Geoff New’s recent musings in Candour on the Holocaust got me thinking. Like Geoff, I sense that I have something I want to say, but I am unsure if I have the words to express it. I am not entirely sure what it is that I want to say. I fear I am wasting everyone’s time.
But let’s give it a go.
The paintings of the Dutch painter, Johannes Vermeer (1632-1675) say something to me; so much so, that I have tried to see the originals of all 34 of his surviving paintings.
In the Woman holding a balance (1664), as in so many of his paintings, light streams through an open window on to a young woman’s face. She is holding scales. On the wall behind her is a painting of Christ’s ascension. The light of Christ is shining upon her as she contemplates the balance of love and justice.
Her face glows with devotion and concentration. The shadows that fall on her scarf seem to suggest an unseen hand blessing her. She portrays us all as we reflect on God with our inadequate words and are blessed.
The girl in The Girl with the Pearl Earring (1665-1666) looks as though she has turned to us to ask a question. But what is that question? Light shines on her face and on her earring. Somehow God speaks to us through her quizzical, almost teasing, half smile.
At the Auckland Chinese Presbyterian Church (ACPC) we too try to find ways to let the light of God to shine through us, to balance love and justice and to ask the right questions. We try to find images and actions that encapsulate our vision and experience.
ACPC’s English Ministry’s symbol for the year is the adapter plug. We are plugged into the eternal, unchanging love of God. The spiritual current or power that flows in to ACPC is the same “universal electric charge” that the first disciples – and all Jesus’ disciples ever since – have experienced. We belong to that family.
And yet we are also plugged in to the inner-city of Auckland, where we are placed. We need to express that unchanging love of God in ways that the people of this city understand and can see. We need to “plug into” their lives and experiences so as to learn how to tell the story in their languages, their “art-forms”. Again, we belong here.
To celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we picked up on Luther’s saying: “if I knew the world was going to fall to pieces today, I would still plant my apple tree today”. In Jesus Christ, we always have hope, no matter how chaotic life is.
We asked, and were allowed, to plant two dwarf apple trees in Griffith Gardens, an urban garden a stone’s throw from Queen St and ACPC. We called the trees “hope”. Symbolically perhaps, one tree was pulled up one night in an act of vandalism. The other tree, however, now has a small, fragile, beautiful, budding apple. Hope in inner-city Auckland may be fragile – but it is real.
One of our members said that she was looking forward to seeing “our apple of hope”. She had got the point. In partnership, the people who run the gardens have also given us some money to develop our own garden behind the church. So have they.
On Fathers’ day, I asked Farmers if they would give us a discount on 120 pairs of socks. There is a German tradition of giving dads socks on Fathers’ Day. Dad’s need warm feet to keep up with the kids as well as to go hiking. Farmers did, quickly and generously.
We gave the socks to those heroic dads out on Queen St, who were taking their kids to the movies or to lunch on Fathers’ Day. We wanted to assure them of God’s blessings.
One of our members was a young woman. Her parents had been refugees. Three streeties approached us. I asked it they had children. They all did. One said he had two boys. He then pulled his trouser leg up and said laughingly’ “but I have no socks”.
We were too stunned to laugh. How can it be that someone in NZ can have two sons and not even one pair of socks? How is this possible?
None were seeing their children on Father’s Day. The third streetie said: “I am not allowed to see my three girls. My ex-wife is too ashamed of me.”
Each time our young church member said “God bless you” and she handed them a pair of socks. She had never spoken to a streetie before. She had never thought that they might have kids – and no socks. Now she saw how deeply they miss their kids on Fathers’ Day.
As she said “God bless you” to the third streetie, he took the socks, looked at her and said “and God bless you too, sweetheart”.
As he walked away, she burst in to tears.
I simply couldn’t think of anything to say. But I am her pastor. I had to try.
Mission means being with your people on the streets as well as in church. It means trying to make sense of what happens when you “plug into” both the gospel and in to people’s lives.
It means letting the light of Christ fall upon you and doing your best to let the current of God’s love flow through us. It means weighing up all that comes to us in our encounters and coming up with some kind of gospel answer.
But the apple and the apple tree are still there. We are still here.