the mostly-Catholic island of Yap and returned to the once-mostly-Protestant-now-mostly-secularised New Zealand in order to find the Church.  Whether this would have been necessary is a meaningless question.  C. S. Lewis, in one of the Narnia books, has Aslan tell the children, "We are never told what would have been."  As the (very Calvinist :-)) Westminster Confession of Faith beautifully puts it:
God from all eternity did, by the most wise and holy counsel of his own will, freely and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass;978978Eph. i. 11; Rom. xi. 33; Heb. vi. 17; Rom. ix. 15,18. yet so as thereby neither is God the author of sin,979979James i. 13,17; 1 John i. 5; [Am. ed. Eccl. vii. 29]. nor is violence offered to the will of the creatures, nor is the liberty or contingency of second causes taken away, but rather established.
Or as St Paul puts it in Romans 11:29:
...the gifts and calling of God are without repentance.
My indecision and self-seeking in some of my 'callings' - seeking the 'desires of my heart' - have not always made me easy at mind.  This has been, in fact, because of the self-seeking.  But at bottom, we must decide - we must decide.  I do not doubt that God grants to some that certainty of mind, even those 'interior locutions' that are spoken of.  He does not lead most of us that way.  Rather, He wants us to love him above all thgs  Then the decisions we make will not make us unhappy (I John 4;18):
...perfect love casteth out fear.
In the words of Our Lord (Matthew 6:33):
But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
Thy will be done!

13 February 2011


Tomorrow Bishop Pat will - well, I don't know precisely what he will do - but in some official sense he will dedicate our new church building.  Will he consecrate it?  If so, does that mean it hasn't been a 'real' church until now?  We have, in fact, been having Mass there since the first Mass was said there on 31 October last year - well, in fact, a funeral was said in the partially-completed building some time before that.

So I don't exactly know what the Bishop will do, but whatever it is, he will do it tomorrow afternoon.

Does it matter?  Certainly I do not think the church was dedicated or consecrated or anything special at all last year at that funeral Mass.  The reason the funeral was held inside the now-roofed but still un-walled building was that it was the funeral of Henk van Lieshout, whose labour had been a prime mover in getting the church building project going, keeping it going - and who had suddenly died of a heart attack before the church could start being used for regular Masses.  It was wonderfully right that his funeral should have been in the building he had loved into existence.

But that building was certainly not a consecrated (or dedicated, or whatever) church at the time.  And at different times in the past we have had Mass out of doors; once in a gymnasium; for nearly a year in the church hall.  Mass is Mass.  The world is the Lord's and the fulness thereof.  Mass does not require a special building.

Nevertheless, the consecration makes a difference.

John Henry Newman, in his attempt to justify the via media - the Anglican Church as a 'middle way' between Protestantism and Catholicism - said that his religion was founded on three principles:
  1. The dogmatic principle - that religious truth could be known with certainty; that certain things were true and their contraries false; that religious truth did not all reduce to matters of private opinion;
  2. The sacramental principle - in his words: the doctrine that material phenomena are both the types and the instruments of real things unseen.
  3. Anti-Romanism.
The third principle had necessarily to abandoned when he became a (Roman) Catholic!  The first, of course, did not.

And neither did the second.

Was it Max Weber who said that Protestantism, and particularly Calvinism, desacralised the world?

It didn't work - as anyone who contemplates the rather more emotional side of modern environmentalism can testify.

Man is a natural priest.  He is that strange centaur-like creature, part god, part beast, who connects the material and spiritual worlds.  This is unavoidable, and hence, when not guided by reason and revelation, man finds his own way of being the junction, the seam, that joins Heaven and Earth.  I recall something from Kroeber's book Ishi - Ishi, she said, was very religious, leaving tobacco around in various places.  This was very natural.  This was the sacramental principle.

Our church is more than timber and cladding, steel and paint.  It is a House of God.  It matters to us humans that we are physical as well as spiritual.  In my last months in the Reformed Church, during 1994, when I suspected that I would have to become a Catholic, I began to have a longing to be able to kneel in prayer - rather than simply sitting as we did.  I spoke once with one of our elders, after we had announced our intention to become Catholics, about the bareness of the building we used in Reformed worship.  He said that he greatly appreciated the austerity - he wanted nothing between him and God.  This is quite right, too.  In the sacramental principle lies always the danger of idolatry - of mistaking the means for the end.  That is so, and the Catholic Church is very much aware of it.  Yet I think the behaviour of wandering modern man - whether the environmentalist, the New Age adherent, or simply the ordinary person whose car, computer, or boat acquires more than merely utilitarian value - the behaviour of all these shows the fact that you cannot deprive man of the sacraments.  One way or another, he will have them.

God knows what is safe for us, and thus He gives us the Sacraments of Baptism, of the Eucharist, of Confession, and the others, as the roads to Heaven.

And He encourages us to house them in a house devoted to Him, one in which He lives especially and waits for us.

06 February 2011


I travel to work each morning and evening on the 'bus from Pukekohe to Auckland - some 50Km each way - and, as is the nature of 'buses that take persons to and from their places of employment, a large number of the passengers are the same each morning and evening.  Some of these people I am acquainted with - that young man is a network support person; this young woman is a student; a short older Maori man is a security guard at Auckland Hospital.

"Is a..."  We think of what persons are in terms of the state of life they are in.  On my commute 'bus there are not many small children - they go on special school 'buses in most cases - nor mothers who are at home taking care of family all day (a vanishing breed, alas!) - ours is a commuter schedule.

But of course no one is anything like a system administrator (myself), a housewife (Susan), except momentarily.  I once was a linguistic lecturer.  I once was a student.  I once was, for the matter of that, a foetus in my mother's womb.

And I will be an old man - and then - what? a corpse? a disembodied soul? A (God grant it!) resurrected glorified citizen of the New Jerusalem?

Our typical idea of a life is:

  • born
  • go to school, to learn to be something (doctor, lawyer)
  • be that for 50 years, whilst raising a family
  • get old, retire, die
 It is a sort of bell curve:

The good bit is in the middle.  That is what we aim for in life.  Before that is the getting-ready part; after that is the over-the-hill bit.

I do not think this is the way we ought to see it.

I remember reading something once - maybe 25 or more years ago - about an Episcopalian private school in Texas.  I don't recall the details, of course, but one thing the headmaster was quoted as saying struck me very powerfully - so much so that I fear I irritated my children by preaching it as a kind of slogan for a while.  Asked what the primary aim of his high school was, the headmaster said that he wanted to teach young people how to die.

For this is, indeed, the point of our life.  It isn't those 50 years of being something that counts.  It is what they - and the 20 years before them and the unknown number of years after them before dying - it is what these years do to prepare us for what we call the end - which is, after all, only the beginning.

And that end-or-beginning can be quite surprising.  We ourselves will, perhaps, be quite astonished at what we are.  The classic death-bed conversion is a very real thing, I am sure, but for most of us, it is what we have practised through our lives that will matter.

And what we must practise above all is humility.

It is my suspicion that if - which God forbid! - at the end I do not turn my face toward, rather than away from, the Face which, to see, will be happiness itself, it will be because of my pride.  It will be because I have it all worked out, how I will face death, the plans I will pass on for my funeral, the ideas I will have about my last Confession - all those plans of mine - yet the 'thief on the Cross' had no plans (Luke 23:40-43):
40But the other answering rebuked him, saying, Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation?
41And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss.
42And he said unto Jesus, Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom.

43And Jesus said unto him, Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise.
Looking back at what I have written, I wonder: is it morbid? depressing?

I think not.  I am, indeed, talking to myself here.  I strive to do my work well - and love my recreations - my horn-playing, my reading.  I love my wife and children and try to do my best for them.  I enjoy my glass of wine.

But these things are not the end - not only not the end in the sense of the last thing, but not the end in the sense of not the finality, not the point of my life.  I wish I lived more each moment as one aware that for me, the Second Coming of Christ will be - well, any time now - or in 20, or even 30 years.  But that is the goal.  That is what I seek to be preparing for.

And my preparation must be, above all, setting aside - at least, setting aside as if they are of first importance - my plans, my ideas, my goals.

Thy will be done.