The other thing—as a musician, you might understand this Jannah—is that I found a great solace in worship. I left a lot of the “mind stuff” to the side—the “working it out” stuff. And I’d just weep and weep in his presence while people were worshipping. Sometimes, I wouldn’t even sing. But, in that place, I heard these whispers, and the whisper of God was like: “If you don’t know me here, you don’t really know me.” This is how I translated what I sensed was coming from God.
I wrote a passage called Lament for a Son, inspired by Nicholas Wolterstorff’s book of the same name. I’ve found great solace in being able to lament—and great catharsis. It wasn’t like the “hope-in-the-end” theology that some Christians gave to Jeannie and I, which was very counterproductive. They’d quote particular verses and say things like “he’s in a better place.” They didn’t seem to help a great deal. I think that being free and finding space to pursue your own journey in the midst of that pain—that’s what brought me out of any place of despair. And I think that’s hope. I think that lament changed me and the way I see the world, and probably the way I relate to other people. Te ao Māori has been able to understand that.
One of the things I remember Jeannie saying was this: “why don’t you just come and sit on the mourning bench with me.” We’d sit in the presence of God and, somehow, find solace in that without trying to work it all out. That produces a psychology of hope, I think.
We faced quite a different challenge—ten years ago now—when a kiwifruit disease was brought into the country. We had to physically cut out our whole orchard. We had a period of time when contractors would come, and there were just days and days of chainsawing the whole orchard. We lost the whole thing. I think that what happened with Sean prepared me again for this—that God is present in the midst of it. I love that verse, that he’s “a very present help in time of trouble” [Psalm 46:1]. This helps my imagination, and the imagination is a place where hope sits.
For me, there are two kinds of hope. There’s the hope that Hebrews talks about, which I call the “capital-H Hope,” and that’s the anchor of your soul. That’s the hope of Jesus that sits and resides as a Hope for eternity. Honestly, I don’t quite know how much that operates within my equilibrium because, as I said, the question of eternity and what’s going to happen is not something I worry about. But, intellectually, I assent to it. Then there’s what I would call the “lowercase-h hope.” I see that in the beautiful Psalm 27, where David says, “I’m convinced, I believe I’ll see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living.” In the midst of this great mystery, in the vicissitudes of life and these great challenges that we all face from day to day, there’s a promise that somewhere, somehow—not just in the eternal realm—God in his sovereignty will come and show up in some ways.
I really appreciate the Isaiah saying, “How beautiful are the feet of them that bring good news” [Isaiah 52:7]. For example, over the kiwifruit disaster, I’d be looking for hope every day in the news: you know, the scientists are working on it; or the kiwifruit people are making progress; or, when we replanted, the plants are looking good. People bring good news. That’s become a very powerful motif—a motif of hope that people can be bearers of this good news. Now, I know that the ultimate good news is the reality of God and the coming of the Son. But, I think on a day-to-day basis, that kind of hope helps keep people going so they don’t become hope-less. Being hopeless has got to be one of the worst places to be living. We can find hope in the most unexpected places as someone bears some news. It can be nothing earth-shattering, but it could be something good.
The other thing that has been quite a strong theme over the years of trial and crisis has been Paul’s wisdom, where he says, “in all things, God works together for good for those that love Christ Jesus and are called according to His purpose” [Romans 8:28]. One of the things I’ve seen is that while the rain falls on the just and the unjust alike, and while being in Christ doesn’t spare you from life’s challenges, the sovereignty of God is able to work something for good in the midst of that. The big challenge with this is to find the right balance on the continuum between triumphalism and fatalism. A triumphalist perspective would say, well, I’m now a Christian and perhaps claim Psalm 91, and say that nothing bad is ever going to happen. But I don’t know anybody who is actually able to maintain that throughout their whole life. And the fatalist would say, “que sera, sera.” But here, you’re cast adrift. You’re on a sea of events. This other theme has given me great hope that God, in his sovereign capacity, is able to be weaving within my character. This doesn’t transgress his divinity in terms of his intervening, but something else is also going on. And that something is not just eternal with eternal consequences, but I believe it has present consequences as well. Those are some of the snippets of hope.
I wonder about the role of prayer in the conversation around triumphalism and fatalism. It strikes me that what you’ve described leaves room for dynamism in the intimacy of prayer because God does respond. We can’t always explain it, but it’s not nothing.
You’re right. And that’s something I didn’t say, which is that the term “prayer” is not quite big enough for me, but it’s how we relate to God in all this, whether it’s vocally, or in quietness, or in anger. For me, it’s the catharsis of that relationship in the midst of crisis. Also, a mysterious wellbeing can emerge out of the encounter, which we so often see in the Psalms: that as we pour out our heart, in whatever way, something happens. We are transformed, even in terms of the way that we relate to God. Thinking of Psalm 73, I remember as a young farmer reflecting on other farms near to us. We’ve done very well, and I’m very grateful for that. But I could never claim to be a great farmer. Yet, there are some farmers around us who are very secular and very performance-driven. They’re very good farmers, and their farms always look good. I remember looking over the fence and thinking of Psalm 73 where it says, “Surely God is good to Israel, to those who are pure in heart, but my feet slipped when I envied the life of the arrogant”! And I’m looking at their lives, and I’m struggling away here on my farm; I’ve hardly got a tractor that’ll go, and I’m looking at these guys who don’t even care for God, and the Psalmist talks about how I’ve become “a brute beast”… I’m raging around in this place! And then Psalm 73 again: “it all became clear to me when I came into the sanctuary of the Lord, and then I understood.” Well, the psalmist understood the eternal realm—but I love that place of “when I came into the presence, I understood.” So, going back to hope, I think that, as I said before, Christians have got to be careful of offering a hope that is too simple for people. Because actually, I believe that—that hope can be a bit like a mountain; it’s not something that is necessarily easily attainable. It is a struggle sometimes to enter into the space of hope.
That’s an interesting question, isn’t it? The question of a “discipline” of hope. There are some things, and you wonder, is it a gift, or a discipline, or both?
Yes, because to think of ourselves as receptors of hope, sometimes it can be more difficult for some of us to receive the hope. That’s perhaps where some of the discipline comes in—an exercise in hope where the heart remains soft.
Going back to your description of lament and of being in the presence of God—the great solace you found—I’m interested in your church community at the time. Did people understand your lamenting, give you room, or join you?
Yes, our church community over the years has had lots of ups and downs, and we’ve done a lot of things wrong, but, in that particular chapter, it was very, very gracious. At least for me, personally—I don’t want to speak for Jeannie in this—but I found that because we’re a very informal group, people were encouraged to respond to God in whatever way they wanted to. You’d have the dancers and the clappers and the shouters and, you know, whatever. So, the weepers were welcome as well. I know that, for a while, Jeannie didn’t go because she couldn’t find that safe space. But, for me, I could. It’s not a judgment either way. I’m not sure that we understood, necessarily, the psychology or the theology of grief, even at that time, because most of us were all young and hadn’t experienced anything like that. But I’m very grateful for that space.
What gives you most cause for hope in the church?
God. Yeah. Simply because, to be honest, if I put my focus anywhere else at the moment, I end up in a fairly despondent space. I mean, there’s beautiful people around. Beautiful people. I’m loving the work that you guys are doing at Venn. I think the community that you’re forming and working with—those are beautiful signs. But it’s short-term. You know, I wouldn’t want to put too much weight on you to be the answer. So, essentially, I just sit in that space, knowing that the Church belongs to God. And God has promised—in ways that we see, and in ways that we don’t see. His purposes stand firm through all generations.
A big question to end on: what is your hope for Pākehā and Māori as we move forward?
One of the metaphors that I use in terms of our relationship is that of the marriage—between Tangata Tiriti and Tangata Whenua—and the love that each of those have for one another. I know these are high ideals, but we’re talking about Kingdom of God ideals, in which we prefer the other and are looking for the highest good. So, the aspiration that I have is for the prosperity and restoration of Māori in the land and that we, as Pākehā, learn what it is to be in relationship with this work of the Holy Spirit. And I believe it is a work of the Holy Spirit—this work that God is doing worldwide with indigenous peoples. Our role is to yield and to cooperate because I believe it’ll be a real challenge to some of us going forward. Giving up some space—giving up some things that we haven’t even consciously taken ourselves—but that have been our birthright. I think the time is changing.