with peterson at raukokore

It has been a long time coming. The final frontier. Through these 29 years in New Zealand, it is the only part of the country in which we have never holidayed. The East Cape. Not any more. Barby and I - together with our daughter Bethany - have just returned from a week travelling around the Cape.

It was a sobering trip.
Those wharves affected me. Rotting and crumbling. They are testimony to a bygone age of shipping vessels carrying goods, long before the arrival of newer technologies like trains and trucks. In 1936 the Tolaga Bay wharf had more than 130 ships visit. At the time its 600m wharf was a triumph of engineering. Further north, the wharves at Hicks' Bay (pictured) and Tokomaru Bay carry warnings of them collapsing under our feet. At Tokomaru Bay - the ruins of an old freezing works at the origin of the wharf added to the sad ambience of the setting.

Then there are the churches. All around New Zealand it is commonplace to find little churches stuck like postage stamps onto rural landscapes. The mixture of beauty and sadness makes me linger every time. There is always the suspicion that the graves in the cemetery outside the church contain more bodies than the pews inside the church. St Mary's in Tikitiki (a town whose population dropped from 6000 to 500 in not much more than a generation) is a church which captures the imagination, with its incorporation of Maori architecture, weavings, carvings, and art into every aspect of the interior design of the building. Then there is that church at Raukokore...

Stunning, but still sobering. A reminder of a time when things were better, both for the economy and the church in rural New Zealand.

Accompanying me on this trip was Eugene Peterson - or, more specifically, his memoir, The Pastorabout life in a church in urban America for 29 years. I loved it for all the usual reasons. The honour given to the imagination. The random writing style, meandering his way through the literary equivalent of an English cottage garden. The defiant prophetic words (church has become 'an ecclesiastical business with a mission to market spirituality to consumers and make them happy' - 111). The commitment to be a contemplative pastor, rather than a competitive one. The vulnerability in his journey through the 'badlands', telling his story in a minor key. The challenge of building 'an adequate interiority to support the work I was doing' (226). The capacity to soak in the Scriptures and in this story it is Acts and Exodus... It is all such good stuff.

However, as is often the case with Peterson, while reading his books leads to multiple exclamation marks in the margins - reflecting on his writing creates plenty of question marks in the mind as well. How realistic is he? How many pastors can manage to avoid all committee meetings for 26 years (280)? Is his critique fair? Is it reasonable to redefine the church growth movement as 'church cancer' (158 - even allowing for a little rhetorical flourish)? How much of his story is easier because he was starting from scratch as a church-planter? Yes, I do hear and see the sadness of the vocation of the pastor being 'in ruins' (4) - but is Peterson's imagination lingering too long in a world of crumbling wharves and quaint churches?

Stepping inside the door of the Raukokore church was for me the highlight of our visit to the East Cape. It took me by surprise. The outside beauty, great though it is, could not match the beauty inside. The tourist became a worshipper. Unlike so many of these little churches, there is every evidence of a living, worshiping community meeting in this building. Pictures from the children in Sunday School adorn the walls. Behind the pulpit I found a whiteboard with a recent Order of Service on it. The readings, sermon, and hymns make me wish I had been there.

The walls contain evidence of a recognition that it is not just an economic recovery which the region needs. There is need for a spiritual recovery and they have a grasp of the right strategy too.

It seems possible that a prayer, written for a church centenary some years ago and framed on the wall, has not been elbowed out of the way, but embraced.

Yes, I'm gonna give Peterson the benefit of the doubt. I still consider that his set of convictions is the one with which to commence the vocation of a pastor. His writing is required reading. His model of ministry may not always prove to be the eventual super-structure, but it is a worthy foundation. Strengthening the odd, old wharf - as they've done at Tolaga Bay - is not a bad metaphor for pastoral ministry today.

And I do believe that the hope of the church lies more with hundreds of Raukokores growing from 50 to 200 (guided by Petersonian-like convictions) than it does with having a few dozen larger churches growing into mega-large ones. While I'll be slower to rule out the possibility of the latter happening under God's good hand - it should neither be the hope, or the prevailing vision, for believers.

Peterson would love it at Raukokore.

nice chatting



Rhett said…
Nice photos!

...I also feel a similar way whenever I read Peterson.
Geoff New said…
Thanks Paul. I found Peterson's book compelling. A real page turn-er. Back and forth. I was struck too by the fact that there came a point when he no longer had the stamina or emotional energy to continue pastoring! Eugene Peterson no less got to that point!! Peterson writes with a realistic, faith-filled vulnerability. A lot like Henri Nouwen. A lot like you.
Paul Windsor said…
Thanks, Geoff. May we share a 'long obedience in the same direction'. Great to welcome you and Ruth to New Delhi last night. Its gonna be good.

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