Tuesday, 3 June 2008

No Seasickness...

So. If you've been reading my other stories, you'll know that I played the guitar at fourteen and sighed over the songs of a Scottish psalmist. But there were more Christian concerts in those days than just Ian's.

One highly active New Zealand songwriter was a fellow called Jules Riding. Years of regular touring and national radio airplay made him a household name among churchgoers. He played an Ovation guitar just like Ian, and drove all over the country in his white van to play concerts.

Us being a concert-going kind of family, we went to see him every time he played at a church anywhere near us. I hunted autographs every time, and eventually he came to recognise us too.

When I was sixteen, he announced that he was going to start a School of Worship. As soon as I heard, I knew I wanted to go. So I sent an application and saved my Christmas money. Soon after, I happened to tell a local pastor about my plans. He narrowed his eyes. "Do you think you're mature enough for that?" Well, Jules thought so, and that's all that mattered.

The day of departure approached, and finally the morning arrived when Dad drove me over the harbour bridge to the ferry wharf. Everywhere, baggage piled up, dominated by dozens of black guitar cases. A tall, pointy ship bobbed at its moorings, bearing the unlikely name Jet Raider. I already knew it well from half-hour trips to visit my grandmothers on an inner island. 'Tis a fine ship, to be sure - the only single-hulled vessel in the fleet, having three levels and an open deck, long and sleek like an arrowhead, and plenty of room for hundreds of passengers. Well, I was about to get to know the good ship better. After perusing the weather report, the captain confirmed the sailing and off we went.

As we passed Motutapu on the left and Waiheke on the right, getting out into the open Hauraki Gulf, the boat began to buck over ten-foot waves coming straight at us. I found it quite exhilarating to sit on the open deck, carried by the forward motion, the upward thrust of each wave, and then the moment of breathless flight before hitting the next crest. I did feel sorry for the seasick ones scattered about the ship with paper bags. Some believed the lowest deck was the best place to be, but it wasn't true. I never puked on a boat in my life, and only ever felt green in the ship's bottom - never in the open with the wind in my face.

Well, anyway, the hours passed, and I often met glances from other passengers. Which of them would be sharing the next two weeks with me? It was a public ferry, after all.

At length we sighted Great Barrier Island and arrived at the first port, Tryphena. Then we threaded between rolling dark green hills of the main island and scattered tiny rocky landmasses to the second stop, Whangaparapara. After more than four hours at sea, we pulled through a tiny cliff-bound gap into Port Fitzroy. Dramatic forested slopes shot up on both sides of the narrow sea passage, then it widened enough for the ship to turn and approach the wooden wharf with its rear end.

People piled onto the pier. A chaos of bags and guitars overtook the wharf area, and we struggled through to the two ancient buses that waited for us. Soon after, the vehicles roared to life and set off up the one-lane road cut into the hillside. The tarseal ended after Fitzroy's handful of houses, and we climbed, ever upwards, turn after turn, hugging the landscape. Rocky cliffs and green valleys passed by, and now and then a glance out the window revealed a sheer drop falling away just a foot or two from the buses' wheels. Then we reached a crossing of two roads high in the hills, where we turned off to the left. Soon the road descended before us, down and down, turn after turn, through tree-darkened clefts and past tiny streams and waterfalls.

I caught sight of an apple tree as it whished by, and the road ran straight for the first time since Fitzroy. Ahead, blue sky leaked through the pines. One more turn, then we passed an open gate and pulled up on a gravel carpark between a creek bridge and a stony beach. My knees shook a little from the bumpy ride as I got out of the bus. White sunlight poured down from above, and a fresh breeze blew. I still hadn't exchanged a word with my fellow travellers - though by now many had returned smiles.

The afternoon whizzed by in a haze of bag-dragging, room-finding, eating, and I think one of the resident musicians did a concert for us. Come morning, we all sat in a classroom waiting to hear gems of wisdom.

And this I did, for two weeks, and four more times in the years to follow - two weeks of learning interspersed with jam sessions, songwriting, worship leading, small group studies, dishwashing duties, beach walking, hill climbing, camp pranks in the night, and emotional scenes of healing prayer as the isolated holy place did its work in many hearts - my own not excluded.

There was worship each morning and evening, led by different small groups each time so everyone got a turn. There were classroom sessions, two before lunch and two after, followed by optional classes in your instrument of choice. The evenings were filled with concerts and offerings by various gifted worship leaders Jules had invited, including Brent Chambers, Derek Lind, Neil White, Dean McQuoid, Rob Packer, Rick Stokes, and more you've probably not heard of if you're not in the New Zealand church scene. Games Night was always a highlight too. Saturdays were "student concerts" for funny songs and skits, but also opportunities to see new talent. Towards the end there was a songwriting feature, where anyone who wanted could get up and sing one of their own songs - and many did, me included. Visiting speakers held prayer and prophecy sessions, and there were many cases of "drunk in the Spirit" and heart-freeing laughter. The lessons did not concern only worship - various presenters talked about such diverse topics as discipleship, servanthood, recording studios, copyright, sound systems, dance, harmony, and lots more I can't remember just now. Once at the end of a concert, after the Spirit moved strongly, the musician went downstairs for cocoa while his backing band improvised on the same chord for another hour or so while many remained to pray and soak in the peace.

I returned year after year because I knew good things awaited me on the island (still do, in fact!). Just as well I never get seasick. Each year, the group became like a huge family. Some friendships held longer, too. Shaz formed a girl band with me (more on that later maybe!). For years, Arthur called me every Monday night at seven P.M. from the faraway South Island. Maree invited me on a mission trip to Africa (more on that later too!). Later, Maree, Sue, Dave and Marcelle, Deborah and Chris all visited me in Germany at different times. Many are still among my most supportive friends (though not one is on Shoutlife! It hasn't caught on yet in New Zealand?).

At present, this worship school is no longer running regularly. But for the three or four hundred who added up over the years, it was a life-changing event, held in high regard by its initiates and contributors alike. Thanks, Jules. It was worth it.

Jules's Site
Photos from the Schools - lots of pics of me there too, in younger days!