I have recently returned from the General Assembly held in Christchurch. Besides the many fallen chimneys, and cracked buildings around St. Andrew’s College, Andrew Smith and I had a glimpse of the damage that Knox Church has suffered. I also saw the internal damage at St. Giles, Papanui and heard of further damage to St. Paul’s Trinity Pacific Church (they had a fire 18 months ago) . It is indeed a stressful time for all those in Christchurch and surrounding districts and we are now so much more aware of the need for continuing prayer and support. Below is a third letter from Geoff King written a week ago.
It’s been nearly a week now since Knox Church Christchurch got the coveted ‘green sticker’ enabling us to re-enter our hall building – but not our church, which remains out of bounds pending more in-depth engineering analysis. Given the incredibly long queue of groups and individuals in need of structural engineers’ services, we could be worshiping in our hall for quite some considerable time, certainly months, and depending on what damage is discovered, possibly years; we’ll just have to wait and see.
Last night was the third night in a row with no significant aftershocks between 10 pm and 6 am, which has meant more uninterrupted sleep than many of us have had since 4 September – though as if to compensate for that, we were rocked by a short sharp quake of 4.5 on the Richter scale at 6.30 this morning, just as I was preparing to leave the manse for my daily walk with our dog. Whilst the aftershocks have been growing less frequent and generally less severe in recent days, this one was an unwelcome reminder of the underlying uncertainty that has pushed its way to the forefront of our community’s consciousness in recent weeks, and even though much around the city and province appears to be ‘back to normal’ our sense of what is normal has been changed in all sorts of ways. At the most obvious level, there is the damage to streets, businesses and houses; there is a great yawning gap in Victoria Street directly opposite what remains of the western façade of Knox Church where a bagel shop, sandwich bar, fruit shop and fish and chip shop with residential flats above them used to be. As I pass the security fences that have sprung up around our building on the way into my office, I wonder what has happened to the woman of around my own age who used to talk with me about the cost of school holiday programmes for our children while she made my bagel; I wonder what’s happened to the young man who used to make sandwiches at the deli next door. Like many others, I am doing my best to accentuate the positive and affirm the strength and resilience of our community – the subject line of this email is going to appear on a banner that will be hung outside our church today, thanks to one of our recently joined members who is a printer by trade. It will read ‘Cracked, not broken: the heart of Canterbury. Celebrating the spirit of community, creativity and love.’ This week, thanks to the creative idea of one of our members who runs a shop temporarily homeless whilst repairs are made to the city’s Arts Centre, we are going to meet for worship in our hall surrounded by artworks depicting scenes of Canterbury. In the centre of the hall I’ve placed the broken Celtic Cross from the top of our western façade, which we’ll surround with symbols of springtime and hope.
Yet even as we seek to affirm people’s strength and build hope, I think we need to acknowledge and work with the fact that many people here are struggling at the moment. I’m recalling a conversation with an elderly woman who has been having trouble eating and sleeping; I have spoken with people afraid to take a shower for fear a quake might hit while they’re under the water; I’ve heard from parents whose children are afraid of going to bed at night, and scared of entering certain areas of the house. There are no ‘quick fixes’ for these understandable anxieties; there is a great need I think for people of compassion simply to ‘be alongside’ (another phrase learned from my friend and colleague in ministry John Hunt, and something I know our colleagues in ministry here are seeking to do to the best of our ability at this time.)
When I was a military chaplain I was taught a great deal about human responses to traumatic incidents; I have been part of military debriefing teams following shootings and accidents, and I remember taking part in an exercise, part of which involved sleep interruption and deprivation; I also recall joking with other soldiers about the instantly recognizable glazed-eyed expression known in military circles as the ‘thousand yard stare.’ It has been humbling and often quite uncomfortable to have some of what I learned refracted through the lens of my own lived experience over these last few weeks. Adrenaline is a wonderful thing, but no one can live in a state of ‘fight or flight’ for a prolonged period. Like many people here, when I look back on the last fortnight the overwhelming feeling is one of frenetic activity accompanied by fatigue. I’m also aware that fatigue and adrenaline can combine to make people aggressive and irritable, and I’ve had to re-learn some lessons about grace and forgiveness this fortnight. The pallets of masonry stacked outside our church serve to remind me of a harshly-worded text message I sent to a woman who’d phoned in the aftermath of the quake asking to buy bricks from our building, and of the ensuing phone conversation in which I apologized for the hurt my words had caused. Beneath my anger I think was the point that at times like these, bricks and mortar and ‘business as usual’ are less important to me and my understanding of the Gospel than the safety and well-being of people – and I stand by that conviction, though I freely admit that I may not always have expressed it in the most pastorally sensitive of ways!
So now I’m ‘off to the office’ to move hymn books, a piano, our banners and whatever else we may need for the foreseeable future from the church into our hall building, before preparing for our first service of worship in the hall this weekend. I’ve decided to depart from our usual practice of following the lectionary, and am going to refer to I Kings 19:11-13 and Luke 12:22-34 in my sermon, as I believe that these texts will speak to people whose recent experience has caused some of us to challenge the concept of ‘the Almighty God’ that Elijah and his contemporaries more or less took for granted, and also to ask ourselves the question put to Elijah in the reading ‘what are you doing here?’ I believe part of the answer to that question has been seen in the spirit of community so much in evidence in Canterbury and in the support we’ve received people like yourselves over this last fortnight – which is why I’ve chosen Luke 12:22-34 as the Gospel for this week, as I know many of us have re-assessed what we truly treasure in the wake of recent events. I want in the first instance to offer people a safe space to re-connect, and as we are ready, to explore gently how we make sense of what has happened here. And as that begins to occur, without for one moment detracting from our understandable gratitude for the seemingly miraculous lack of loss of life as a direct result of the quakes in Christchurch and Canterbury, I think we as a church need to be very careful with our language. I’m acutely aware of comparisons with the disastrous quake in Haiti, and want to avoid any implication that a supernatural God somehow ‘rescued’ us – and somehow overlooked them…for me, as I’ve indicated previously, an Almighty God who controls the moving of earth’s tectonic plates from a distance is neither compelling nor appealing; it seems to me that only the suffering, vulnerable and thoroughly human God of Bonhoeffer and Jesus of Nazareth can help.
To all who’ve phoned, emailed, prayed for and remembered us here in Christchurch and Canterbury these last weeks, a heartfelt thank-you.
To all who are travelling here for General Assembly next week, may you journey in safety, may the aftershocks continue to subside so you get a decent night’s sleep, and may your meeting in this city be as productive as it can be.
Yours in Christ