Wondering while wandering

I’ve been pondering the way ‘wonder’ comes up in my mind and vocabulary all the time.  I have long known that in terms of a spirituality stream I swim most in mysticism and quietude.  Maybe it’s my introvert character at work? But “streets” has challenged me to stop retreating to the pleasant margins of solitude and swim in the noisy urban waters where in most cities it gets harder and harder to find a place away from people.  Particularly as in some cities we are either so packed in together, stranger upon the knee of stranger, or public spaces are eroding to make way for what one Christchurch seatback plaque calls “vanity projects”.  It gets harder to find a place where noise is absent too.  Even though urban dwellers are good at tuning background noise out, it begins to form a constant in our heads and minds, sometimes making it difficult to even be in the space, and impossible to escape.  It’s no wonder that mental un-health has become such an issue.


As I walk around the inner city I have learned to be slow, and to notice small things that are often passed by as insignificant or worthless, and to see in them something else – the warp and weft of the city fabric.  The reality, not the insignificant backdrop to reality.  I have, in other words, learned to wonder better.  I am often asked now to talk to groups like Rotary.  I enjoy the challenge of helping them see the city as a wonder place, and not something to avoid.

“Wonder” is a verb and a noun.  We are used to the spiritual discipline of ‘wonder’ meaning awe.  A sunrise, a new insight, a close moment with a stranger or a lover, a sharp intake of breath when we come round a corner and see the mountains covered in sun-reflecting new snow.  Or whatever has been your last wonder moment. Cultivating the permission to stop and wonder is a great habit of mind.  These days it’s often called ‘being in the moment’ or ‘mindfulness’, or some such phrase.  It’s not new. The Christian mystics wrote about the necessity to be wonder folk centuries ago.  But there’s a buck in it now.  You could take a course if you wanted to!  (It makes me smile to see how these trendy things are dealt with, when maybe we have forgotten our own deep Christian traditions).  That’s the noun meaning of wonder.  Awe.  It’s vital to our health.

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But there’s another meaning equally vital, and less noticed – the verb.  “I wonder”. All around the city are little signs that make me wonder what went on here, what happened?  A woman’s shoe left in an empty lot where prostitutes work.  An upturned shopping trolley a long way from a supermarket.  Some despairing words written on a bridge balustrade.  A half finished and abandoned building project.  The wondering in my mind is a necessary process as I reflect on the city as a living organism.   It raises questions for me to ponder on, or to seek answers to.  Wondering drives me to ask others about things.  It drives the compassionate necessity.  When I talk to a lonely old man sitting on a low wall and he tells me things about his life, I am left with a wondering how come he became like this.  This wondering is what one writer called the “long leaver question”.  It’s a necessary part of spirituality too, but I’ve noticed it is less written or talked about than awe.

When we see a glimpse of something, it’s like a snapshot.  We don’t know what’s behind what we see.  So, like a stone in the pocket, it becomes a touchstone that stays in the mind.  It’s the essence of the parable – an open, energetic wondering.  I note that so often in the Gospels Jesus tells a parable and then there’s a passage saying that Jesus explained it.  I don’t think so.  There’s no point in one answer to a wondering.  As I wander the city streets, I am learning the importance of wondering while I wander.  A rich way to live.  (Even in the cold of winter!)


Has it been a year?

logo.jpg“streets” is a year old.  I remember the first day I began to walk the streets of the inner city.  July is often a cold month in Christchurch.  The year anniversary day began with a morning temperature of 5C.  That first day is significant for my methodology.  There was no blueprint about how to do this.  I caught the bus into the city, emerged from the bus transfer station onto Colombo street, stood by the traffic light, and then randomly, and without a heap of thought began to walk towards the river and the Bridge of Remembrance.  I remember sitting by the river clutching a warm cup of coffee, and began to watch what was going on around me.  Many people in high viz jackets and hard hats, a few pedestrians, a few tourists.  Not many people really.  Lots of building noise, and machinery.  It was not a quiet place to be.  I remember looking at the river flowing faster than I remembered, and the ducks, swallows, and there, in the water, a trout.  Later I came to know the eels under the steps near here.

It began with looking, and slow walking in all directions.  The first month was about discovering the patch that is called the inner city.  The streets, the lanes, the buildings growing up around me, the builders, the few shopkeepers and barristas.  There was no hurry.  The first discovery of importance I made was that so much of life in ministry had been too hurried, too busy with programmes and meetings.  The joy of Durham St’s vision was to set someone free from that model to wander and wonder.  Wondering has become an important second discovery.


Wonder is both a verb and a noun.  When I see something as I walk that stops me in my tracks it is usually for one of those moments of wonder.  Sometimes it’s the noun meaning.  A glimpse of unexpected beauty – say clouds reflected in a new building.  Wonder = awe.  A state of mind that’s vitally important as I walk because the “streets” vision is not social services, but to provoke a spirituality presence in the inner city.  Wonder is partnered with curiosity.  The “what might be round the corner?” approach to life is about discovering an openness that not everyone lives with.  I have always valued curiosity.  Now it’s my way of life.  Sometimes though I find something that leads me to wonder in a verbal sense.  A woman’s shoe on a bare lot along a street.  One shoe.  And I begin to wonder, “What went on here?”  Or someone leaves a note of despair on a bridge, “No life left.  Just emptiness”.  I wonder still who wrote that, and what happened next and before.  Wonder in verb and noun sense has been a vital spirituality discovery of the past year.


The importance for really seeing the inner city in the light of spirituality rather than activity is enabled by walking slowly and looking.  Looking has been sharpened for me through photo-taking.  Finding something that captures my imagination (there’s another vital word for me) and photographing it so I can encourage others to begin to see there’s more to the city than emptiness and new buildings and boringness has become one of my passions, and major ways of reaching others.  This has led me to talking to Rotary and other community groups.  My hope is that Durham St’s brief is being fulfilled by spreading a way of being – another learning as I reflect.

So much church life is traditionally about trying to attract folk to your brand of being Christian.  Crudely and cynically, it’s often in the cause of trying to shore up the future of the congregation rather than demonstrating a way of walking the Way of Christ.  Activity is often based on what the church thinks others need.  Social services can be a way of demonstrating that we are “active” in the community in ways that make the church feel good, but often not in ways that lead to significant changes.  By having none of that in the “streets” brief, it has been interesting to see how open the people I meet are to meeting me, and talking to me about their lives.  If there is no expectation that I am out to get them, people have been keen to talk about deep and personal things – to me, a stranger.  I have learned about the importance of cathartic listening, of being with someone.  A random someone I meet.  And strike up a conversation with.  Like the parking attendant who tells me a story of the way his Indian colleagues get racially verbally attacked almost every day as they do their job.  The old woman who tells me she is so lonely she is off to the casino for company.  The man who tells me of his wife’s suicide some years ago.  And many more.  It’s like being a mobile confessional sometimes.  A quiet moving presence.


Sometimes I have formed relationships that are ongoing.  Baristas, shop owners, policemen for example.  Sometimes I have sought out particular people whom I want to talk to and  learn about a particular thing.  Sometimes I am like a football, passed between other people.  A rich ever deepening way of life.

A year.  But for me a year of intense fun, and particularly learning about how to live a life of spirituality in a city getting back on its shaky feet.  “streets” has changed my way of seeing the world, and hopefully has contributed to a door for others to see another way to live in this ever-changing place.  Come and join me some day.                                         Send me a txt: 029 770 8759.  I’d be glad to walk with you through this incredible place.



What is a street?

A city is a collection of streets.  Ways to get around.  I once lived in a Tongan village, Ha’ateiho.  There was a road through the village, the main road.  But there were no streets.  Just houses scattered like pepper any old way it seemed at first.  But the town of Nuku’alofa had streets.  Paved ways between the houses and the shops.  Any city has streets.  Most cities try to make efficient use of topography, and if they can, use the grid pattern.  Dunedin was laid out on the other side of the world.  The Octagon at the centre of Dunedin is on a slope.   All maps are flat. Unlike a place in reality, except perhaps Christchurch which is mostly flat.  And a city of grids.  Pathways to get from one place in town to another.

We live in suburbs, laid out first with streets in new subdivisions.  Houses then find their place after the street is laid, not before.  After the earthquakes no one seriously even suggested changing the grid pattern of streets.  New geography of buildings has emerged along the old streets.  Disorienting folk.  It is not helpful to point out that from point A to point B is exactly the same number of steps and direction post-quake as it was pre-quake.  People shake their heads and tell me it’s not the same.  The new buildings make it seem much further.  I don’t recognise the corners any more, they say.  Yet the streets haven’t changed a scrap.  But they have.  Just as we learned that a city cannot stand without all the pipes underground, so we have learned that the streets are largely imaginary landscapes in our heads.


Landscapes formed by long associations.  There was where I used to get my hair cut.  There was where …  But it’s gone.  That building is no longer the old one.  Imaginations and associations have not yet formed new links.  People might as well be in another country altogether.  It doesn’t easily feel like home, no matter that we know in our rational heads that Colombo St still has the same number of blocks as it always had.  We don’t treat streets rationally.  Planners might, but citizens don’t.  The city is in our imagination, in our gut, in our emotive response to life.  So we crave something that is recognisable.  Ballantynes Department store, proudly stands where it always did, a beacon for many of emotional stability.  Even if they never shop there, just being able to stand alongside it, allows some folks to breathe more easily.  Ahhh.  Home is here.  Not down there where something else once stood, not in the glitzy new shops for the young people.

Streets are not just ways we have of getting round.  They inhabit our minds and our imaginations.  They are how we know and are known in the city.   They are microcosms of our being but writ larger than ourselves.  More than detached place, a street is somehow me, and you.  Strangers inhabit those spaces too, but we ignore them in our imaginative place. We have our favourites.  We return to the same coffee place, the same shopping store.  We offer to meet people here or there, always the same place, the same corner, by the same tree, or the same part of the river.  Streets are like the coat we shrug on in winter to keep warm.  The street is where we find other people on our way to wherever we are going.  But most of all, a familiar street is where we find ourselves.  Where memory bumps into the present.  A street is ‘home’.  Where the heart is, where we are alive in our living.

It’s no wonder really that many folk are afraid to enter the streets of the inner city.  They no longer live there, and the landscapes no longer resonate with their memory.  Because they don’t have a memory yet of this new place.  It’s hard.  But it’s also the reality of life.


What’s that word mean?

What’s in a word?  Words are not neutral.  They convey value in their meaning.  They express often more than we know when we use them.  Because we rarely find ourselves in conversation about deep meanings, we are often a people who are prejudiced as we hear a word and respond to it.  Talkback radio is a scourge of the airways on one level.  It allows words to be used, and flung about in a prejudicial way without any sense of responsibility for meaning, or for the effect such prejudicial words have.

I was thinking about the destructive power of language recently as I found myself talking with a City Council Manager about the street people.  We were on the same wavelength I hasten to add.  We were wondering about what to do to counter some of the abusive and corrosive language we hear about “streeties”.  (Even to use that word is problematic).  It’s clear that for some inner city pedestrians the idea that someone can sit and beg raises many questions – strangely few are about the person begging.  Mostly they are expressed as words of disgust.  “Why don’t they get a job?”  “How dare they take up room on the pavement”.  There are many more words flung round too, but their intent is usually to cement an up/down relationship which is expressed literally in posture.  The pedestrian stands, the beggar sits.  “They” is almost always used as a perjorative in these expressions.


I agree that those who sit on the pavements and beg are not easy for us to get our heads around.  There is no one reason or common story about why these folk sit there.  The street is not usually seen as an acceptable workplace, particularly if it seems one is doing nothing.  It raises deep questions about who we each are, and how we are to get along together.  When I asked Tom about why he thinks people abuse him as he sits, he reflected and then replied that possibly he is flaunting his freedom in the face of folk who are not free.  He has no bills to pay, no house to upkeep, and seems to be able to do what he wants when he wants.  Some folk find that level of freedom difficult, he said.  There’s something in that I said, as I sat on the pavement. But it’s bloody cold sitting here.  Yep, he said.  So there’s a high level of resilience to try to make your life this way?  Yes, said Tom.  If there was another way don’t you think most of us would take it?  Yes, I said.  Coffee?  Sure said Tom.  Thanks.  The young woman in the coffee shop I always get the coffee for Tom and I has discovered who I am getting the coffee for.  She helps in her own way by filling up my coffee card with double stamps.

It’s easy to discount others who are different from us, or who seem to us to represent something we find raises questions about ourselves.  I was talking to John MacDonald of Splice in Auckland about these issues recently.  Another word for everyone who lives in the inner city is “residents”, he said.  Let’s call everyone who resides in the city a resident.  Everyone.  Whether they live in a penthouse apartment or a flat or a house or take up a patch of pavement, they are residents.  Everyone has something to offer the inner city.  Some offer in one way, others in another.  Resident’s groups abound, and sometimes overlook residents who are living rough.

A city is where strangers reside alongside strangers.  Becoming acquainted allows for compassion, and the sharing of what we each have to offer each other.  As I sit sometimes on the pavement and see the faces of pedestrians struggling with their own emotions as they pass, I wonder how we have become so inhuman as to think some people are less than human and that we would rather they didn’t exist. After all, we are all residents.

“And the words of the prophets …

Today I am in a meditative, reflective mood as I visited a friend in a fascinating, and not well-known corner of the Christchurch inner city.  Gerard lives in a reformed small commercial building.  It’s a great house and studio now.  And it’s beside the river Avon.  After we parted I walked around this small portion of the river.  In autumnal colours the bright ginko on the riverbank stuck out like a beacon.  Reminded me instantly of being in Japan.

But what took much of my attention was the way I came across words on this little stretch of river bank.  There’s a fire-fighters’ memorial – made of girders from the New York twin tower event.  Beside them is an exhortation to peace from the then mayor, Garry Moore.  An invitation to sit and be aware of history and violence.  While it’s on a reasonably busy intersection, the combination of river, bridges, cabbage trees, steps down to the river, and seating, makes for a quiet meditative space.

Turning to the river I followed it down its gentle curves to the next bridge on Barbadoes St.  Where I found many words, some of them recognisable, some not.  Graffiti on seats always tells a story, but an inaccessible one to me.  Who took the time to do this?  Can I see past the defamation to a person needing to assert themselves in a city where mostly strangers dwell for each of us?  I find myself angry and perplexed at the same time.


This stretch of the river is called the Bricks, and was where a Maori pre-European settlement pa was located.  It’s also the navigable limit of the Otakaro/Avon.  Here settlers off loaded their boats and transferred their stuff to other forms of transport.  It is a very important place in Christchurch history.  Here too is a plaque celebrating the work of women’s refuges.  And a kowhai tree carefully planted.  More reflection on the way interactions between people sometimes become problematic and difficult.  Maori/settler interactions; women and men interactions.


On the bridge itself I came upon some words written anonymously on the balustrade.  Neatly written, but ragged in subject matter.  What is happening in the life of whomever wrote these words?  Were they reflecting on their own life or the lives of someone they know and love, or is this a general sigh of despair and hopelessness?  What happened next I wanted to know.  I watched the water slip under the bridge, and thought of Paul Simon’s words in his song The Sound of Silence: “And the words of the prophets are written on the subway walls, and tenement halls, and whispered in the sounds of silence.”


Within a hundred metres or so of the city this morning I found a rich quiet experience.  It is misty, and cool.  There is brightness in the ginko, and wisdom in the sculpture, fear in the bridge inscription, and in me, a sense that within this small block as the Otakaro flows gently to the sea, between these bridges is a huge amount of history, pain, and the hope that peace is possible.  So much to ponder in so small a space.  Sometimes my inner city job is almost too much to carry as I reflect on the pain represented here.  I need to temper this with the ginko shedding its leaves, and wonder about John of Patmos writing of the tree on either side of the river whose leaves are for the healing of the nations.  Time for no words.  And to be still.  And listen to the river.


Wonder and wander

I make a point of often visiting the Art Gallery.  Over the years I have come to realise that it’s not just the works of art that stand or hang that intrigue me – it’s also the notes that are usually displayed somewhere in the exhibitions.  Sometimes the language makes me struggle – what the hell does this really mean?  It’s like academia has taken over plain language.  It feels pretentious on one level.  Like the language of wine or whisky tasting notes, the art world plays with words as much as it plays with paintings or sculptures.  I struggle.  Yet I am also drawn to read them, to try to get past the language in itself to the meaning that lies behind them.  I am drawn to think, and then to look sometimes.  Or at others I wander through the exhibition, and then read what notes there are to supposedly help me understand the artist’s intent.  It’s a very adult serious way of approaching art.


The other day I happened to be in one of the exhibitions taking my time, looking, thinking, making some connections, when in came a girl of about 5. (I’m guessing her age).  “Came in” doesn’t do her vigorous entrance justice.  Like an approaching logging truck pushing vast quantities of air in front of it, the young girl hurled herself into the room, a vision of energy and life.  She proceeded to examine the works on the floor with great interest, desperately wanting to touch some of them, to the dismay of her mother trailing along behind.  She loudly exclaimed her delight, she laughed (yes, out loud), she exclaimed her wonder at the form or colours.  She ran from one work to another.  She was totally absorbed in the art. I stood there and watched, my thought processes totally in chaos.  It was a wonder-full experience.  It raised questions within me – questions of wonder, and appreciation, of how the cerebral adult can ever attain the kinaesthetic child again.  The whole experience lasted probably less that 5 minutes, but I loved it.  Unlike the mother who wanted to apologise for the disruption her child had been.  And who was not placated when I laughed and told her I had totally enjoyed her daughter’s wonder at art.

I find it interesting to ponder the way folk seem to have become cerebral and wordy about matters of the spirit too.  Sometimes the words are so dense that I struggle to understand them  It’s that old issue of belief again – where we somehow think doctrines are the important things.  Yet for me they are not.  I often think of the way I learned about Celtic ways of thinking about God and the world from my nana who (as far as I’m aware) did not attend church.  But somehow she took my education very seriously in these matters and taught me to wonder as I wander, to kick over stones, to take flowers from gardens and to respect bees. No cerebral words from her.  Lots of laughter, some tears, and puddle jumping.  She became more important to me after her death when I began to discover the strength of what I learned from her without knowing it.  She remains for me a guiding light in matters of spirituality.

me and nana

Somehow it’s important as I wander the streets to keep the child perspective, and the Celtic perspective in view together.  They are the same thing in many ways.  I have learned to play – sometimes just in my head.  I am married to someone who delights in jumping in leaf piles in autumn, and who loves to dance.  I am more circumspect in practice.  The city is teaching me to once again respect and connect whatever I find.  Sometimes I find big words and dense thoughts on art gallery walls.  At others I find plaques suggesting alternative histories.  At others I find a pile of leaves and am faced with a choice.  Go on.  You know you want to!  And sometimes I do.

Unsafe City?

The city is often described to me as an unsafe place.  Unsafe usually means I feel threatened in some way.  That raises for me the possibility of danger, or of uncertainty, or misfortune or …

I don’t feel unsafe in the inner city.  I feel anxious about walking through containers piled six high, but rarely do I feel a threat from another person.  There is very little violence in the inner city by day.  Partly because there are very few people there many days.  So what is being described to me as unsafe I wonder?  What is threatening?  And what is the level of actual threat rather than imagined?


It occurs to me there are two major possibilities when considering the origin of threat.  One is place.  The other is people.  It is true that the inner city landscape is different now.  True also that some folk have become quite disoriented when finding their way through the old streets.  The layout of streets is unchanged, but the old landmarks have by and large been erased.  The inner map which is our security no longer operates and as yet we haven’t become used to the new map.  Is this a threat to us?  It could be in the sense that disorientation in what should be a familiar place is a severe dislocation in our mind.  It is unsettling.  Distorted perceptions of where we are can give rise to a feeling of fear, or at its most extreme, panic.  Where did I leave the car?  How do I get from here to there?  The Avon River still flows but some of our comforting places are inaccessible to us right now.  Further disorientation.  The lines of sight are huge now in places – we have inner city vistas to the Port Hills where before there were buildings in the way.  One possibility of feeling threatened then is dislocation in a place that we once knew, but no longer know well.  Yet we haven’t moved cities.  This is very strong for some people.

The second perceived threat is often described to me as the “beggars”, or the street people sitting on the pavement.  I have often observed the interaction of the streeties and the pedestrians.  There is very little.  I have never seen any overt threat happen.  In fact the street guys are passive.  They don’t call out, nor do they jump to their feet and get in the way of passing walkers.  I have sat on the pavement with them.  Down there the passers-by are tall, and rarely look.  Some find the edge of the pavement.  Others might cast a hurried glance and then walk by without acknowledgement.  I ask the street guys what this feels like.  They are used to being ignored.  There is the phenomenon of the invisible middle aged woman – here is another invisibility in full sight.

To what do we attribute this?  Yes the guys often look a little unkempt, sometimes smell a little.  The passers-by are afraid, say the streeties.  “We represent something they are ashamed of.  We might remind them of a freedom they don’t have,” says Tom.   “They don’t communicate with us very often,” says Tipi.  What is the fear others feel then?  Maybe Tom is right, the guys on the pavement represent something deep inside us – shame that it has come to this.  Helplessness to do anything constructive?  Anger that these guys don’t seem to be trying to find a job?


The threat is not real.  Street people all have a back story and each story is unique.  Passers-by all have a back story, and each is unique.  Everyone shares humanity.  Every street person has a name, and a reason for being.  When faced with difference, the first response is often fear, of confusion, or doubt about our own ability.  When listening to a Samoan friend speak fluent English and then break into fluent Samoan I am in awe, but also am forced to reflect on my own inability to be bi-lingual.  The ‘threat’ as we walk the inner city is in our heads most of the time.  It’s a threat to our own inner peace, our own perception of ourselves as competent people.  And when we feel threatened we sometimes avoid any shaking of our foundations, and sometimes we become angry and rail against what we perceive is our threat.  I have seen both responses.  And sometimes feel them too.


Towards Easter. A city Reflection

The landscape of the City 

The Bible begins with a garden and ends with a city.  Both are visions of what might be.  Both are reminders of what is not in the human condition.  The Garden of Eden is a compelling myth of innocence, of natural harmony.  Until it goes wrong.  In the Jewish myth that became the Christian myth too, the reason things went wrong was not the Gods or God, but human disobedience to the vision.  We always want more.  The Holy City in the book of Revelation is a place where harmony exists.  Again it has some compelling images – “I saw the Holy City and the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven, as beautiful as a bride dressed for her husband.  The I heard a loud voice call from the throne.  You see this city?  Here God lives among people.  He will make his home among them; they shall be his people, and he will be their God; his name is God-with-them.  He will wipe away all tears from their eyes; there will be no more death, and no more mourning or sadness.” Many of the motifs of the Genesis story are implied here, but the landscape is now a city.  The City.



It is the extension of the city as the location of the Temple.  The true place of worship.  The city that was destroyed and its people scattered by successions of invading armies.  The city of the vision that here God truly touched earth and the shining sight of God’s presence was visible, at least to the high priest in the hidden place at the centre of the centre.  This is the same city to which Jesus came.  From the village of Nazareth, from the small town of Capernaum, in Galilee far from this city he came and confronted what he saw as the wrongs of the way the city had captured God in its temple.

So at Easter we move in the story from the rural landscape  to the  paved streets of the city.  Looking for the signs of God here too.


The first observation I make to myself is that the idea of landscape and city seem to be on different planets.  The NZ poetry Book “The Nature of Things, poems from the NZ landscape” has no poems about the city.  Nature and landscape are not here?  We feel we often have to travel out of the urban jungle to get a sense of God, but we live here, in the streets, among the towers, the shops, the mess, the sprawl of houses.  Negative images abound about the city.  Joni Mitchell, in a great song, Big Yellow Taxi, sings:

“They paved paradise /And put up a parking lot /With a pink hotel *, a boutique /And a swinging hot spot 
Don’t it always seem to go/ That you don’t know what you’ve got/ Till it’s gone/ They paved paradise/ And put up a parking lot
They took all the trees/ Put ’em in a tree museum / And they charged the people/ A dollar and a half just to see ’em
Don’t it always seem to go/ That you don’t know what you’ve got/ Till it’s gone/ They paved paradise/ And put up a parking lot”

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The city is a magnet for all things.  Jobs, recreation, shops, museums, cultural activity – you name it, and the city will have it if you know where to look.  Cities are vacuuming up people with incredible speed around the planet: The WHO reports that  For the first time ever, the majority of the world’s population lives in a city, and this proportion continues to grow. One hundred years ago, 2 out of every 10 people lived in an urban area. By 1990, less than 40% of the global population lived in a city, but as of 2010, more than half of all people live in an urban area. By 2030, 6 out of every 10 people will live in a city, and by 2050, this proportion will increase to 7 out of 10 people



The city is where people live lives of community and loneliness.  Of excitement and boredom.  Of job and no job.  Of terror and safety.  The city is bright billboards in the centre, housing all over the place.  Roads, parking spaces, traffic and crashes.  It’s easy to characterise the city as big brother; cctv cameras now extend to Riccarton.  It’s easy to characterise the city as the epitome of humanity rushing to its own demise.  Look at Rome and see how long civilisations last, look at Petra, look at London, look anywhere.  We build up and out and use economics to justify what the city has become.  People’s jobs have changed.  If they have one.  Do we know our neighbours in our streets?  Some of us will, some of us won’t.  Life in the city is often called fast paced.  Which means that for those of us who are getting slower, we can easily feel out of place. We will all know people who scarcely go out their doors, who hide away for all sorts of reasons.  We know others who would retire to the country in a lifestyle block attempt to recreate the myth of the serene garden.  In the city, it’s all there.


It all comes to a head in Christchurch as we argue about what a new city might look like.  All the factors are there.  Business, and leisure.  Parks and roads.  Rivers and sewers.  We pride ourselves on being the garden city, and then argue with the council about tending gardens in the red zone.  We want to find the soul of the city and struggle to name what that is – for some it’s the old cathedral, for others it’s no longer anything to do with a religious edifice.  And there’s the rub.  The city is the place of the secular.  The landscape of the towering buildings hide the parks.  One has to search the green spaces out.  In a secular city such as Harvey Cox wrote about in the mid 1960’s, we survive in cities by making life into compartments.  Public and private are kept separate.  Any religious impulse in this city is firmly in the private, behind closed doors zone.  We survive in this world view by maintaining our anonymity. We are alongside each other all the time, but looking someplace else, seldom into the eyes of those around us.  Look someone in the eyes.  Create a point of human contact.  It’s extremely hard to find folk who won’t treat this with suspicion in a city.  The guys begging on the pavement tell me few people will look at them.


But the miracle is that despite what could be seen as a depressing point of view, the city landscape still offers a hopeful vantage point.  The landscape of the city is in blocks, with views afforded down streets.  Glimpses only of whatever might be down there.  If you have ever been a tourist in a foreign city you will have experienced the wandering off the beaten track and the discovery that behind the facade is a whole life going on.  We might not understand it, but we can encounter it.  The landscape of the city invites us to explore beyond the places where we are comfortable and familiar.  To go to the other side of town is often a revelation.  It is a metaphor of the spirituality of discovery that Easter is about.  The city is full of nooks and crannies.  It changes, today’s trash becomes someone’s art work tomorrow.  The city in this sense is a landscape where the known merges quickly into the unknown.  Which often tells us heaps about ourselves – do we stick to our tracks or wander into someone else’s hood?


We crave for human contact yet we want to preserve our own identity and privacy.  The city allows us spaces where we safely mingle.  Yet we’re not expected to interact with those around us.  We go in small intimate groups into a crowd of thousands, stay in our wee groups, but enjoy the feeling that there is something bigger around us.  The paradox of such living is at the heart of the way we have learned to manage our understanding of God too.  It has mirrored the 20th century secularisation and urbanising pull.  We have come to think of God as being personal.  Not to be discussed.  If we find ourselves disagreeing with others we say, “Oh well, I have my beliefs anyway.”  We agree to disagree more often than we stick with the huge discomfort of working through what’s going on in that disagreement.  That’s the city landscape at work.  Compartments.  Departments.  The protection of the personal can easily be at the expense of community.

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When Jesus wandered into the temple precincts and created a disturbance I wonder if some of all this might have been at the heart of his unease.  In his day Galilee was being upturned by huge urban development by Herod Antipas.  He changed a backwater rural place into a Greco-Roman urbanised territory.  He built a city called Sepphoris close to Nazareth, yet the Gospels say nothing of it, and present Jesus as a rural itinerant teacher using farming parables and village life as his focus.  Jesus was living though huge urban renewal times.  Absent from the Gospels.  Which leaves open the question I voiced earlier – is there a spirituality of hope, compassion, awe, wonder and creative relationship in the city?  Or has Lent and now Easter drawn us to the desert in another form – concrete.  The way we live out our answer makes all the difference!


There is much about the block tower landscape of the city to be depressed about.  It makes human interaction at depth much harder.  But it is the place where we live.  To abandon the sense that there is no positive spirit in the city is to “abandon hope all ye who enter here”.  Dante would have us live in Hell then.  To sit with that point of view is to allow God to be absent in urban landscape.  And that I am not prepared to do.


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streets Retreat Lent 6 Water

Springs of Water


A walk into the lungs of the city.  The Botanical Gardens.

Find the water gardens.  They are beautiful all year.  Look for Te Puna Waiora, a spring piped from a rock.  The spring’s name is about health, life, strength.



Reflect on the waters of your life that nourish you, that never stop flowing through you.

Sometimes the springs are hard to find.

What has your journey been like?  Dry, parched sometimes?

Sometimes full of energy?


Listen to the water as it pours from the rock.  It is the sound of life.


Allow its sound to penetrate your mind until that is all you hear.


Take your time.

Dip your hand into the pool and feel the cool water.

Walk quietly away when you are ready, taking the feel of the water, and the sound of the spring with you.



“When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.”

John 4:7

The Myth of history in a city

A city is multi-layered.  Strangers rub shoulders, friends meet and stories circulate.  Stories are the versions of who we are that shape us most.  Think of the family tales that are told at gatherings.  They are “us”.  Think of the official stories that supposedly tell the story of our city – sometimes called history.  And the other stories that often lie silently underneath and become urban myths.


Christchurch is like all other cities.  There are sanctioned stories that are the versions we know as history, and others.  Like the one often told about the Catholic Cathedral being banished to the outskirts of the inner city – down by the gas works.  The Catholics banished by the dominant Anglicans.  I’ve heard this many times.  So I asked someone who would know.  Not true at all, Kathryn told me.  What a strange story that is.  No, the Cathedral was built at the Ferry Road end of Barbadoes Street deliberately because as newcomers arrived in town off the ferry, the Cathedral was the first thing they would see.  That makes sense to me!  But it’s not the way the story is usually told to me.

Christchurch suffers from a church beginning.  Except that it wasn’t really that at all.  It was a money making scheme in England using the Anglican Church settlement idea as cover.  The trouble is it worked in some ways, but not in others.  The first churches built were not Anglican.  The Durham St Methodist building was the first stone church in Christchurch. (The earthquakes unearthed an interesting fact – it was built without substantial foundations.  Stone on ground!)  The Deans family were Scots, who named many places here after their beloved homeland.  Riccarton, the River Avon are two obvious examples.  And the Deans family plaques are in St Andrews at Rangi Ruru Presbyterian Church, not the Anglican Cathedral.


The alternative ‘history’ is not too hard to find as I walk the streets of the inner city.  A plaque here, a monument there.  The Scots beginnings are found near the Town Hall, in a little parklet near the place where the Caledonian Hall once stood in Kilmore St.  And an alternative modern history is beginning to emerge in places after the earthquake and supposed rebuild that challenges the official development view of how the city will look, and how it will achieve its new mantle.

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Often history is distorted by omissions.  I was brought up in Dunedin.  I learned that the Peninsula Road was built by prison labour.  No -one told us that the prisoners were prisoners of the NZ Land Wars, people from Parihaka in Taranaki transported south, made to live in caves, and to build roads.  Now that history too has come out into the light.  As the debate over an Anglican crumbling ruin falters on in this city, I reflect often on the place story and myth has played in the debate over “icon”.  The debate is interesting, for me not because of its outcome, yet unknown, but because it turns on mythology and partly-told story.  Strangely, in this case, it is not the church perpetuating the myths.  And that is very strange indeed!!