(I found this draft post in my files – it’s a year out of date, but I like what Paul and Tracey had to share, so up it goes…)
So, following on from my previous post, in which I described my impressions from my time with Tracy, the Baptist community pastor for Kaiapoi, I spent some time with both her and the senior pastor, Paul over lunch. They invited me to ask them questions, and I focused mostly on what it was like for Paul, my counterpart, to lead the congregation in the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquake.
Much of what Paul said reinforced what Tracy had already said. For instance, he talked of the increase in the suicide rate; not so much among the young (who already have a horrendously high rate of suicide) but among older folks who just can’t keep going. He talked of the feelings of tiredness and exhaustion which come with coping with being in a broken environment for two years now; how early optimism and the “We can fix this” attitude gets slowly eroded simply by the passing of time. How the initial losses of home and security and (often) jobs, are compounded over time by the losses of friends and familiar landmarks.
A regular theme here is the phrase, “We’re off the map.” They explained to me how an earthquake is such an unexpected event, and for each place, such a unique event, that there is no real resource for them – no road-map or guide-book for how they should be coping or what they should be expecting. They are moving into uncharted territory in the ‘here be dragons’ zone. This, of course, only exacerbates the stress and increases the load of each new day. I know full well how pastoral work is difficult at the best of times; in the midst of earthquake consequences and recovery it becomes impossible for human strength. And there’s the key. Because they are forced to rely upon God’s grace for each day’s needs, they are convinced of his power to help and to heal. The reasons for despair in their community are, for Paul and his congregation, an opportunity for optimism. They look forward to the time when “God will wipe away all tears from their eyes; and there shall be no more death, neither sorrow, nor crying, neither shall there be any more pain: for the former things are passed away.” (Revelation 21.4)
Because of this basic orientation towards hope; towards a future that is in God’s hands and is good, Paul and co. continue to hold hope for their people. Paul says that “A ‘woe-is-me’ attitude is not good enough as the default position for Christian ministry.” Hand-wringing and lamentation have their place, but to stay there is to betray the best part of the Gospel. Paul looks to the story of Nehemiah leading the people of Jerusalem in rebuilding their city walls, and points out that while Nehemiah lists the various occupations of the wall-rebuilders, there are never any masons or engineers in the lists; it was ordinary people with ordinary occupations who got out there and dealt with the section of the wall that was closest to them. He also notes that they did actually know what a wall should look like; they had the thing rebuilt within sixty-odd days. “We don’t know what our future looks like,” says Paul, “But we do know that it belongs to God.” Thus they have to rebuild in faith, and the first steps might be tentative, but they are foundational, and so essential.
And what are they putting in these foundations? Paul is awaiting delivery of a strip of red carpet. “We’re going to ‘roll out the red carpet’ for the Holy Spirit.” It is God leading his people in their day-day lives that will bring the best expressions of the Kingdom coming. They’ve recently begun giving away money in their services; with the proviso that the person taking the cash has to ask God how to spend it and it has to be spent on someone else, and they have to come back and tell the story. The first sum was taken by a forestry worker who returned to tell, with tears in his eyes, how God had lead him to buy blankets for those who were sleeping in their cars still, as a bitter winter rolls around.
There is an emphasis upon fun and laughter – good medicine for the soul. And “courage grows in company”, says Paul. Getting people together – for any old reason – helps to build resilience into people’s lives; helps to remind them that they are still part of a community – albeit a community that is hurting and changing and transforming into something new.
At this point Paul quotes Jesus’ saying about putting new wine into new wine-skins. The past is gone and the loss hurts and grief is necessary – but the past is gone. Something new is happening, and the something new demands new ways of doing things, new structures and new systems. It’s this forward focus that will bring the community of Kaiapoi through these dark days – and it will still be a community because of the efforts of those like Paul and Tracy who are building foundations of hope into people’s lives.