What a year

8 03 2015

It felt familiar.  Buildings full of academics and classrooms.  A university campus.  This last week was my first week back at university.  I’ve started a MCouns (Master of Counselling) degree at the University of Auckland.  And it feels like being in the right place, doing the right thing.  Even if its a kind of daunting thing with the hundreds of pages of reading a week, the hours of practical work and the whole matter of being filmed while counselling so that I can analyse my work.

It is about a year and two weeks since Andrew and I told the Congregation of the Good Shepherd that we would be leaving Beijing.  There are long and short versions of that story but the short one goes like this: we do not live in China any more.  There are good things and hard things about that.

We live in New Zealand now.  There are good things and hard things about that too. Andrew has been the Vicar of All Saints, Howick for nine months now and since October I have been the Priest Associate working with children, young people and their families in the same parish.

Some things that are true about the past year:

Reverse culture shock is a real thing.

I still sometimes rehearse conversations about utilities and other things in Mandarin before I make a phone call.  This is not actually necessary.  Old habits die hard! I do it less than I did six months ago.

We are very glad to see friends and family.  We can read all the ingredients on labels in supermarkets.  The air is clean.  The sea is beautiful.

Beijing was large and lively and flat and easy to bicycle around.  Good friends live there.  I loved being a pastor at the Congregation of the Good Shepherd.

When leaving New Zealand four years ago we did not know if we would make our home here again.

I am homesick, sometimes, for Beijing.

I am making my home here in this new place.

A friend gave me the tile pictured below.  It is helping me make sense of this season of transition.  Home is this place, where I put things on the wall and vacuum the carpet and chop the vegetables.

We share our home with Mike Crudge.  He’s smart and thoughtful and we’re glad to have an ecumenical vicarage.  You might enjoy his blog.

I got accepted in the MCouns programme and the St Johns Trust gave me some scholarship money and I am studying counselling and that feels good and right.

We got a dog a week ago.  His name is Charlie.  He came from the Humane Society.  He is scared of hands and feet if they move suddenly or belong to strangers.  We are helping him grow in confidence and trust.  We love him already.

It is hard to imagine that a year ago it was spring in Beijing and we were emerging from freezing temperatures and two weeks of fireworks and didn’t know what or where was next.  It has been quite the year.

The Little White Box tile



The Long Silence

28 02 2014

In May, Andrew and I will be leaving China.

It’s a long story, and the most immediate chapter began just when I would have been writing about Advent.  It coloured our home leave.  It required long silences as we waited to see what there would be to say.

Leaving China wasn’t the plan.  But it became clearer that it was how it was going to go.

One of the graces of the situation is that our need to leave coincided with a vacancy in a New Zealand church that Andrew was very excited about.  He applied for that position, and has been appointed to be the new Vicar of All Saints, Howick.  I’m not exactly sure what I will be doing, but some study is on the agenda.  And I’ll need some income so some kind of work.  I’m hoping for the kind of work that I’m passionate about: work that connects spirituality and context, meaning-making, liturgy-loving, multigenerational community kind of work.  But that’s in the wait and see category!

I have loved China.

Well, more accurately I have loved living in China.  I have especially loved being the Co-Pastor of the Congregation of the Good Shepherd.

Leaving is hard.  Not just the work of sorting and filing and planning and packing.  Leaving this community, these people, this place.  In twelve weeks time, we will no longer live in China.  In twelve weeks time, we will live in Howick.


For All the Saints

2 11 2013

We’re in a remembering season in the church.  Yesterday was All Saints Day, and today All Souls, when we remember those who have gone before us, that we belong to a community that is larger than just those who are now living.  Tomorrow at church we will have an opportunity to say the names of those that we love and see no longer – to remember and give thanks for them.

Sometimes this remembering is confined to those who have died in the past year.  In our congregation we invite people to remember anyone who they wish to hold close at this time. This year I’m particularly thinking of some of the women in my life who helped me grow into faith.

Mrs Brown, as I respectfully called her, was my next door neighbour.  When I turned five she asked my mother if she could take me to Sunday School.  This seemed very exciting to me, it involved dressing in my “good clothes” and going off to a place with red carpet and beautiful stained glass.  I got to hold a hymnal of my own, and then go over to the church hall for Sunday School classes.  While at first I’m pretty sure it was the aesthetically appealing environment that drew me in, it was the beginning of a faith that has shaped my life.  Thank you Mrs Brown (Gladys).  Your hospitality and care set the course of my life in ways you couldn’t have imagined.

Mrs Flyger.  Ev, as I came to call her, was someone else that Mrs Brown drove to church.  She had a dog called Minka, loved to knit and crochet, and lived just around the corner from our house.  Once I was old enough I would go to visit on a Saturday afternoon.  Ev taught me to cook, to craft, and she had absolute faith in my ability to do anything I set my mind to.  Staying overnight at her house was always a treat – there was always pudding and late-night television and all the love and care a surrogate grandmother could offer.  Ev gave me the celtic cross she had worn on her wedding day for my 21st birthday.  I wear it still for special occasions and when I’m doing things that I’m not sure I’m really capable of!  Thank you Ev.  Your love sustained me through adolescent angst, my cooking and crafting is the better for having known you and I have no idea what you’d make of my living in China but it sure would be fun to tell you the stories!

Grandmother.  She was Andrew’s grandmother actually, but invited me after we were married to no longer call her Mrs Caswell but to refer to her as grandmother too.  It wasn’t ever shortened – that wasn’t the kind of woman she was.  If you gave her a gift she really liked, it was pronounced “most acceptable”.  She didn’t really support the ordination of women, but, ever-gracious, she was at my ordination both as a deacon and a priest.  She apologised in advance that she wouldn’t be able to receive Communion from me but at my ordination it would be alright to bring her Communion in her seat as the Bishop would have consecrated it and that was therefore acceptable.  The following day I presided at Communion for the first time, and to my surprise, she came to the altar rail and received bread into her hands.  It wasn’t proper to challenge the Bishop’s authority – he had ordained me so I was a priest!  I keep a little wooden carved St Francis by my desk that had belonged to her.  It reminds me to be gracious.  It reminds me that it is possible to think about things in a different way, to come to a different conclusion.  Thank you Grandmother.  You were a faithful example of a woman who loved God and served others.  Your strength and determination shone.

May they rest in peace and rise in glory

and may God give us the grace to follow the saints in faith and hope and love…

Lessons the Sabbatical Dog is teaching me

14 09 2013


We currently have the great joy of looking after a congregational dog while her owner is back in the United Stated for six months.  Here are some of the things I’ve learnt in the first month with her…

I definitely still have a New Zealand accent.  

[In Chinese] “What is the dog’s name?”


“Tiddy” (no Australian/Canadian mocking of the NZ vowels, just an earnest effort to say exactly what I said)

“Yes, Teddy”

“She’s very beautiful”

My Chinese is okay.  

I went to the pet shop to buy Teddy a new brush.  Being brushed is not her favourite thing, but I was worried about the knots she was getting behind her ears (don’t want the groomer to report my negligence to her owner!).  With a little bit of miming (I didn’t know the word for brush) I managed to ask for a dog brush.  They showed me the options

“Do you have a smaller one?”

“This one?”

“Do you have something a little smaller?”

“Oh, an especially small one.  We have this.  But it is for a cat”

“She is not a cat.”

“Well, this one then?”

“Okay.  But she doesn’t like this thing.  I will also need small snacks” (yep, went to the pet shop without the word for “brush” or “treats”.

“These ones are especially good tasting”

“I’ll take both” (and the accompanying small sense of triumph about getting by in Chinese in this conversation)

My Chinese is really awful.

There are too many examples to mention.  But the very day I triumphantly bought the brush I failed to understand at least half a dozen questions asked about the dog while walking her.  I can say she is a girl (after the first week I learned that there are different words for the sex of humans and animals), that she’s seven years old, that she belongs to a friend who is working in America for a few months, that she has been spayed, that I don’t know the Chinese name for her breed (half schnauzer, half poodle, conveniently a schnoodle in English) but then my conversation pretty much runs out…

There are advantages to not understanding Chinese.  

About the only time I enjoy not understanding the many many things I fail to understand on a daily basis is when the old woman shouts at me as I walk Teddy in the garden in the compound.  She shouts and wags her finger.  Teddy is a very well-behaved dog, walks politely, I pick up the poop so I really have no idea what her problem is.  I am glad that of the many ways I know to say “I don’t understand” I can very politely explain that I am terribly sorry that I speak Chinese so poorly!  It is one of my most grammatically sophisticated sentences and I really enjoy the irony of rolling it out in the face of a situation where I am not comprehending a word!  There is also something about having no idea why you are being berated that makes it especially easy to let go of…

Dogs bring joy and perspective

Walks, breaks from writing to throw the ball, toilet breaks… dogs are good reminders not to take it all so seriously.

her ball and mine - time for fun!

Three Years

9 08 2013

We have been based in Beijing for three years now.

Our Chinese language skills are still painfully bad – our chief triumph is that we have enough grammar and vocabulary to explain just how poorly we speak and understand Chinese.  We are still functionally illiterate – we haven’t studied characters.  It is an interesting dichotomy – our professional lives are so dependent on fluency with words as we ask questions and listen for nuance and enlarge narratives; as we write liturgy and sermons; as we read and think and write and read some more.  And then, in our everyday lives, we are like toddlers who know some words; can point, smile and cry; recognise the characters for entry and exit but cannot read…  We are so utterly dependent on others in so many ways.


Even without any obvious signs like this one from the Hanging Monastery at Datong, we experience so much kindness and politeness in the face of our poor language skills and general cultural disorientation.

I’ve been thinking about how to summarise the year.  My health has improved.  Sometimes the improvements seem frustratingly slow and small but as I stood with both arms painlessly above my head clipping washing onto the overhead rack I realised that things are better than they were before.

We have had a year of lovely visits: Tineke, Lisa and Kylie, Peter and Ruth, Barb and Simon and in January the Williams family were here while we were on home leave.  We enjoyed hanging out in their spacious rural Waikato home while they crammed five adults into our Beijing apartment!  Clergy colleagues dropped in on their way through and we enjoyed the opportunity to show them a little of Beijing and talk shop for a bit!  We also got to share some time in New Zealand with Beijing friends which was a lot of fun.

Andrew with his parents on our Chengdu adventure

Andrew with his parents on our Chengdu adventure

We visited Shanghai, Hong Kong and Chengdu and Andrew returned to Xi’an with his parents.  China is vast and we have barely seen any of it but we do sometimes feel astonished that our life is such that we get to go and see the world’s leading panda breeding centre or a 1000-year-old Buddha.  To be fair, the 16metre high inflatable yellow duck was also a highlight of our trip to Hong Kong!

Florentijn Hofman's duck in Victoria Harbour, Hong Kong.

Florentijn Hofman’s duck in Victoria Harbour, Hong Kong.

Of course it is sometimes difficult to be so far away from family and friends.  Some tough things have happened this year, and not being able to hop in the car and be there is sometimes painful.  We are grateful for our four weeks home leave and for all the people who make it possible by loaning cars and providing beds.

My folks.

My folks.

We sat down with the congregation’s representatives on Monday night to talk about how things are going.  We continue to feel enormously privileged to be part of such an engaged and engaging community.  We have been witnesses to so much grace and goodness here – we have experienced so much grace and goodness ourselves.  May that continue to be so.

Happy Easter*

28 04 2013

So, my computer died on Good Friday. Which seemed kind of liturgically apt, but wasn’t particularly convenient. Sadly, it has not experienced a resurrection to date – and so the co-pastor and I have been sharing his laptop. Which puts a bit of pressure on screentime and has sidelined blogging.

But by way of a quick catch-up:

Easter was celebrated. There were children, so many children (almost 40), and alleluias (over 100 of them all told – in liturgy and hymns and greetings and suspended above the Communion Table covered in sparkles).

We took our traditional post-Easter “go see something wonderful in China” trip. This year we went to Chengdu where we saw pandas. We saw other beautiful and amazing things (the Leshan Buddha chief among them) but really, pandas! They were so much fun – they climbed trees and ate bamboo and wrestled with each other and were swatted by their mothers and I was completely and utterly charmed.

Chengdu 189

We had the great pleasure of sharing that trip and the two weeks following with Andrew’s parents. It was their second time visiting China and they also went to Xi’an with Andrew (involving an overnight train trip). We enjoyed being with two such adventurous, good-humoured and joyful people.

Xi'an and Beijing 081

Last week the congregation announced that they have extended our call for another two years. We’ll be at our three-year anniversary in July, the further two years beginning 1st August. There is much that is uncertain about life in China, but by God’s grace we hope that both congregation and pastors will be able to live into the hope that that call represents!

*Glad to be part of a tradition that celebrates Easter for 50 days.  That’s the kind of leeway I need!

Home leave

21 02 2013


On Christmas Day Andrew and I left Beijing for home leave. We flew to Hong Kong, and on to Auckland.

On Chinese New Year’s Eve I flew home to Beijing.

New Zealand is home in the sense that it is where I speak the language and know how to do most day-to-day things. Loving friends let us make our home with them when we are in town. Family members open their homes to us. We are loaned vehicles to drive, bikes to ride. We are loaned a New Zealand life.

Beijing is home in the sense that it is where our day-to-day life is. There are many day-to-day things we still don’t really know how to do. We cobble together our rudimentary Mandarin and lean into the goodwill of those we interact with (and the goodwill of those we phone for on-the-spot telephone translation). Beijing is where I have more than one pair of shoes and more than three t-shirts.

Where is home? And is that even a question that makes sense? I wouldn’t want to give up having home leave.  I wouldn’t want to call this apartment anything less than home.