Lent 2 – a word from the city

What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?   Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?         Mark  8:36-37

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A certain radio announcer this morning declared that he would never be seen wearing a particular brand of NZ shoe because in his eyes they look ugly.  It doesn’t matter that they are extremely comfortable to wear, it’s the look that matters to him.

As I walk round the city I see advertisements for apartments.  They are often labelled “Executive”.  There are only so many executives in any city.  So what’s that sign about?  The way I look if I own one.

We often think of “gaining the whole world” in material terms.  Everything these days is given a dollar tag.  Aid costs this much.  Fixing flooded roads cost that much.  There is a cost to understanding the point of life as the appearance of having stuff that’s ‘high quality and expensive.’  Why else would one have gold-plated taps to deliver water to wash one’s face?  But actually the appearance of stuff is about power, and the declaration of superiority.  It’s the ‘us’ vs ‘them’ statement that is behind calling some people homeless and others princely.  The ultimate power trip is to be able to wear the right label in life.

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To what end?  That’s the existential question behind Jesus’ statements as questions.  I know, as you will, some folk who seem to have everything they value in life, but yet they also want not more, but more meaning.  And that’s not just about folks deemed to be ‘rich.’  Hierarchy of humanity is a factor in all places and amongst all people it seems.  The increasing gap between rich and poor in this country is but one reality.  The gap of educational opportunity is another.  And it’s often reinforced by seemingly innocuous language labelling some as this, others as that.  Homeless, poor, rich, first world, Maori, white trash, gang member: the labels actually seem endless.  It’s the language of power.  It twists us into positions of confrontation – in our heads if not with fists.

In the inner city it’s easy to find labelled versions of power.  Everything from the shops to the signsposts.  Walk into someone else’s space and see how easy it is to feel welcomed there.  Wear the ‘wrong’ clothes to an occasion and feel the hostility sometimes.  The sad thing is the church is not immune to these things.  Which is why it’s good to pause in Lent, and hopefully the rest of the year, and ask ourselves how our language and attitudes reinforce a power of gaining status, or money, or accumulation of things.  The sad thing is, we don’t always notice ourselves doing it.


It’s the profit and loss statement to put on our walls, and the walls of our heads:

What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?   Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?         Mark  8:36-37



Lent in the City – Reflection 1


During Lent I invite you to reflect on life from an inner-city perspective.  Hopefully there will end up being 6 reflections, each one based on the Christian Lectionary many churches use.  I will put the Gospel Reference each week.

My other reference are some words I found while reading The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.  I find them in the back of my head often as I walk the city wondering about what I am seeing and experiencing there:

“It’s impossible to say a thing exactly the way it was, because what you say can never be exact, you always have to leave something out, there are too many parts, sides, crosscurrents, nuances; too many gestures, which could mean this or that, too many shapes which can never be fully described, too many flavours, in the air or on the tongue, half-colours, too many.”


Come walk with me …

Lent 1  Mark 1:9-15:     “and immediately the Spirit cast him out into the wilderness”

Lent always begins with a desert story.  The temptation is always to turn it into a dessert story.  A nice story, a wonderful new set of shops story.  But Lent reflection usually begins with harder stuff than that.  A trip up time, a leaving time, a place that we feel no longer fits us time.

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I meet people who tell me they struggle with the current inner city of Christchurch.  They feel disoriented, missing old landmarks by which they used to navigate.  Some say that still, 7 years after the February quakes that ripped our lives into splinters.  Others tell me there’s nothing in there for them.  The key words are “in there”, because they feel as if there’s an ‘in’ and an ‘out’.  Out is where we live in the suburbs, where actually we can get everything we want for our lives: shops, activities, friends.  Why then go ‘in’?  It’s a question the city is struggling to answer.

Others remind me that there is so much unfinished in the inner city.  There’s chaos around road barriers, there are buildings still untouched, it’s dirty, it’s dusty, it’s expensive, it’s …  Yes.  To all those things.

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The issue is that we can choose to define our lives by those parts we dislike, or those bits that annoy us, or where we feel inadequate.  We can do that.  We all do it to some degree.  When we hurt all of life gets sharpened to that point very easily.  The challenge is to slowly put those bits of life into a perspective that includes them but is not defined only by them.

The desert places are not pleasant.  We don’t often go there by choice.  Mark’s Gospel desert story is written in a way that makes it clear that Jesus did not choose the desert either.  I’m sure he would have chosen dessert, but no, hard place it had to be.  But did he stay there?  No.

Yes, the inner city is a place to contemplate desert.  There’s plenty of dusty gravel round.  Plenty of things not done.  The long-term question for the city, and our lives, is what in the end will we allow to define us?

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ADVENT IN THE CITY 4 Places we return to.

Advent 4   Places we return to

Some places we revisit over and over again.  For many different reasons.  We have an emotional attachment to a place perhaps.  Or we holiday there again and again.  Or it brings back a precious memory to us.  Some places we are drawn to because they remind us of something that happened once.  People sometimes revisit the place they were married many years after that event for example.  Some places are magnets of sadness – cemeteries where our relatives are buried perhaps.  Some places are our refreshment places.  The sea at a particular bay perhaps, or a lake where we caught our first trout.  Picnic places where the family used to gather.  Return places are often nests of nostalgia for us.  The smells, sounds, sights evoke times past.  As soon as we get there we want to tell stories, or if we are there alone, we recall them for ourselves.  Return places remind us that time is not linear always.  Past and present mingle so both are real at the same time.

Sometimes though we come back to a place full of anticipation and things have changed so much we don’t recognise what we went there for at all.  Disappointment.  Maybe even anger arises.  Things have moved on, but in our minds they are always the same.  Occasionally the changes make a place better than we remember.  But most often it seems we are caught in our own web of memory and the deep feelings that evokes.

Christmas does that too.  I often think of Christmas as a place as much as an event.  The tree has to be in the same corner of the lounge.  The ornaments have to be like so.  The first few Christmas’s of a new relationship are often a delicate dance around bringing two family traditions into contact with each other.  It takes time for a new thing to emerge.  Likewise the Christmas story.  The mythology around Jesus’ birth has been constructed and deconstructed, enacted and reread so often it’s hard to actually see what’s there when we read the text now.  But every year we come back to it.  It occupies a place within those of us who know it well.  And is a thorn in the side of a secular society who would rather it wasn’t there.  The story is a place we return to, to either grapple with or pretend it’s not there.

The place is out the back.  Not in the foreground.  Beyond the rubble of a shaky city.  Unseen.  Dirty and dusty.  Full of strangers and travellers clutching maps, just passing through.  From somewhere else, but here right now, seeing what they are seeing; trying to make sense of it.  Questioning the incessant fences and road works and cones and graffiti and noise and dust.  Looking in the new shops selling things few of us want.  Or the new bars and cafes and restaurants serving up food we hardly need either.  That’s the foreground of a city coming to grips with a new life.  But quietly, out the back, perhaps where the trout swim, or the long grass sways in the wind, or near the gravel pit of a car park, perhaps there are the real signs of something else happening, quietly, without the sound of harps or trumpets.  Life being quietly shared between strangers, and a new idea being born.  Out the back.  But you’d have to go out the back to discover that.

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Advent in the city 3 – Places we avoid

Places we avoid.

Humans are avoidance beings.  It’s one of our greatest skills.  We avoid places and situations we perceive as potential threats – dangerous places, dark places, unknown places.  We avoid people who seem to be at the least a worry to us – strangers who have a dress code we find difficult, groups of people standing in our way, people in uniform, unkempt people begging by the side of the route we want to take.

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Often we avoid out of habit.  We’ve never gone down that street.  Or alleyway.  Because?  Sometimes there’s no real because.  It just looks and feels unsafe, or dangerous, or threatening.  These built-in human fear responses to situations and other people are hard-wired into our being.  They are very ancient responses to keep us safe.  That’s good.  But sometimes those responses spill into anger, prejudice, violent responses to perceived threat.  That’s not good.  Sometimes too we become very timid beings, and stick to well-worn tracks, or only associate with a few people, seldom expanding our horizons.

The city is full of possible threats to us.  Especially if we hardly ever go into the inner streets, even in the bright Canterbury sunlight.  In fact it’s a wonder I sometimes think, that any of us can live in the city at all – full of strangers, new street layouts, alleyways, and places we haven’t ever seen, or sometimes even heard about.  It can be a fearful place, and therefore a place to never go.  That’s partly I think why it’s such a struggle in the inner city for things to begin again.  Fear keeps many people out.  It’s irrational, but real.  It’s not the fear of buildings falling on our heads any more.  It’s become the fear of the unknown, of getting lost, of meeting only strangers who look different.  It’s more comfortable to stay out.  And to have a litany of reasons we have convinced ourselves about – we can’t ever get a park, we don’t need anything in there when we can get all we need near where we live …  and on it goes.


We do it with our thinking too.  If we don’t ever “get out of our comfort zone” we will remain the way we always have been.  Fearful people struggle with life.  Yet we are all fearful from time to time.  It’s normal; built-in to our beings.  Seldom do we confront those small fears that often limit our lives.  That’s why an important Advent reading often is from an old timer from long ago who writes “Comfort, comfort my people.”  Important words to deconstruct – comfort is from two Latin words together meaning “to be strong with”.  Like Kia Kaha.  Comfort means to strengthen each other in fearful times.  It doesn’t mean to allow us to sit tight.  It’s about leaning on each other in hard times – we are strong together – even when some of us don’t feel so.  Lean on me, comfort, be strong – together.  In our inner city fears, it helps to walk with someone who is not afraid.

This advent – face the fears, find com-fort, be com-fort for others.  Kia kaha.  Peace.

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Advent 2 Reflection. Resting places


Places to rest on the way.


Travel is tiring.  Walking and working all day is tiring.  The city can become tedious if day after day all that we do is the same things in the same places.  Stress fatigues us, boredom makes us impatient.  It’s easy to be so busy that nothing much happens except we become more and more tired.  We need places to rest and reinvigorate our spirit.

The city will suck us dry if we’re not careful.  On the one hand it’s exciting; so much potential for things to see and do.  But on the other hand we know we can’t live on the exciting end of life all the time, but in bursts.  Most of our lives are relatively mundane. And that’s usually OK.  But when we’re on the way somewhere, we’re often caught up in the wonderful feeling of anticipation, and are impatient to get there.  Preparation is as exciting as the journey sometimes.

Recall a journey you found exciting or that you looked forward to.  What was capturing your imagination? 

But we also know that sometimes people are forced to make journey’s they would rather not make.  To a funeral at the other end of the country.  A refugee fleeing to safety.  The reluctant journey is not fun.  Sometimes there’s no time to plan.  We must go with very little, maybe even leaving some important and precious things behind.  The city can be a confusing place.  We are not always sure where it’s safe to rest.  We seek a quiet place in the midst of bustle.  And our spirits are refreshed again.  Enough to carry on.

When you need quiet refreshment in the city, take note of where you head.  Why there for you?  How do you know you have had enough rest to carry on again.?

After the quakes, how did you find yourself reordering what you would take with you next time?

“God’s angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up,take the child and his mother with you, and escape into Egypt and stay there until I tell you …’”  Matthew 2

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Advent invitation 1

I invite you to walk with me through the Christchurch inner city, noticing and wondering as Christmas comes closer.  The Church has used  the 4 weeks of Advent as a reflection time as we wait for the Christmas Day events.  Whether you are “religious” or not, this can be a time to deliberately slow down amid the invitations to get ultra busy.  I will offer 4 reflections over this Advent time.




Places to CROSS.

Christchurch is a city of bridges.  By my count our inner city has 22 bridges over the Avon River between Harper Ave and Fitzgerald Ave.

Some are pedestrian, some are traffic.  Some are in quiet places like the Botanical Gardens, others are on our main routes through the city like Durham St.  The river winds along its way, and we must cross it, again and again.  Often we do that without thinking.  The river becomes invisible to us.  The crossing place is simply a hardly noticed feature on our way to someplace else.

Pedestrian crossings allow us to pass to the other side of the street safely.  Again we tend to ignore them.  White lines on a road, or little green figures on a beeping light.  We are going somewhere else.  Over there.

On any day, how many crossings do you make?  How many do you not really notice.  Try counting them one day.  Take notice of the mundane in your day. 

Not all our daily crossings are outdoors.  Some are across rooms, or offices.  No crossing we make is accidental.  We have a purpose, however unconscious.  Sometimes we cross in our minds too.  A new thought, a new insight, can give rise to a new direction in our thinking and in our lives.  The crossing of a street or a river can be a symbolic beginning of a new way.  It is good to sometimes pause on a bridge and look into the river.  There are trout, eels, feeding ducks, swallows, plant life and flowering weeds.  (I don’t recommend stopping half way across a street though!)  Sometimes we are so busy getting somewhere else that we notice very little of the journey.

Advent is a time to ponder, and to notice some ways we are in the world.  Crossing from one place to another – take time to ponder the details of the journey.  Why are we making any particular crossing journey?

“Mary set out at that time and went as quickly as she could to a town in the hill country of Judah.”

Luke 1:39

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Another day in the life …

It’s Tuesday, but the city feels like Monday – quiet, recovering from Labour Weekend.  Sunny, warm, somewhat nonchalant as a day. Not much doing.

My first conversation is with a bookseller.  I had heard her talking with a previous customer about spending the weekend in her garden, getting it ready to plant.  I suggested she could come and do ours too, but she wasn’t biting that.  We chatted then about the best time to plant tomatoes.  I am a fan of putting them in pots I said.  Then I can control pretty much everything about how they grow.  In fact I have one on my deck in flower already, I said.  She thought she might need permission from her spouse to do that, but thought it was worth a try next year.  Conversation 1 – tomato growing techniques.


Further along the road I’m surprised to see my old mate Tom, a streetie whose company I enjoy.  I sat on the pavement beside him; we got chatting.  Haven’t seen you for a while, I said.  I’ve missed you.  Tom smiles.  No I’ve been away at a tangi.  We talk about that for a moment – where was it – local.  How come it was two weeks long?  Then the story becomes different.  It was my son, he says.  He committed suicide.  And then the often-said words – Your kids aren’t supposed to die before their parents.  We talked about his philosophy of life and death, the second such conversation I’ve had with a streetie lately.  There’s a fatalism present in the way Tom accepts an inevitable outcome from a life of drugs, and alcohol.  Acceptance that with the best will in the world you can’t live someone else’s life for them, even your son’s.  We share a time of sacred silence on the street while people walk past us averting their eyes.  Then we conclude the sacrament with coffee and a lasagne roll from the convenience store.

And I leave him as I head further inland, to the Square.  Where there’s no conversation to be had today.  Everyone is immersed in their cell phones as cameras, pointing at the ruined cathedral.  Without knowing the recent decisions.  I wonder if they care, or whether the ruins are actually more poignantly useful to the city as an attraction.

I move on again.  West this time to the Art Gallery where I have come to talk with an American artist Kiel Johnson (http://kieljohnson.com/) who is creating a room full of art that people made in the Gallery during the weekend.  I talked with him briefly amid the chaos on Sunday, but today is a time with no one else there. We talk about the creative meditative state that art brings as it is being created.  And the way art and spirituality are so interlinked.  His workshop, he tells me, feels like a church.  We chat for as long as I can without intruding on Kiel, and I move on.

To the Art Gallery shop where I run into Andrew, another friend I have made this year.  We chat about the Gallery, and the buzz of the weekend activity, and how much he loves working in that environment.  He tells me he left his dream job to do it.  Turns out the dream job came with snags for him, and he felt he wanted something else.  It’s one of those bittersweet conversations.  I recognise something of myself in his words, the mark of a good conversation for me.  We have become easy with each other in the shop over time.

Like the woman in the wee coffee place I often go to.  She knows what I drink, and last week as she brings it to me says she’d like to talk about her father, and his difficulties with beginning retirement. And I recognise myself again!

And so it goes …

Deeper questions than where shall I park?

The inner city is beginning to feel as if there is life again.  Slowly but surely.  I hear stories about how developers struggle sometimes to understand the antipathy they sense from the general citizen.  After all they are providing the wherewithal for the city to become whatever it will become.  They provide a fabric of retail and the seemingly inevitable trade off of places to put the cars.  Yet sometimes it must feel as if all you have provided is a platform for criticism and anger.  It gets to the heart of the philosophy of what a city is.  There are other deep questions too – What is a city for?  Who is it for?  Why is Christchurch? (Or any other city?)

When in 2008 human beings became more urban that rural world-wide, it was a change that sent few ripples into the ether.  Yet it irrevocably changed the nature of being human.  By 2050 the estimate is that the world population will be 75% urbanised.  That’s not very far off.  And it has implications for the kind of questions we might ask of our cities.  Particularly when alongside the increased pace of urbanisation goes the current discoveries that will make the nature of “work” very different from what we have ever known.  Again it will challenge the basis question of what it means to be human.


These are deep and long-term questions that I don’t see or hear being asked by either developers or planners.  So much of the conversation has been about post-quake restoration of shopping and recreation.  There has been an understandable sense of haste to try to get the discomfort banished.  Some of this haste has been at the cost of long-term solutions, like an aspirin into the centre of the city.  Most of the decisions have been made by those with the money and the will and the power to get things going.  Just as well we have these people.  But it’s also time to begin to look at the deeper questions about what Christchurch is in the long term, past the 21st century (always assuming the world stays intact that long!)

To ask these questions will require us to look hard at how we can be human in an environment of mostly strangers, which is the normal city environment.  How to be fully participatory, how to look after the well-being of residents, how to be alongside those who are different, and those who can make little financial contribution to the greater good (even supposing we still believe in that).  Crucial for me as I think about these things (typically sitting in the inner city watching what’s going on) is the deepest question of all – how to be fully human in an urban environment that will grow larger in population terms faster than we can sometimes cope with.  This will mean understanding that when more than 50% of the population of strangers among whom we each live will eventually have no work (as we currently understand it) what will that mean for how we use our time?  When we have shopped and dropped, what next?  When the person alongside me in the street can’t find an affordable place to live, what is my response?

Cities are places of possible vibrancy, entertainment, and public spaces where we can gather.  And they are private, walled spaces that shout “keep out”.  Some of us have overt power to make a city happen in a way that works for us.  Some of us have no power to influence, and struggle to stay alive in this urban harsh environment.  When I walk down the street and pass other strangers I have not much insight into knowing which end of the power spectrum anyone is.  Clothes can be worn to hide poverty – I know a lonely poverty-laden bloke who always wears a tie for example, as a covering, and to give himself a sense of dignity.

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Being human is all we have.  Urban living is what we are becoming.  Faster than we know it.  There will be little time to begin the conversation – what does it mean to be human in this place in 50 years, 100 years time.  Time to consider the strangers around us.  Time to realise that we too are strangers to each other.  How to live alongside strangers is not an easy question to creatively answer.  But it is one of the deep questions.  The trouble is, it’s only one of the deep questions!  Where then will be ask them?  And together begin to ask “Why is Christchurch?”


  1. Not the most memorable number. It’s a Library Dewey Decimal number.  The 300’s are Social Sciences: Sociology and Anthropology. 307 is Communities.  Then there is 307.76.  That’s the place where I find books on the city.  If you like, the theory of how cities are made up, and conversation books about how to live in a city.  I have three titles currently on my table that illustrate the importance of reading some of these books.

Mindfulness & the Art of Urban Living by Adam Ford

The Vanishing Neighbour  by Marc J. Dunkelman

Walkable City by Jeff Speck

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I chose them at random from the library shelf last week.  Two are from the USA, the third from Britain.  All deal with ways in which cities work for and against us.  Jeff Speck has some TED talks too.  He is a city planner who specialises in creating walkable neighbourhoods.  I live in one of those.  I walk a kilometre to the bus I want to catch, along a small river, past spring daffodils and trees budding at this time of year.  Blossoms abound, but are almost finished for another year.  It’s walkable because it’s safe, well pathed, and leads me somewhere I want to go – in this case a bus stop.

The centre of the city I live in is dangerous in places – continual building is taking over footpaths, directing walkers across traffic to the other side.  It’s unpleasant.  But I’m convinced the only way to experience a city is on foot, so I walk slowly, looking around me, stopping to talk with people – another feature of a good city – people are accessible along with things to do, whether it’s shop, bank or engage in recreation. I try to be mindful, and to enjoy most of what I encounter whether it’s a new courtyard, a sculpture, pounamu, or the varied facades of the post-quake buildings. Sometimes enjoyment is easier than others.  My conversations always surprise me, and teach me a great deal about the way we live and who we are in this cluttered space called a city.  The spiritual dimension to life is apparent in the way we respond to the river, and to each other.  Do we say good morning, do we avoid those who feel so different they threaten us, do we scurry past each other.  Yesterday when I was with a group of people having coffee together a fire alarm went off – we needed to evacuate the building – up some stairs.  I ended up helping an elderly woman who struggled to be quick up the stairs.  Her daughter was with her, and we bantered our way outside.  A lovely moment in mild chaos.  Strangers.

Then I met a bloke sitting on his own in a foodcourt.  I’ve written about him before.  We shared some food, but for him that was the least of our interaction.  Conversation was his craving.  He lives alone struggling on a benefit to make ends meet.  Today we talked philosophy and religion.  Who knows what we’ll talk about next time.  It’s the fabric of humanity that we touch lives.  The city offers multiple opportunities to do that.  But seldom do we take it – governed as we are by fear.  Fear, I’m beginning to see, is the root of all alienation, aggression, and mental unhealth.  Yet as I talked with a mental health expert recently, fear is hardly ever addressed.  First discover our own fears.  Then walk slowly into the anonymous humanity around us that is the essence of a city.  There’s a reason why the most used words of Jesus in the Gospels are “Don’t be afraid.”


Another day in the life …

There’s a rhythm to the city day depending on who you are and where you are.

I’m sitting in one of my favourite places in the city.  It’s quiet, and out of the cold spring wind.  The barista tells me about the times to avoid:  the busy times before work, then 10.00 to 10.30, then there’s a slow hour.  That’s where I come in.  But then it picks up about 11.30 till after lunch when it’s frantic.  The busy, then the quiet.  Time to talk.  But busy and quiet are opposites depending on which side of the counter you are standing!  In this place there’s always time to stop and talk to people like me.

The boss is expecting me for a meeting – offers 2 glasses of cold sparkling water, but today it’s only me.  One glass then.  Me with a book, looking for a place to be for a while.


Time to listen to what’s going on around me without really paying close attention to what’s going on.  Over there a table is set up for a booking for 6.  They never showed. The name of the game.  Do we have to live in such a casual and disrespectful society?

A young couple walk in.  She discovers she knows one of the wait staff – greets him with a big hug.  How’s it going?  Good.  Her bloke stands close by looking on, suddenly feeling like a spare wheel.  There are no introductions, but lucky for him the waiter has work to do.  They get a coffee after all.

In the bottom of the cup is a message.  An offer perhaps, or an order or an invitation.  “Same again?”  I’ve never noticed that before.  Why not?


There are barista red and white socks for sale over there, and all sorts of coffee paraphernalia.  This is a seriously good place.  T J the boss has become a good friend.  I later discover he has befriended the artists down the street in the old welder’s place.  Could have got some of his coffee for free there too.  I talk with them about Gordon the welder.  They have respected his craft by calling the gallery the Welder.  I like that.  Respect is restored.  I like that too.  Respect and dignity change lives.  And good company.  And good coffee.

The city. Another day in the life …  the web grows.