Home > Uncategorized > Easter and Timaru: surprises in faith.

Easter and Timaru: surprises in faith.

In the weeks leading up to and following Easter Steve (principal of the Knox Centre) suggested as staff we take turns sharing an Easter surprise that was sustaining us. I was going up to my home town Timaru for a few days over Easter to catch up on some old family friends, as I had not stopped there for a while and some were well advanced in years (two of them 98). In reflecting on Easters, my mind went to Timaru and the experience of the 125th Jubilee of Timaru Boy’s and Girl’s High Schools in 2005 and the privilege of preaching at the church service on Easter Sunday at St Mary’s (something I felt was significant having grown up Brethren and then Baptist, which left one feeling like an outsider in the 1960s). I preached on the lectionary text, John 20. 1-18 and especially Mary hanging around the empty tomb saying “They have taken away my Lord and I do not know where they have laid him.” Our school motto was a very enlightenment one, scientia potestas est ‘knowledge is power’, and I reflected on the fact that we children of the 60s were told in many different ways that religion was no longer necessary and faith in the risen Christ belonged in the realms of myth – the Lord had been taken away! Many of us, though, I suggested were like Mary, still hanging around the tomb unable to quite leave faith alone.


The service opened up a continuous stream of conversations with people I thought did not have a religious bent in them at all and supported the argument of most of my work, that while church decline is a non-negotiable reality and seemingly continues, probably the majority of people continue to be religious (or spiritual) and engage in at least some kind of occasional practice. It was a delightful surprise, as was the request from the principal to have it published in the school magazine, which it was [you can find it on my sermons page John 20. 1-18]. As I reflected on this for our staff devotion I was reminded that it was an Easter camp with the Timaru youth group as a 20 year old, who had wandered away from faith over the previous three years, especially as a university student in Christchurch, that my biggest Easter surprise occurred. First of all, that I was there at all – persuaded to go by a girl I had gone home to Timaru to see – and then the biggest surprise of all that for the first time in my life I actually encountered the risen Jesus while sitting under some trees at night talking with her about our lives and faith, and that changed the course of my life forever.


Perhaps, I should have realised that going home for Easter (a rarity in the 50 years since I left) might have been a time for surprises again. I was pleased to discover that there was a combined service on Good Friday in which both the Baptists (my home church) and Presbyterians were involved, as it meant I could gather with both my church families at once, especially as both the Presbyterian ministers had been students of mine. It was a wonderful service – with Pentecostals, Anglicans, Methodists and Salvation Army there as well, and all participating and bringing their own particular contributions. But it was full of rich surprises for.


When I arrived I met Brent Richardson, one of the Presbyterian ministers who I had arranged to do a bike ride with and hopefully some golf. Then another person came over said welcome, it’s??… then after some hesitation ‘Kevin’ isn’t it. It was Gordon Rosewall the minister of Life Church, where the service was, who I had met only once but had read some of my material. ‘You must come up the front and sit with the ministers.’ Then a young man came and sat beside me – younger than my children. When we exchanged identities he was Ian Goodman, the new minister of Wilson Street Baptist church – so that led to some helpful conversation, a good connection and some things to follow up on. Then Rory Grant, the other Presbyterian minister, came over and asked me if I would like to help serve communion. Finally, in the service they were taking up an offering for the 24/7 Youthwork in Timaru (young people working in schools supported by local churches). I always have a deep interest in this as my son Simon began this, working in Riccarton High School an initiative taken by Duane Major and Spreydon Baptist Church, which has since grown into a national ministry. After the workers were introduced the person who managed them was introduced, and when he came up it was a face I knew, but couldn’t put a name to. Turns out it was Josh Taylor, the vicar of St Johns’, who had been a student in a couple of courses of mine and someone I felt was on much the same page. He was keen to catch up which we did over coffee the next day, and again some things to follow up on. I also had a wonderful time connecting with a number of people who had been significant in my life and journey, and spent some wonderful time with Brent riding right around the outskirts of Timaru. This too was a significant ‘spiritual experience’ as it was largely on a series of bike trails around the cliffs, beaches and bluffs of the waterfront and up Saltwater Creek and the wetlands, the playground of my somewhat idyllic childhood when in the innocent 50s we were able to roam far and wide.


So, what’s the point of all this? Since mum died I have not really stopped in Timaru, apart from for the Wilson Street Baptist Centennial (see an earlier blog), and with most of those I knew also no longer there, having either left or died, the few remaining significant people getting close to that and my old church having declined significantly and made up mainly of people now I didn’t know, I thought I had really lost my spiritual connection with the place. However on this Good Friday finding so many ministers there I had connection with, even though some were younger than my children, reconnected me with some where I realised again is a very large part of who I am today. It reminded me again that people and places from our past, however long ago, are all a rich part of the fabric of what we are today both humanly and spiritually.


One of my heroes is Paul McCartney, and I once heard him say “If I ever forget I’m just a lad from Liverpool I’m finished.” Every now and then when I think ‘I’ve done pretty well’, something happens that brings me down to earth to remind me that I’m just a kid from the wrong part of town in Timaru – but  as I grow older in my journey in faith I am deeply grateful that God has used all different parts of that heritage to continue to weave the tapestry of my life into what I continue to find an exciting venture with the risen Christ. And once again a trip to Timaru at Easter reminded me that the risen Christ continues to surprise us with spiritually and humanly enriching encounters.


A reflection on the state of the church in New Zealand through the window of Timaru

For those of you who have read this far and might be interested I was also confronted with a snap shot of what has happened to the church in New Zealand and the challenges of the future. One of the persons I had arranged to meet was Bob Auty, who has been a kind of bell weather person for me. He has been very much at the heart of Wilson Street Baptist all my life, influential for me as leader of Life Boy’s, the driving force of the Tennis Club (incredibly gracious when in my last year at High School I beat him in the club championships and pushed him off the No1 spot in the team) and for the 50 years since I left Timaru always welcoming, listening and praying whenever I turned up. He was the driving force of the Centennial at the end of 2014, even though he was over 80 and suffering from Parkinson’s. Now he was suffering from serious heart issues and had not been able to get to church for some time. He also told me another significant person for me was leaving Timaru to be with family elsewhere, as he was losing his sight. These were the people who were in Bible Classes in the 1950s, the peak of that movement, and were the youth leaders when we baby boomers hit our Bible Class years in the 60s. Unlike many of us they stayed loyal to church, and often home town, and have kept our churches going for generations. Like Bob many are now unable to be active and many others have died.


Over a decade ago I wrote an article “Towards 2015” [see in my publications page] suggesting that looking at the demographics for mainline protestant churches, if we thought it was bad then the real crisis would hit about 2015. It has, and Bob and his friend reminded me of that. What I found in conversing in Timaru with the Baptist, Presbyterian and Anglican ministers is that all of those churches were in the same state – elderly and desperately trying to find young families and youth or face death. And there were two churches of each denomination! All competing for the same limited market in a provincial city where the population has been pretty static since I left those 50 years ago. It was a sobering reminder, in the midst of all the positive experiences, of the challenging reality the church faces and the need to find radically different ways of engaging in mission. But Easter reminds us that after Good Friday and Saturday come Easter Sunday, and faith rises again.


[PS. Apologies there are no photos – this was all so unexpected I never took my camera and didn’t even have my phone on me much of the time]

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. April 19, 2017 at 7:56 am

    Enjoyed reading this – Kevin.

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