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23 April 2012

We’ve talked about religion, how about politics?

Last year, I tried to “give up” politics for Lent.  I am admittedly addicted to politics.  It’s like a dangerous drug, for me.  It makes me angry, crazy, and depressed, and yet once I get going I cannot stop.  It’s interesting, though, since coming to New Zealand, I’ve almost adapted the attitude of an outsider when it comes to American politics.  I almost hate to admit it, but I feel relieved that I’m here, far away from the insanity.  However, if all I’m doing is running away from one crazy system, then I’m not really experiencing the culture where I am now.  What would be the point of that?

With that in mind, I’ve decided to do a little research into the New Zealand political system and compare similarities and differences with US politics.  I’ve been working on this post, now, for over a week and so far, the best I can do is, in the words of a friend I was talking to yesterday, sound like I’m studying for a citizenship exam!

So, I’ll try to be brief about the boring stuff.  New Zealand is a Constitutional Monarchy, which means that Queen Elizabeth, II, is the Head of State of the “Realm” of New Zealand.  It is also Parliamentary Democracy with proportional representation.  Effectively, this means that there are multiple (more than 3) parties in the game and the number of seats each party has in Parliament is proportional to the number of votes the party’s candidates (and the party itself) get.  The leader of the majority party is the Prime Minister.  Currently, this is John Key, and he is a member of the National Party.  You can read all about this on Wikipedia.

New Zealand is not divided into states or provinces but is governed in its entirety by the Parliament.  Regional and territorial issues are managed by a variety of boards and councils, including District Health Boards which manage the delivery of healthcare to the people in their particular region.

The rest of this post is more observational than factual.  First off, the idea of “proportional representation” is quite appealing to me.  It lessens the probability that one party can essentially “take over” and assert its agenda to the exclusion of all other voices.  Instead of a “winner take all” system where a party has to have a winning candidate in a certain district in order to get a seat in government, New Zealand has a system where a political party only has to get 5% of the vote to have a seat in Parliament.  Mind you, in reading through the list of parties, it seems that they are all some version of the progressive/liberal/moderate/socially conservative/fiscally conservative spectrum.  On the “far left” are those who want to the government to take care of all of the social needs of its citizens and raising taxes is a good thing to do to achieve that. On the “far right” are the people who want to rein in government spending, want lower taxes, AND, in some cases have a fairly conservative social agenda.  HOWEVER, these are people that would be seen as “moderates” in the US.  The “National” party which is currently in power seems, to me, to be fairly moderate, although it is criticised for wanting to gut social programmes and for giving tax cuts to wealthy corporations and being too beholden to special interest lobbies?  Sound familiar?  Only the scale is much different.  When I read/hear these things, I shake my head and say, “If you ONLY knew.”


One notable thing about the “socially conservative” agenda is that there is not the vitriolic rhetoric you hear in the US. First off, most people aren’t really all that concerned about what the RELIGION of the candidate is.  Of course, Christians might tend to vote for a Christian, if they thought that person would do a good job of representing their values and interests as Christians. The same goes for people of any other religion or, for that matter, culture, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender.  But it doesn’t become a subject that’s open to scrutiny in the question of “can this person do the job they are being elected to do?”  Second, the two biggest “litmus test” issues for conservative candidates in the US are, still, abortion and same-sex marriage.  Now, don’t even get me started on how ridiculous it is to debate these things when the gap between rich and poor is growing at a stunning rate, when children in one of the wealthiest countries in the world are starving, when people are going bankrupt because they can’t pay their medical bills.  In New Zealand, same-sex marriage is not legal and there is some debate and discussion going on about it.  However, no one is trying to amend the (non-existent) constitution to deny that right to gay people.  In fact, sexual orientation is listed in all the non-discrimination policies that I’ve ever read here. So, how does that work?  How can gay people be free of discrimination but not be able to “get married?” Well, for one thing, New Zealand DOES allow all couples to have a Civil Union which basically is legally identical to marriage.  I don’t quite get the difference, actually, since couples in a Civil Union (straight or gay) have the same access to medical decision making, inheritance, tax breaks and other benefits that married people do.  In any case, it is, for the most part, a non-issue. 

Similarly, there have been some efforts to outlaw abortion.  Briefly, groups like “Operation Rescue” came over and staged protests.  However, attempts to actually ban abortion entirely have repeatedly failed in Parliament and the issue seems to have died down and all but gone away in the political arena.  Abortion is legal in New Zealand but there are reasonable (in my opinion) restrictions.  It can only be performed if two doctors (one of whom must be an OB/GYN specialist) agree that it must be done to protect the life and/or health (physical or mental) of the woman.  It’s the “mental health” part that is invoked in most cases.  I know there are efforts, such as government subsidised contraception and family planning programmes, to try to reduce the need for abortion.  This is something I need to research a bit more, however.  I know there are abortion providers in the area but I have never seen people carrying signs with pictures of dead babies and to my knowledge, abortion providers do not go to work wearing bullet-proof vests. (But then, guns are a whole other issue.  I just found out the other day that the police are not armed!)


So, with 2 of the issues that take up so much of the time of American politicians virtually out of the way, what do lawmakers have to do all day?  Well, they decide on how to spend money for things like healthcare and care for new parents and young children.  They decide on how much to spend on infrastructure and supporting business.  I’m sure they waste time on things that tax payers don’t think are important.  But if they waste too much time on those things, guess what? They get voted out! 


It is, of course, very complex to try to define poverty and then quantify it.  To make matters worse, comparing the US to NZ is extremely difficult because the two countries define poverty differently and, remember, the US is a REALLY big place with a lot of variation in income, employment, and cost of living.  New Zealand has a minimum wage of $13.50 per hour.  The NZ dollar is worth about US$0.85 but that still puts it at around US$11.45.  The US minimum wage is $7.25 per hour.  Some states have a higher minimum wage but many do not.  The minimum wage in the US is, almost universally, not enough to live on.  It seems to be designed to keep people in poverty while allowing businesses to thrive.  A worker making minimum wage in the US and working 40 hour weeks would earn about $15,000 per year.  When I went to the Bureau of Labor Statistics website I found that the workers in the lowest paying jobs in the US (burger-flippers, dishwashers, etc) had a median income in about the $18,000 range, just barely above minimum wage. On the other hand, a similar list for New Zealand had the lowest payed workers, including wait staff, baristas, caregivers, and fast food workers, making something in the $31-32,000 per year range.   Both lists had doctors at the top, with American anaesthesiologists making well over $250,000 per year and New Zealand doctors as a group making around $143,000 per year.  The bottom line is, if you have a full time job in New Zealand, you will be making more at the bottom and less at the top than you will in the US BUT that means that the gap is much smaller and those at the bottom have a chance of actually making a LIVING wage.  The median hourly pay in NZ is $20.  Incidentally, the spread of housing costs is similar between the two countries depending on the area and there are certainly some areas in New Zealand where housing prices are too high for the wages people are earning in those areas.  There are poor and homeless people in New Zealand and there are NGOs as well as government programmes aimed at helping them.  A lot of the recent poverty and homelessness can be attributed to the disastrous earthquakes in Christchurch.  They are still rebuilding from that, and facing huge insurance issues and increases in premiums.  However, today, someone told me that his homeowners’ insurance premium had skyrocketed all the way up to $600 per year!  It’s all relative, I guess.


It seems to me that this is not up for debate in New Zealand.  We are responsible for our environment and keeping our planet healthy and happy.  Full stop.  Again, this is an area I need to research more, but my observation is that people fairly readily accept the taxes on carbon emissions (such as petrol, or gasoline) and the recent start of government subsidised kerbside (the kiwi spelling of “curbside”) recycling pick up has been widely embraced by just about everyone in town.  I’m sure there are debates on how, exactly, to allocate resources to ensure cleaner air and water and what government’s role should be in that effort.  But the facts are the facts and the kiwis simply cannot understand how supposedly intelligent, educated Americans can deny those facts. 


Some of the assertions I have made here are backed up by facts and others are wild speculation based on what I see and hear and experience.  My overall impression of life in New Zealand, so far, is that there is a lot less of the “shared psychosis” that I see in America, whereby people jump on a bandwagon for a cause, no matter how lame that cause might be, and can’t let go.  The economic picture, while certainly scary for a lot of people in NZ, is even more dire in the US with the huge gap between rich and poor widening rather than shrinking.  Healthcare is in danger in NZ because the government has subsidised so much and costs are going up. However it seems that there is a saner approach to fiscal responsibility, with a party that sticks to this policy agenda rather than getting distracted by micro-managing people’s personal lives. If American politicians could buckle down and get the work done instead of spending all their time trying to get re-elected and worrying about how they can next niggle in people’s lives, imagine what they could get done?!

In a coming post, I want to get into more detail about one of my big social justice concerns:  Human Trafficking.  But that will require still more research so it might take awhile.  It's much easier for me to just rattle off my thoughts than to actually sit down and wrangle with facts.  But that's important, too, and so wrangle I will. 

14 April 2012

Living near the sea

I love being near the ocean.  I always have.  I grew up near the ocean, and have lived near the ocean for large chunks of my life.  For the past 11 years, I have lived in the land locked state of Montana and have rarely gotten to see the ocean.  I moved there for a relationship, and it was well worth it on that score!  I was told that in Montana, "the sky is the ocean."  Montana has some lovely skies, beautiful mountains and a lot of  beauty in general.  But since being in New Zealand, especially being near the coast, I have realised how much I have missed it.  It's good for my soul.  The vastness, the sounds, the power, the seems it's all just part of my DNA somehow.

So, this post will be devoted to photos of the ocean.  Yesterday, I set out specifically to spend the day at the beach.  I ended up going to Dunedin, where there are some great beaches...a little bit on the commercial side, although nothing the likes of Rehobeth, Delaware or Ocean City, Maryland.  What I found was plenty of sand, waves, seagulls, surfers, runners, dogs, and people just walking up and down the beach enjoying the beautiful autumn day.  I did some running myself, realising how much I miss running on the beach.  I like to imagine what's on the other side of the ocean.  In this case, I guess it would be the southern part of South America.

The rest of this post will mainly be a photo album, basically me indulging my love for the sea.  If my readers enjoy it, all the better!

The first set are taken at St. Claire Beach, Dunedin


I love the juxtaposition of sandy beaches and rocky cliffs

Beautiful blue water


Some sort of pretty purple flowers

Another self portrait (the day got warmer!)

Lots of people enjoying the beach

The end of the beach and a tide pool

A sea kayaker

Pretty spot for wedding photos

The next set are taken at Bluff, on the southern tip of the South Island.  It's not quite as far south as New Zealand goes, though.  That would be Stewart Island, about 35 km further south.

That big thing on the righthand side is picture of a Right Whale

Toward sunset

Part of a Maori legend about an anchor and a big fish

 Because it seems appropriate, I am going to end with the "Benedicite Aotearoa", a special version of the "Song of Creation" for New Zealand (NZPB page 63)

O give thanks to our God who is good:  whose love endures forever.
You sun and moon, you starts of the southern sky:  give to our God your thanks and praise.
Sunrise and sunset, night and day:  give to our God your thanks and praise.
All mountains and valleys, grassland and scree, glacier, avalanche, mist and snow:  give to our God your thanks and praise.
You kauri and pine, rata and kowhai, mosses and ferns:  give to our God your thanks and praise.
Dolphins and kawawai, sealion and crab, coral, anemone, pipi and shrimp:  give to our God your thanks and praise.
Rabbits and cattle, moths and dogs, kiwi and sparrow and tui and hawk:  give to our God your thanks and praise.
You Maori and Pakeha, women and men, all who inhabit the long white cloud:  give to our God your thanks and praise.
All you saints and martyrs of the South Pacific:  give to our God your thanks and praise.
All prophets and priests, all cleaners and clerks, professors, shop workers, typist and teachers, job-seekers, invalids, drivers and doctors:  give to our God your thanks and praise.
All sweepers and diplomats, writers and artists, grocers, carpenters, students and stock-agents, seafarers, farmers, bakers and mystics:  give to our God your thanks and praise.
All children and infants, all people who play:  give to our God your thanks and praise.

10 April 2012

The Lord is Risen!!

He is risen, INDEED!

I am late posting this, although, really, it's never too late. Plus, liturgically, Easter lasts for another 6 weeks until Pentecost.  I'm suffering from a bit of "OCD" writer's block.  I keep thinking of things I'd like to research and write about, things like early Church history around celebrations of the resurrection, and I'm not finding the time.

So, first, a bit about my celebration of Easter.  I went to Dunedin, to the Great Vigil at All Saints' Anglican Church.  Here's a little information about the Easter Vigil liturgy.  The service started with a bonfire in front of the church.  One of the advantages of being in the Southern Hemisphere this time of year is that it is not only possible, it's EASY to start the Vigil in the dark, as the rubrics in the Book of Common Prayer suggest.  In Montana, after Daylight Saving Time begins, it's still light at 8 PM and since this is typically a long service, it's quite difficult to start it after dark and not lose people due to the late hour.  (Of course, we are all wimps, because this service originated as an actual all-night vigil. Check out the Wikipedia article for more information than you could ever want about that.)

To back up, just a tad, I got a flat tyre (tire) on my way to the service.  It's a long story but to truncate it a bit, I called my boss (I was near his place) and he came and rescued me and took me to church then went back and put my spare on and then drove my car back to me while his wife drove their car so that I could go straight home after the service.  It was probably the most wonderful part of the whole thing!  This man couldn't care less about church.  He's not "anti" church or Christianity, just not interested.  But he exhibited a most Christ-like, genuine care for me and for what he knew was important to me.  And he never showed any degree of annoyance or in any way made me feel like I needed to repay him for his kindness.  As I was waiting in the dark for him to come and rescue me, I was thinking how much I had wanted to go to the Vigil and how I had planned out the day with just that in mind and I was so close to making it and it looked like I was going to miss it.  I had a moment of peace and clarity there--I said a prayer asking God to make a way for me to make it there or to help me to be ok with it if I couldn't make it.  I took a deep breath and let go of my wants and expectations and had a sense that whatever was in store was completely God's will and exactly where I was supposed to be.  That's nothing short of miraculous, frankly, as I'm the world's worst control freak!  And, in the end, the surprise was Branko, coming through to help me with my car AND get me to church!  Who knows what kind of work the spirit might be doing in him, or me?

So, to get back to the vigil, it was a beautiful service, starting with the bonfire and lighting of the Paschal candle.  The first part of the service is in the dark, by candle light with readings from the Hebrew Scriptures which tell the ancient story of God's salvation of his people.  The readings were interspersed with psalms and canticles.  The musicians were amazing, including the 15 year old organist!  After that, the lights come on and everyone joins in the proclamation that "Christ is Risen!"  The remainder of the service is spent in hearing the Gospel, singing songs of praise, and remembering our baptisms and renewing our own baptismal vows.  And afterwards, there's a big party!

It was interesting, because this service, for me, is always the START of Easter!  Although the space of time from Good Friday morning to Saturday night is quite short, it is a long time for me, an impatient person, to sit in that space of grief and pain.  But this year, I celebrated this amazing event in one of the very first time zones in the world!  I couldn't, then, go on Facebook and proclaim the Good News, could I? Not when most of my friends were still in that hard place with Jesus in the tomb.  It seemed sort of inappropriate.  So...I drove home on my spare tire, went to bed, and got up in the morning and did it all again.  Sort of...I did it in an entirely different format at St. Mark's in Balclutha.  I found I can really get into modern praise songs, as long as I've also been able to bathe myself in the rich tradition of the ancietn liturgy.

Because of my tyre, I stayed close to home for the remainder of the holiday weekend.  No fabulous photos to post.  I wasn't able to get the tyre fixed until Tuesday, the day I went back to work.  But that's ok.  It was good for me to take some walks and runs and meditate on the beauty and glory of it all.

One of the things I did was listen to a sermon by Jeff Miner about how we can live into the power of the resurrection.  It's nice to say "Christ is Risen" and rejoice that Jesus was raised from the dead.  But what does that really MEAN? And how does it or should it affect my life?  Often, churches are packed on Easter Sunday with people you won't see again until Christmas Eve.  Pastors have a hard job to do, to make the most of their one shot at reaching those people with the Gospel.  People want to see that we're really "walking the walk."  Are we REALLY following Jesus?  Even when it's really hard?  Are we "dying" to our own expectations, our selfish desires, and letting God raise us up to a new life of love, surrender, worship, and service?  If all people see is our "Hallelujahs" and our hand waving and clapping but no substance, no acts of love for the poor, the oppressed, the outcasts, what good is it for us to proclaim that Christ is Risen?  It's something to think about...daily, weekly, not just on Easter Sunday.

In keeping with the rather scattered motif of this post, I want to share something that comes to mind every so often, especially when thinking about death and resurrection.  It's a memory of my car wreck in 2006.  I'm not sure if it's ACTUALLY a memory, but it's become embedded in my narrative of the event to the point that I hold onto it as a memory.  In July of 2006, while driving home from work, I rolled my car off the interstate.  I don't remember why and I may never know why.  I remember only bits and pieces of what happened after that for the next several days, as I was rushed to the Livingston hospital, flown to Billings, operated on and taken care of in the ICU. At some stage, I had this very vivid flash of a memory of what happened as my car was flying through the air.  I remember a feeling of total surrender, knowing that I couldn't possibly survive this.  I didn't "WANT" to die--we had just returned from visiting Kate in Guatemala and I wanted to bring her home!  But in spite of that, I found myself looking straight into the eyes of Jesus, saying, "here I am, Lord, I guess it's time." I felt a sense of absolute peace and love, as I knew that I would be safe in his arms.  And then I heard, "No, not yet.  It's not your time, yet.  Your family needs you.  There's more for you to do."  It was like I'd been hit with a ton of bricks (maybe that was the car landing!) But it was a moment of disappointment because I knew that this was going to hurt...a lot...and that I was going to really have to fight for my life.

What the memory does for me, at Easter, is it drives home to me how I don't have to fear death because Jesus overcame death.  But, on the other hand, it also makes it crystal clear that Jesus' death and resurrection must not be in vain.  My life was spared for some reason.  It's all part of being "Guided by Grace" again.  I'm following in the path that is put in front of me, even though I often have no idea what it means or why I am on it.  It's very simple, and yet, sometimes it's the hardest thing in the world to do.

Christ is Risen Indeed!  Alleluia!!

06 April 2012

Watch and Pray

As I write this, it is the afternoon of Good Friday, in New Zealand.  Liturgically, symbolically, Jesus has been betrayed, handed over to an angry mob, beaten, mocked, and crucified and then buried in a tomb.  It is that time of tension, waiting, sad but anticipating the joy of Easter Sunday.  I spent the morning doing a variety of “worship” activities. The first was a contemplative worship service at St. Mark’s Anglican, the church I have tentatively called my “home” while I’m here.  Following that, members of most of the congregations in town gathered outside St. Mark’s for a procession in which a large wooden cross was carried to each church in town, some readings and prayers were offered at each place of worship, and then we ended at the Town Hall, where there was an ecumenical service for Good Friday.  That was much more contemporary and, frankly, a bit jarring.  However, the whole experience was quite powerful for me.  It engaged all of my senses in the process of reliving Jesus’ final journey and act of overwhelming, all-encompassing love and grace.  And I have been left with a feeling of sadness, of emptiness deep down inside.  I think that feeling is meant to be there…when I reach in and examine it; I find that it is a sense of profound loss and grief, of rejection, fear and guilt.  And then I find that all of that is encased in a deeper feeling of hope.  All of that grief and fear and emptiness is being laid to rest in the tomb.  It is what Jesus took upon himself so that I can finally be free of it all. 

That raw feeling of grief must be what Jesus’ mother and the other women who were there with him at the cross felt.  It is likely what the disciples felt before they fled in terror.  It had all come down to this.  They had placed all of their hopes and trust in this man.  Hope fed by the miracles, the acts of mercy and justice, now all broken to bits as their hero, their saviour allowed himself to be unjustly condemned to die a horrible, shameful death.  In their grief, they didn’t know the ending of the story.  They should have, given all the hints Jesus dropped.  They should have been able to trust, to hope, to believe that this could not be the end of it all.  And, as I sit with these feelings, I know what they could only dare to hope for.  I know of what lies on the other side of the cross and the tomb.  I know, but it’s not time to go there yet. 

These spiritual exercises are far more than just memorials or nice things to do.  When I allow myself to turn inward and examine what happens when I take this journey with Jesus to the cross, it becomes real for me.  I think that’s what is meant by a “Sacrament.”  Somehow, the real presence of God comes into my heart and my soul in a real and tangible way.   And I have to sit with it.  I have to stay here and experience what I would be feeling if I were literally there with Jesus at Golgotha.  We live in a “fix it now” world.  We find it almost intolerable to sit with pain, with fear, with uncertainty. And we are not alone in that.  Jesus begged his closest friends to come with him to his darkest hour. “Watch and pray,” he said, and then he found them sleeping.  They couldn’t tolerate the intense loneliness, fear and pain that Jesus was about to endure.  Perhaps they didn't believe he would really go through with it.  Perhaps they were thinking that this time, like all the others, Jesus would pull a well-timed miracle out of his hat or find just the right searing words to say to his persecutors to put them in their places.  Ultimately, of course, Jesus forgives them of their lack of fortitude and their unbelief.  That is indeed good news, but it doesn’t let me off the hook.  In due time, I will get to rejoice in the glorious celebration of the resurrection, when all of the pain and suffering and death is turned upside down.  But if I jump the gun, I miss out on a critically important part of the process.  I miss the point entirely.  Easter means nothing if Jesus was not crucified.  And Jesus’ death means nothing without Easter. 

I think there is a bigger, broader lesson here.  We are often taught that Jesus took all of our guilt and shame and suffering upon himself and did away with it, once and for all.  I believe that is true, to a point.  However, there is more.  See, when Jesus was with his disciples, both before and after his death and resurrection, he didn’t tell them that life was going to be easy for them from then on.  He told them that they were going to be left behind on earth to continue Jesus’ work.  They were promised everything they needed for their work but they were also promised that they would suffer immensely, just as Jesus did, for doing that work.  So what was the point, then?  I think the point is that in walking with Jesus, in taking that journey into Jerusalem, to Gethsemane, to Golgotha, to the tomb and beyond, the disciples and we can see to what lengths God has been willing to go for our sake.  We have seen Jesus take on ALL of that sin, despair, hatred, and fear.  Our lives and our hearts have been split wide open.  Jesus has seen into the deepest, darkest places in our souls and has said, “I forgive you, I love you, I want to be with you forever and I want you to walk with me and continue my work.” In the resurrection, we know that we will never be alone and that we have the strength to go to those hard places, wherever they may be.  

Jesus didn't simply take away all of that grief and pain and suffering.  Instead, he gave us the assurance that we are clothed in God’s grace, we are forgiven, we are PART of Christ’s body and we have been given the strength to bear each other’s burdens, to suffer with the oppressed, and to cry with the broken-hearted.  This is “compassion:” "feeling with."  As we do this, we are healing the wounds of sin and separation from God, in whose image we are ALL created.  But, I believe, we can’t truly do this unless we spend some time with Jesus in that place of emptiness and isolation.  In order to know joy, we must walk through sorrow.  In order to fully appreciate the joy of the resurrection, we must suffer some of the grief and pain of death, knowing that nothing we suffer comes close to what Jesus went through for us. It is through the hope of the resurrection that we are able to endure such suffering and pain.  Like Advent, this is a past, present, and future event.  I must live in the present reality, while at the same time celebrating the past event of Jesus’ death and resurrection and anticipating the future promise of eternal life with Christ in Glory.  Watch and pray.