Reflections on my city 1


Over 50% of the world’s population is now urbanised.  It’s a tide that comes in but never goes out.  Christchurch now has more people than before the quakes.  And about 1/3 of the population of the South Island makes home here.  A settler city, whose founders aim was to colonise what they saw as empty space, the origins of this city relied on a pastoral understanding of what cities were for.  The first settlers were farmers, farm labourers and shopkeepers whose task was to service those on the land.  This city has always been a strong “stock and station” city.

But what is its future shape and purpose to be?  Post quake two directions became quickly visible.  Where and how to house the remaining population given that a large part of the eastern city is deemed unsuitable for housing, and what shape should the inner city take.  The answers became a rush for capital, and powerful forces began to claim ownership over the “solutions”.  In the inner city the combination of needing to clear rubble, mourn the deaths, and somehow plan for an invisible future became a scramble for credibility between the government of the day, the City Council, and private developers many of whom had already lost their investment buildings and were looking to reclaim their place in the city future.  Citizens found themselves spectators to most of this.  There were consultations, but even when people put forward ideas, it became clear that the government had decided the last word would be in their hands.  Nothing would happen without their sign off.  The Greater Christchurch Regeneration Minister Dr Megan Woods still has to sign off anything the city decides to do leaving the final power external to the city.

A fundamental question of urban design worldwide is Whose city is it?  Currently the answer depends on who you talk to.  The City Council has some authority, but not all authority – hence some of the frustrations citizens feel about slow road repairs, for example, are not always attributable to the Council.  But equally frustrating, as I see it, is a lack of coherent long term vision for what the city might become in the late 21st century where my great grandchildren will be living.  The world is moving faster than I can comprehend.  I admit it’s a hard ask – to think ahead with so much at stake is difficult.  The pastoral beginnings of the city are still somewhat apparent in land use and attitude, but peak cow is becoming a reality, there are trends suggesting meat consumption is reducing world-wide, and reliance of Fonterra to lead the economics of the country is proving to be a false place to go.  So what will happen?  Will the gaming industry save us?  The High-Tec industry?  Electric cars?  What will we be?  The clear answer is that it’s unclear?


So … As we begin life in the next uncertain period, it’s apparent that issues of mental health, a gap between those with resources and those without, a struggle to maintain enough population in a largely empty country and yet an anti-immigration record,  a reliance on other countries for our well-being, are issues that are present now, and will become more pressing as time goes on.  These are not easy issues to talk about, or to face.  There isn’t a bottle on a shelf containing the elixir of future truth.  Our agreement on a meta-narrative which used to be supplied by religion has gone.  History is fluid, and citizens still have to live.  How we deal with each other in the city is as important as the resources we all share, or are excluded from.  That’s the place where ‘streets’ tries to operate.  In the people arena of life.  But reserving the possibility of always commenting on the huge issues too.  There is hope in people sharing spaces.  As long as we can make spaces in which to share each other’s lives we will find a way forward.  We will.



Uses. A Meditation for Good Friday



 Strange, isn’t it, the uses we find for things?

Take wood for example.

Rimu, kauri, kahikatea – such beautiful grain and lustre,

Extraordinary pieces of furniture

Hand-crafted by the loving hands of artists.

Totara, carved into panels by Maori craftsmen

Expressing generations in forms of living beauty.

Wood has such splendour and depth in its grain.

Some wood though is grown for painting over,

like pinus radiata, hidden in framing houses,

grown less for beauty than utility.

For we have need of wood for cupboards, ladders, to be stepped on, hammered, sawn into everyday, taken for granted shapes and uses.

There are some people who don’t like wood,

who stand before it wooden-faced,

not seeing beauty, strength or purpose.

Some will burn good oak or rimu.

You see we are not all made the same

with sensitivities in one place.

Some wood is used for purposes quite foreign to a craftsman.

The caress of feeling hands is oft-times replaced by smack and snarl of purpose, to fashion, any old how, in haste, a gallows, or a club, or perchance a cross.

Yes, it’ll do.

It’s strong enough to put a man on for a day or two.


So heavy, yes and clumsy too, tips over.

Every step becomes a curse.

Splintered hands hang heavy underneath the blisters.

A craftsman’s son knows well the feel of wood

made smooth, made patiently to shine.

Even chairs, jointed well will last for years and years.

But now, unfriendly wood scrapes skin away,

cuts into shoulders now unused to carrying loads.

And on and on, it feels forever, to the end.

Some help indeed, but late, and cannot soothe the ache.


Around the bottom, below, twisted faces.

Laughing, jeering, spitting derisive hatred,

Picking at the knotty woodwork for a souvenir to remember the hoisted fool by.

Got him this time.  Our wood is strong.

But he could jump off there if he’s got it right.

And have you got it right, kind fool, gentle king?

Your kingdom’s shrunk into a crossbeam.

Have you got it right?

Have you, have you, have you got it right?



And then the wood is silent like the night.

It has done its rough work well.  Strong it stayed.

Unmoving.  Stark now against the city sky.

Speaks through its silence of a hatred, deep,

but exposed of late;

brought to the surface by a force so strong,

more powerful even than the wood of loathing.

A voice of loving,

That takes the splintered wood of hate in us

And gently polishes to show its grain runs sweet and smooth.

The polish of a craftsman’s beauty.


Strange isn’t it, the uses God finds for things?


Lent 6 In and Out

“Jesus entered Jerusalem and went into the temple courts. He looked around at everything, but since it was already late, he went out to Bethany with the Twelve.”   Mark 11:11

I’ve come to see clearly that there are several cities called Christchurch.  In particular there’s the inner city, and the surrounding rings of suburbs where most citizens live.  Because this is a flattish grid city in layout, there is a defined inner core boundary, normally designated as “the four avenues”.   On Google maps they are clearly defined.  Long, and mostly straight, these roads offer a clear designated boundary.  It can be said that we enter the inner city by crossing one of these roads.  Inside, the city is high rise, business oriented, office dominated, with a scattering of shops in an inner core, along with emerging play spaces like Hagley Park, Margaret Mahy Playground, and the Square.  In NZ terms, this is unique.  If this were an ancient European city, there would be remnants of protective walls around the 4 avenues.  One would enter through gates, and emerge into the commercial, and safety heart of the city from the countryside.  It seems to me that there’s still something of that ancient understanding of city happening here, in a modern city on the other side of the world from Europe.


People often tell me, they never come “in” to the city.  They stay “out” where they live and shop.  Or if they come “in” it’s always for a special occasion like a lantern festival or a concert in the park.  We are an in and out city.  This is partly why it’s been a struggle to get people to live ‘in’ the city I think.  It’s more than apartments vs houses.  There’s a mindset that makes sense if we see ‘in’ as hostile, and ‘out’ as safe.  In other words, it’s turned the old walled city mentality completely around.

Lent usually ends with Jesus going ‘in’.  The famous story of him having a tantrum in the temple and clearing out all the animals and money changers is the stuff of legend beyond the bible.  What is usually less noticed is the way the story has such an in and out rhythm.  Jesus goes in, looks around, and comes out.  In this case Mark says he goes to his outer urban sanctuary to be with friends – Mary Martha and Lazarus, we are told in other places.  At another, later, time, Jesus returns to the inner place where he confronts the theology of holy space in a typically prophetic-action way.

lent6 (1)

Coming and going, in and out, are features of life to which we usually pay scant attention.  Yet they play a deep psychological part in how we see where we live.  The themes of sanctuary and threat are sometimes implied.  Where do we feel safe?  Why do we feel the need to stay out, and perhaps never, or seldom, go in?  Some of this has to do with the city being the place of the stranger.  And of each of us needing to have ‘our’ space – both a sanctuary and somewhere we can be in control.  Some of it has to do with design.  Much of it has to do with spirituality – we have been well taught that a sense of God is hard to find in urban mess.

Lent is a challenge to reconsider such inner attitudes.  A pathway into the hard places.  A chance to assess the ways we treat our ins and outs. And to reflect that life is made of these rhythms.  Like them or dislike them.  But notice them.

lent6 (2)


Lent 5 Who do you listen to?

“They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. “Sir,” they said, “we would like to see Jesus.” 22 Philip went to tell Andrew; Andrew and Philip in turn told Jesus.”       John 12:21-22


Imagine you wanted to see the mayor for some reason.  It’s not like going to see the next-door neighbour by popping through the hedge.  To see the mayor requires an appointment through her office secretary.  To whom you would have to state the reasons you want to see the mayor.  Then you may or may not get past the gatekeeper, and eventually see her.  That’s one way.  The ‘official’ way through the door.  But if you know a City Councillor personally, you could try that way.  They could have a word to the mayor and arrange a time to meet.  Or if you know a family member of the mayor, you could try that approach – even more informal.  It all depends on why you want to see the mayor, who is always a busy person.

There’s the old saying “it’s not what you know, but who you know.”  It comes as no surprise to discover that one of the functions of those surrounding Jesus was to protect him from unwanted intrusion on the ‘busy and important’ man’s time.  Numerous Gospel passages show this in action.  In John’s Gospel we see a chain of hierarchy.  Non-Hebrew speaking Jews (Greeks) want to see the rabbi.  Will they need an interpreter?  They approach the outer ring of minders – Philip.  Who gets the OK from Andrew, and the two of them open the door.  Jesus, as it turns out, sees this approach as a sign to get on with it.  People outside the usual ambit now know about him. Time is right.


I wonder how often something out of the ordinary acts as a catalyst for us to begin to ponder change, or a new direction, or to stop procrastinating about something.  A conversation with an interested stranger perhaps.  A book we are reading.  A speaker at an event.  A sign on a building.  A line in a song.  There’s no one thing, but I’m aware that sometimes I have been goaded into a new place by listening to an inner voice that comes after such things have intruded into my thoughts.

Lent is a great time to think about changes.  It’s now autumn, no longer summer.  Trees are beginning to turn.  Time to listen, and to watch, and to discover small but insistent calls to move, to change something, to rediscover something we thought we had lost perhaps.  To take a risk and discover it was a two-centimetre cliff we had been standing on.  To grab what’s left of our lives and walk towards the ridges beckoning us into …


The way John’s Gospel presents Jesus, it was just such a random event of some foreign speaking folks wanting to talk to him that helped him make up his mind and set his face towards his passion for God.

“Now my soul has been troubled, and what might I say? … But for this I have come to this hour.”



Lent 4. Enlightened?

“Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light.”   John 3:19


Light and darkness are themes in so much literature and spirituality.  We live through light and dark every day.  The streets are different at night.  Even familiar streets give us the creeps if we walk at night and someone follows us.  Danger, we think.

Black has become the archetypal evil colour.  (Is black actually a colour?)  In many movies the villain is dressed in darker clothes than the hero.  Sometimes in western movies the villain rides a dark horse and wears a black hat.  In our western culture black has become the colour of mourning.

Once, when taking one of my children upstairs to bed, she asked me to turn the dark off.  I explained that I couldn’t do that, but I could turn a light on.  Sometimes that’s all we can do.  Turn a light on, despite the power of dark around us.  Because being in the dark disorients us, disempowers us.  We are not used to being in the dark any more.  Everywhere we go we take lights.  World population is measured from space by the places that are lit up at night.


But none of that is what Jesus means it seems to me.  At stake in the city, living among strangers, are issues of trust and compassion.  Whom do we trust?  We have become a sceptical age where to give money to streeties is frowned upon because they “will just spend it on drugs and alcohol.”  Said always without any real knowledge of how the money might be spent.  Will I help that person?  Will I ignore that person?  For me these are questions of light and dark.  We strangely prefer to be in the dark about some things because if we really know, then we might have to change who we are and how we think and act.  To be enlightened is not always comfortable – there are consequences of seeing – once seen, we can’t un-see.

So when Jesus speaks of being light in a dark world, sometimes we would rather not trust that.  It has consequences you see.  Not just for us, but for those we pass in the anonymous crowds in the streets of the city.  It’s timely to remind ourselves, as the nights get longer and the days shorter, that life is a matter of light and dark.  And what we make of those realities is the story of who we are.


Lent 3 Watch what you say!!

I was at a meeting recently about begging in the inner city.  The people round the table knew a great deal about the city – police, social agencies, and some guys who have been known to beg.  Each made a contribution to the issue being talked about.  Then one of the “begging residents” made his statement that it’s easy to stop the practice.  Just put up some signs.

Shock, horror.  As easy as that.  Yep.  But no, then came the problems of putting up signs in the inner city, who has the jurisdiction to put them up, how would the intent be enforced and by whom.  Would it need a bylaw?  It became complicated by bureaucracy in less than a minute, while Abe sat there shrugging his shoulders.  It’s easy, he seemed to keep saying, while others couldn’t get their head around it at all.

Language is a key to understanding how society works or doesn’t work.  Language is us.  Humans trying to communicate, or to fudge communication.  “You are here” tells me nothing if I’m not sure where ‘here’ is.

lent3 (3)

It’s no wonder in the Gospel for this week that Jesus gets into language trouble.  He says one thing, and means what he means.  But those who oppose his actions (and what sensible animal owner wouldn’t among those dealing in sacrificial lambs and doves) take him to mean something else entirely.  He dies in the end in response to a literal understanding of language.  Irony, metaphor, poetry are accepted ways of saying things with many meanings at once.  But we have become accustomed to the idea that Scripture can’t do that.  There can be only one meaning.  Not layers of meaning – one meaning.  It gets us into trouble, just as Jesus’ language got him into trouble.

lent3 (2)

As reflections in windows hold many things up to us at once, so too do our words.  Meaning is created by a complex process of life associations, and learning. Then meaning is carried in the way we say things.  Layer on layer.   The simplest things often have nuances we miss unless we consider carefully and make a huge effort to listen.  Mostly we don’t do that, and often, like Abe, wonder what we said that is suddenly so complex when to us it is so simple.

lent3 (1)

“Jesus answered them, “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days.”

They replied, “It has taken forty-six years to build this temple, and you are going to raise it in three days?” But the temple he had spoken of was his body.”   John 2:19-21 


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

lent2 (2)

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.

lent2 (1)

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.

lent1a (3)

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.

lent1a (1)

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?

lent1a (2)


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.

IMG_0020 (12)

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.

IMG_0090 (2)

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.

IMG_0127 (3)