My Southland journey began with a non-eventful flight from Auckland to Dunedin, enlivened only by a group of energetic slightly rowdy Maori youngsters, and I could not help pondering what great gospel ambassadors they would make.
Not everyone feels this way, but I love Dunedin. The city exudes a gentle confidence in itself, and its Christians reflect this. I am sometimes intimidated by my fellow followers of Jesus who seemingly possess an absolute assurance, radiate an effervescent spirituality and enjoy daily intimacy with the Creator and Sustainer of the universe – but Dunedin folk are not like that.
I am greeted at the airport by a good friend, a man of intense faith, whose generosity of spirit and humble servanthood prove a challenge to my complacent arrogance on every visit. He lends me his car each time, joyfully. I arrive at my home for one night to be greeted with the news that the man of the house is in hospital recovering from an operation – I had deliberately not been told beforehand. Such selfless kindness.
I spend an hour with Bishop Kelvin – my favourite bishop to chat to. He wears the purple well; and is a man who knows and loves God deeply and well but feels no need to display his holiness, a man of deep thought and gentle wisdom. In another time and place Kelvin would undoubtedly be guiding and leading a diocese into growth, but this is 2012 and Dunedin diocese has massive struggles. The diocese feels as though it doesn’t quite know how it ended up in this place – and Kelvin perhaps reflects this! It has the air of the family member who is always looked down upon and kept at a distance, though such thoughts are never expressed of course. I think it has at times been used as a political football, seen as relatively easy prey for those wishing to push through their own agenda, rather than considering the good of the Diocese, or the Kingdom of God.
Financial meltdown and declining numbers mean that change is absolutely inevitable. Some sing “change and decay in all around I see” as if the two need to belong together, but Kelvin sees hope beyond the pain, and God beyond the decline. He reminded me of St Aidan, who wandered the highways and byways, chatting with people wherever he met them, and telling them of Jesus, until one day most of Northumbria was following the way of Jesus. That is my commission as I wander Southland for the next 8 days.
I head next to St Clair, my favourite Dunedin location – glorious beach, massive waves, wild walks. I am thrilled to see what looks like a large seal further along the beach – the first one I’ve seen this close up. It harrumphs just a couple of feet forwards, with immense effort, then seems to collapse. It stopped breathing and died, just a few yards away from me. Beautiful and awe-inspiring moments ago, it is now a mere carcass, terrible, rotting, decomposing, though not yet visibly.
As I understand it, seals have no spirit, so that is it. Nothing more. I was instantly reminded of a funeral I attended recently, taken by a secular celebrant. We lit candles, though not as a religious act we were reassured. We prayed, finally, that Betty’s “spirit may be at peace in the next realm.” But other than that vague, hollow, empty expression of hope there was nothing. Full stop. The end. How I appreciated the wonderful sense of eternity the Christian faith offers, though Jesus who is himself the resurrection and the life.
I headed away, saddened, and as the tide continued to advance up the beach I decided to return via the pathway which overlooks the beach. I wasn’t sure where it was, or how to reach it, but I knew it was there. I clambered up the dunes, three steps up, then two sliding back down. I reached a wooded area, where tracks came and went, and at times I had to make my own, frequently having to turn back and retrace my steps, before striking out again in largely the same direction! What a superb metaphor for this Diocese. The path which rises above the current troubles is surely there, laid by God, and we know more or less where that path lies. But we are unsure just how we get there. The question then, is who will have the courage to trample and tread new paths, embracing both success and failure along the way, meeting obstacles and frustration with renewed determination to press on? For surely we cannot stay where we are, the tide is coming in, and staying here is simply not an option.