An update on Christchurch from the Moderator of Christchurch Presbytery

Martin Stewart serves as the Moderator of the Christchurch Presbytery, and as one of the ministers at St. Stephen’s Church and Community Centre. He is a highly-respected leader of the Presbyterian family here in New Zealand and in the midst of all that is pressing upon his time, emotions and energy, he is managing to keep the wider church informed about what is happening on the ground in Christchurch. Here is his latest reflection, and a pastoral letter penned in his capacity as Moderator:

‘I ventured across town today to the sea-side suburb of Redcliffs to help a woman load up stuff on a trailer – she is moving with her children to Queenstown – I had conducted her husband’s funeral late last year – the load for her is horrendous. We have been told to avoid travelling unnecessarily and we have heeded that. But heading over there was a real eye-opener. The scenes of devastation across the city are one thing on TV and quite another thing seeing it with my own eyes. What a mess and what dust! The piles of sand/dirt on the streets become normal, as does damage to every second or third building. I am surprised to find myself seeing these things and not reacting – it is as if this is has become normal. It is all abnormal, but the all-consuming nature of it numbs me.. Someone sent me the attached photo of the dust at the point of the earthquake – it is frightful.

The trip over was at 9am and I got there much faster than I anticipated in 20 minutes. Heading home at 11.30am was a different story, it took an hour and a half! The main arterial routes are all damaged.

Rev Dugald Wilson and I have been working for the last five months on earthquake matters for the Presbytery. We met with the assessors manager working for the Presbyterians on Friday. He was quite cut up by what he has seen and heard – he is a fine guy and because of this earthquake he will be bumped up the chain and not as available to us as he has been. He along with the insurers manager and engineer firm manager that we have been working with are all church-goers – it has really helped – we feel that the peculiarities of our ways of working are understood. Our assessor friend told us that this event along with September is the largest insurance event in the history of world insurance (recognising also that we are a high-level insured society). It is also the worst earthquake to hit an urban area in the world – not in magnitude but in the nature of the forces caused by the shallowness of the quake and its proximity to a city. With that knowledge, it is remarkable that there weren’t more fatalities. Every day or two the police reduce the projected number of fatalities, and the news today about there being no bodies in the Anglican Cathedral reminds us again that we have escaped the kinds of horror that many other cities and regions in the world have suffered.

The 600 food boxes from the Wellington Presbyterian churches have been delivered and the team have made their way back home’.

Here’s a wee video that tells something of that story:


A Pastoral Letter from the Moderator

Dear friends

What a troubled season we are in. The unfolding tragedy as bodies are pulled from the rubble in our city is simply horrible – we rejoiced that we had escaped fatalities in September, but now we lament the loss of many – the task ahead will be carried out with heavy hearts and take an extraordinary amount of energy. Our hearts go out to the many families and friends who are grieving the loss of loved ones. We are also mindful of the many hundreds of people who are working tirelessly for the welfare of our city – thank God for them all. Many are working in places of extreme danger – what a blessing they are.

We are having to juggle a multitude of tensions in these times – tragedy and triumph, loss and gain, death and life, despair and hope. So often news of human tragedies of great magnitude come to us from far-off places across the waters, but this time it is our city, our families and neighbours, and our houses, businesses and churches that are affected. I hope and pray that you are finding solace in your faith and support in your church families – draw deep from the well of God’s grace, and I also pray that you are discovering new opportunities to love and serve your neighbours and find the face of God in the faces of those who are around us.

The Presbytery has mobilised on a range of fronts – I list just some of them here:

1. Parish Twinning – linking west wide churches with the east side harder hit ones. Rev Hamish Galloway has written the following: “Heard of twin cities – what about twin parishes! Some of our parishes have been badly hit by the earthquake, others have come through with buildings and homes largely intact. This is a time to support each other and we are all looking for ways to do that. In the ancient wisdom of Ecclesiastes 4, two are better than one and a cord of three strands is not easily broken! The invitation is for those who are stronger in the present situation and those who have been hit badly to talk about forming a supportive relationship around things like facilities, personnel, services, etc … What parish can your parish begin this conversation with? What would the relationships look like? We would love to see these conversations initiated and then grow into genuine twin relationships. We would love to hear about it too as it unfolds so that where it is working we can share this as an inspiration to others.

2. A Mobile Minister – we are exploring the possibility of having one of our ministers circulating among the east-side churches – offering support and being a conduit between need and help. What this looks like and what form it takes will unfold in the next while, but in the meantime I have asked Rev Darryl Tempero to work in my name as a liaison person with the east-side churches in our care. He is also the point person helping arrange time out in North Auckland for people.

3. Emergency and relief accommodation – we are receiving many offers of accommodation for people in need from all over the country. Liz Whitehead is coordinating this. It can be for respite as well as emergency. To enquire about this please contact Liz via email or phone 027 257 7112 or (03) 314 8110.

4. Linking with all churches – the Revs Darryl Tempero and Phil King are establishing our linking with the inter-church group who have significant people and skill resources able to be directed to where there is need.

5. Building damage – we are attending to the processes of having buildings inspected by structural engineers, making buildings safe, restoration, and in some cases demolition, with assessors and insurers. We had made significant progress on this prior to 22 February. We anticipate that the problems in outlying areas will still progress swiftly, but given the needs in the CBD and in residences, the restoration process (assessment, costings, etc.) will be a longer process this time. Rev Dugald Wilson and I continue to be the ones to talk to about any issues you have. We work closely with all of the parish liaison people appointed last year. Sadly, St George’s in Linwood has already been demolished. We anticipate that the St Paul’s Trinity Pacific, Berwick Street, and St John’s in Lyttleton churches will also be demolished, and there are serious issues with the Knox, Mt Pleasant and North Avon churches. This is not an easy time.

6. Caring for the carers – I am concerned for the well-being of those who have responsibility for pastoral care, especially the ministers. Finding our way ahead is going to take a very long time and I encourage Sessions and Parish Councils to encourage their ministers to attend supervision, take appropriate time off each week, a weekend a term, and also to have at least a week of leave on the near horizon. I ask you to please be generous in helping your ministers look after themselves.

7. PCANZ appeal – the Presbyterian Church has launched an appeal to support our churches. Congregations and individuals can make an offering by direct bank credit to the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand, account number 02 0500 0086963 00 with the reference: CHQUAKE, or mail their offering to, Financial Services, Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand, PO Box 9049, Wellington 6141. There is information about this on the PCANZ webpage. As a Presbytery we have asked the Assembly office to handle all donations and letters of support so that we are freed from that administrative load. Congregations have been invited to seek financial relief. It would help if I could be informed of any plans you have to access this.

8. Messages of Support – the PCANZ website has also listed many of the letters of support from around the world. They are very encouraging – the prayers of millions are with us.

9. Stories – the Archives Department of our church has also been offering informative material about what is happening here along with things of a historical nature. Yvonne’s blog is well-worth a regular visit.

I encourage folk to approach the Presbytery with any concerns you have or information you need. The Presbytery is here to resource you in your partnership in God’s mission in your communities. Our resources are stretched and we are tired, but we are not alone – we have one another and God’s enabling Spirit is our strength. Our Lord calls to those who are weak and heavy-laden to come to him and find rest and their burdens eased.

May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

Martin Stewart

If you are of the praying kind, please keep Mart and the people of New Zealand in your prayers.

You might also like to check out these earlier posts:

Christchurch: a pastoral reflection

When C.S. Lewis lost his wife he wrote at one point in his anguish:

Talk to me about the truth of religion and I’ll gladly listen. Talk to me about the duty of religion and I’ll listen submissively. But don’t come talking to me about the consolations of religion or I shall suspect that you don’t understand.

And yet the gift of consolation has always been a significant part – and that most difficult – of the work of a pastor. It is certainly among the most difficult work in which human beings engage, a work particularly difficult for people of faith. It is difficult because questions of suffering involve us in the very depths of our humanity. And it is difficult because mere human words have no answer to the mystery of suffering and the existential paralysis that it births. So Stanley Hauerwas:

To ask why we suffer makes the questioner appear either terribly foolish or extremely arrogant. It seems foolish to ask, since in fact we do suffer and no sufficient reason can be given to explain that fact. Indeed, if it were explained, suffering would be denied some of its power. The question seems arrogant because it seeks to put us in the position of eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Only God knows the answer to such questions.

Or consider the words of Simone Weil:

There is a question which is absolutely meaningless and therefore, of course, unanswerable, and which we normally never ask ourselves, but in affliction the soul is constrained to speak it incessantly like a sustained monotonous groan. The question is: Why? Why are things as they are? The afflicted man naively seeks an answer, from men, from things, from God, even if he disbelieves in him, from anything or everything… If one explained to him the causes which have produced his present situation, and this is in any case seldom possible because of the complex interaction of circumstances, it will not seem to him to be an answer. For his question ‘Why?’ does not mean ‘By what cause?’ but ‘For what purpose?’ … [S]o soon as a man falls into affliction the question takes hold and goes on repeating itself incessantly. Why? Why? Why? Christ himself asked it: ‘Why hast thou forsaken me?’ There can be no answer to the ‘Why?’ of the afflicted, because the world is necessity and not purpose …

Here we could do much worse that simply listen to the experience of Nick Wolterstorff who, in grief after losing his 25-year-old son Eric in a mountain climbing accident, penned the wonderful book Lament for a Son:

What do you say to someone who is suffering? Some people are gifted with words of wisdom. For such, one is profoundly grateful. There were many such for us. But not all are gifted in that way. Some blurted out strange, inept things. That’s OK too. Your words don’t have to be wise. The heart that speaks is heard more than the words spoken. And if you can’t think of anything at all to say, just say, “I can’t think of anything to say. But I want you to know that we are with you in your grief.”

Or even, just embrace. Not even the best of words can take away the pain. What words can do is testify that there is more than pain in our journey on earth to a new day. Of those things that are more, the greatest is love. Express your love. How appallingly grim must be the death of a child in the absence of love.

But please: Don’t say it’s not really so bad. Because it is. Death is awful, demonic. If you think your task as comforter is to tell me that really, all things considered, it’s not so bad, you do not sit with me in my grief but place yourself off in the distance away from me. Over there, you are of no help. What I need to hear from you is that you recognize how painful it is. I need to hear from you that you are with me in my desperation. To comfort me, you have to come close. Come sit beside me on my mourning bench.

I know: People do sometimes think things are more awful than they really are. Such people need to be corrected-gently, eventually. But no one thinks death is more awful than it is. It’s those who think it’s not so bad that need correcting.

Some say nothing because they find the topic too painful for themselves. They fear they will break down. So they put on a brave face and lid their feelings-never reflecting, I suppose, that this adds new pain to the sorrow of their suffering friends. Your tears are salve on our wound, your silence is salt.

And later, when you ask me how I am doing and I respond with a quick, thoughtless “Fine’’ or “OK,” stop me sometime and ask, “No, I mean really.”

It is imperative to the integrity of its witness that the Christian community takes suffering and grief with the utmost seriousness. And as for death – Death sucks! There is simply nothing positive we can say about it, nor should we seek to live in peace with it. So Wolterstorff, again:

Someone said to Claire, “I hope you’re learning to live at peace with Eric’s death.” Peace, shalom, salaam. Shalom is the fulness of life in all dimensions. Shalom is dwelling in justice and delight with God, with neighbor, with oneself, in nature. Death is shalom’s mortal enemy. Death is demonic. We cannot live at peace with death.

When the writer of Revelation spoke of the coming of the day of shalom, he did not say that on that day we would live at peace with death. He said that on that day “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

I shall try to keep the wound from healing, in recognition of our living still in the old order of things. I shall try to keep it from healing, in solidarity with those who sit beside me on humanity’s mourning bench.

In the face of death, suffering and grief, what the Jesus community is given to know and to hope in and to proclaim is the word of the cross and resurrection. We have no other word!

The cross of Christ is God’s final word to the problem of suffering, because the problem of suffering is the cross itself. So Jürgen Moltmann:

The death of Jesus on the cross is the centre of all Christian theology … The nucleus of everything that Christian theology says about God is to be found in this Christ event. The Christ event on the cross is a God event. And conversely, the God event takes place on the cross of the risen Christ. Here God has not just acted externally, in his unattainable glory and eternity. Here he has acted in himself and has gone on to suffer in himself. Here he himself is love with all his being.

Most of those who have suffered devastating grief or dehumanising pain have, at some point, been confronted by near relatives of Job’s miserable comforters, who come with their clichés and tired, pious mouthings. These relatives engender guilt where they should be administering balm, and utter solemn truths where their lips ought to be conduits of compassion. They talk about being strong and courageous when they should just shut up and weep … and pray to the God ‘who comforts the downcast’ (2 Cor 7.6), who is the ‘God of all comfort’ (2 Cor 1.3), who intercedes for us both when we can articulate what we want to say and when all we have are groans, and to whom not even death represents the end.

Much of this groaning, of course, is articulated and graciously given to us in the Psalter, and particularly in the psalms of lament and of disorientation, a recovery of which in both corporate and ‘private’ worship would go a long way to re-marry and re-form faith’s truth claims with the ambiguities of human existence. Walter Brueggemann is characteristically helpful here:

It is a curious fact that the church has, by and large, continued to sing songs of orientation in a world increasingly experienced as disoriented … It is my judgment that this action of the church is less an evangelical defiance guided by faith, and much more a frightened, numb denial and deception that does not want to acknowledge or experience the disorientation of life. The reason for such relentless affirmation of orientation seems to me, not from faith, but from the wishful optimism of our culture. Such a denial and cover-up, which I take it to be, is an odd inclination for passionate Bible users, given the large number of psalms that are songs of lament, protest, and complaint about the incoherence that is experienced in the world. At least it is clear that a church that goes on singing ‘happy songs’ in the face of raw reality is doing something very different from what the Bible itself does. I think that serious religious use of the lament psalms has been minimal because we have believed that faith does not mean to acknowledge and embrace negativity. We have thought that acknowledgment of negativity was somehow an act of unfaith, as though the very speech about it conceded too much about God’s ‘loss of control.’ The point to be urged here is this: The use of these ‘psalms of darkness’ may be judged by the world to be acts of unfaith and failure, but for the trusting community, their use is an act of bold faith, albeit a transformed faith. It is an act of bold faith on the one hand, because it insists that the world must be experienced as it really is and not in some pretended way. On the other hand, it is bold because it insists that all such experiences of disorder are a proper subject for discourse with God. There is nothing out of bounds, nothing precluded or inappropriate. Everything properly belongs in this conversation of the heart. To withhold parts of life from that conversation is in fact to withhold part of life from the sovereignty of God. Thus these psalms make the important connection: everything must be brought to speech, and everything brought to speech must be addressed to God, who is the final reference for all of life.

Finally, for now, there is a further posture that we are invited, by God, to maintain. And that is the posture of protest prayer. I am reminded here of Karl Barth’s statement, that ‘to clasp hands in prayer is the beginning of an uprising against the disorder of the world’. A Christian response to suffering is not theodicy, but struggle – the struggle of taking God’s side against the world’s disorder, and of refusing to treat suffering and paralysing fear as an acceptable part of a larger harmonious vision that God intends for human flourishing.

While praying for the people of Christchurch …

Christchurch quaked again this afternoon. And even here in Dunedin, some 360 kms away, there were not a few who felt the earth rumbling, giving way, somewhere beneath us.

And this afternoon, many of us paused to pray again for those who have for many months lived with uncertainty and amidst regular aftershocks. Somewhat stuck for words, I turned to two prayers in Walter Brueggemann’s Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth to help me find a voice and to give me somewhere to start.

Even on such a day

We prattle about your sovereignty … especially we Calvinists;
all about all things working together for good,
all about your watchful care and your severe mercies.

And then we are drawn up short;
by terror that strikes us, in our privilege, as insane;
by violence that shatters our illusions of well-being;
by death that reminds us of our at-risk mortality;
by smoke and fire that have the recurring smell of ovens.

We are bewildered, undone, frightened,
and then intrude the cadences of these old poets:
the cadences of fidelity and righteousness;
the sounds of justice and judgment;
the images of Sodom and Gomorrah;
the imperatives of widows and orphans.

Even on such a day we are not minded to yield on your sovereignty,
We are, we confess, sobered, put off, placed in dread,
that you are lord as well as friend,
that you are hidden as well as visible,
that you are silent as well as reassuring.

You are our God. That is enough for us … but just barely.

We pray in the name of the wounded flesh of Jesus. Amen.

While reading Isaiah 1


The terrible silencing we cannot master

Holy God who hovers daily round us in fidelity and compassion,
this day we are mindful of another, dread-filled hovering,
that of the power of death before which we stand
thin and needful.

All our days, we are mindful of the pieces of our lives
and the parts of your world
that are on the loose in destructive ways.

We notice that wildness midst our fear and our anger unresolved.

We mark it in a world of brutality and poverty and hunger
all around us.

We notice all our days.

But on this day of all days,
that great threat looms so large and powerful.

It is not for nothing
that we tremble at these three hours of darkness
and the raging earthquake.
It is not for nothing
that we have a sense of our helplessness
before the dread power of death that has broken loose
and that struts against our interest and even against our will.

Our whole life is not unlike the playground in the village,
lovely and delightful and filled with squeals unafraid,
and then we remember the silencing
of all those squeals in death,
and we remember the legions of Kristy’s
that are swept away in a riddle too deep for knowing.

Our whole life is like that playground
and on this dread-filled Friday we pause before
the terrible silencing we cannot master.

So we come in our helpless candor this day …
remembering, giving thanks, celebrating …
but not for one instant unmindful of dangers too ominous
and powers too sturdy and threats well beyond us.
We turn eventually from our hurt for children lost.
We turn finally from all our unresolved losses
to the cosmic grief at the loss of Jesus.
We recall and relive that wrenching Friday
when the hurt cut to your heart.
We see in that terrible hurt, our losses
and your fill embrace of loss and defeat.

We dare pray while the darkness descends
and the earthquake trembles,
we dare pray for eyes to see fully
and mouths to speak fully the power of death all around,
we dare pray for a capacity to notice unflinching
that in our happy playgrounds other children die,
and grow silent,
we pray more for your notice and your promise
and your healing.

Our only urging on Friday is that you live this as we must
impacted but not destroyed,
dimmed but not quenched.
For your great staying power
and your promise of newness we praise you.
It is in your power
and your promise that we take our stand this day.
We dare trust that Friday is never the last day,
so we watch for the new day of life.
Hear our prayer and be your full self toward us.

Good Friday, 1991