Thursday, December 22, 2016

Christmas Gifts

Why do we give gifts at Christmas?  The materialistic part of us might calculate that giving a gift is likely to result in us receiving a gift in return. The Christian tradition of giving Christmas gifts comes from at least three sources.  

First, a Christian called Nicholas of Myra, a real-life, 4th-century Byzantine monk is reputed to have handed out bags of money to the poor.  St Nicholas is a possible origin of the modern day Santa Claus tradition of secret gifts arriving by night. Some traditions even have him out of modesty throwing purses with gold coins in a window so no one would see him.  Another version has him throwing the purse down a chimney. 

Secondly, gift giving reminds us of the wise men giving gifts to the baby Jesus.  It has been observed that these gifts, given as an act of worship, provided for Joseph, Mary and Jesus when they fled to Egypt to escape Herod's murderous plot.

Thirdly, giving gifts reminds us that God is the most generous gift giver of all.  He gave us His only Son to die on the cross for us and save us from sin.  This is the best present of all.

Sadly, in New Zealand these days, Christmas can often reflect excesses of the pagan celebrations of December that the early Christians sought to replace.  In winter festivals like the raucous Roman festival in honour of Saturn, god of agriculture, people would lift their spirits by drinking to excess and giving one another many gifts, such as pottery figurines, edible treats like fruit and nuts, and festive candles.

Interestingly, the three examples of Christian gift giving are quite different to that.  The biggest gift of all was from God to all humanity.  The wise men gave precious gifts to Jesus as an act of worship.  St Nicholas focused on giving to help the poor.  May we all receive again God’s gift of grace.  May we respond in worship by giving generously back to God’s mission.  And may we give to those in real need.

Happy Christmas,

Thursday, September 22, 2016

A Sugar High

This week I have been eating on $2.85 a day to raise funds for TEAR Fund to fight human trafficking.  It has (mostly) been a great experience.   As I mentioned last week, the objective is to identify with those in poor communities who live on $2.85 a day.  These people are particularly vulnerable to being sold or trapped and trafficked into modern day slavery.  Women and children are often forced to work as prostitutes.  TEAR Fund works to strengthen communities so people are less vulnerable, to rescue and rehabilitate people from slavery, and to bust up the human trafficking networks.  It’s been great to be able to raise money to help. Thank you to those who have supported me.  As I write I have raised around $200.

One interesting experience from the week.  It was a colleague's birthday on Wednesday.  She is also doing live below the line.  One of our team kindly made a cake and worked out that each slice cost 35 cents, so that we could eat some without blowing our budget.  It felt good to be able to celebrate, and yet do so in a way that kept us "living below the line".

The other interesting experience was the sugar high that hit me.  My body must have got used to doing without sugar.  This week my budget has stretched to some extras, but the extras have been a piece of fruit.  Not quite the same sugar load as a piece of cake.  About 5 minutes after eating the cake I felt the sugar kick in.  The rest of the team noticed it and gave me a bit of a hard time.  It lasted about 45 minutes.

Several reflections:
First, I was surprised that if I was careful I could manage a couple of little luxuries - even on $2.85 a day.  I couldn't afford a cup of real coffee obviously, but I did manage a few instant coffees.

Second, it made me realize how my body must normally be full of calories and stimulants like caffeine.  Our culture promotes high energy, excitement, entertainment and stimulation.  One of the most common and scathing criticisms we level at something is that it was Boring!  To connect with people in this culture we need to be high energy, exciting and stimulating, but I believe we also need to bring a refreshing (Paul Windsor would say "intriguing") challenge to our culture so that we don't "entertain ourselves to death".

Third, sometimes it takes an out of the box experience to have the shock value necessary to refocus my global vision to see and identify with the world that God loves and sends us out in mission to make a difference.

Thanks for reading,

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Live Below the Line

Live Below the Line
I have a pretty comfortable lifestyle as a pastor of a church in New Zealand.  I guess I don't make as much money as I might if I had stayed working in chemical engineering, but I have plenty.

That's part of the reason I’m doing the “Live below the Line” next week. Monday to Friday I'm eating for less than $2.85 a day.  I’m doing it to raise money for TEAR Fund and their fight against human trafficking.  There are an estimated 21 million people trapped in slavery worldwide.  Women and children are especially vulnerable.  They are often taken or sold from very poor communities, they are taken to brothels and forced to work as prostitutes.
We can help prevent this happening, rescue and rehabilitate those trapped in slavery, and prosecute those responsible – bust up the criminal human trafficking networks.

So sponsor me if you want to help at this link:

But I’m also doing “live below the line” to remind me that I live a wealthy, comfortable lifestyle, while the majority of people caught up in human trafficking come from poor communities who live on $2.85 a day or less. (807 million globally).
It changes something inside me when, with God's help, I say no to the deceitfulness of riches and yes to attempting to live more simply so I can give generously to those in need.


Thursday, August 4, 2016

How To Love Those Who Spit on You

Prompted by God through our current preaching series in Luke, and remembering a challenge from Dallas Willard to get serious about discipleship, I decided to write a resource that would help us "love our enemies and do good to those who hate us." Luke 6:27

I post my attempt below.  I welcome any comments or suggested improvements.  For those reading who are Christians, may you grow as an apprentice of Jesus.  For those reading who would not describe yourselves as Christians, may it give you an insight into the surprising, refreshingly different kind of life that I believe Jesus calls us to live.

How to Love Those Who Spit on You

Jesus has shown us what life in the Kingdom of God is like (e.g. Luke 6:20f) but how can we actually live like that?

Loving people who spit on us is too hard for us.  Instead of just trying harder, we can train as an apprentice of Jesus in everyday life.  This is really just one example of living a distinctively different life because you are following Jesus.

Jesus is the Way.  His Spirit is the means. His example is our pattern and inspiration.

 1.      Consider the Goal – Jesus call to love our enemies and do good to those who hate us. (Lk 6:27)  Be inspired by Jesus example in Luke 18:32 and Mark 14:65; 15:19.

2.     Face up to where we fall short of this goal.  Be specific in prayer with God.

Repentance is not an emotion.  It is not feeling sorry for your sins.  It is a decision.  It is deciding that you have been wrong in supposing that you could manage your own life and be your own god; it is deciding that you were wrong in thinking you had, or could get the strength, education and training to make it on your own; it is deciding that you have been told a pack of lies about yourself and your neighbors and your world.  And it is deciding that God in Jesus Christ is telling you the truth.  Repentance is a realization that what God wants from you and what you want from God are not going to be achieved by doing the same old things, thinking the same old thoughts.  Repentance is a decision to follow Jesus Christ and become his pilgrim in the path of peace.  Repentance is the most practical of all words and the most practical of all acts.  It is a feet-on-the-ground kind of word.  [from Eugene Peterson’s “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society” pp.25-26]

3.      Ask God to help you see what is going on inside you.  (You might need help from a trusted friend or advisor).  Why do you find it hard to love those who spit on you?  Is it because you hate it when people don’t like you?  Are you are scared what they might do to you?  Do you feel criticized when people don’t like you?

4.      Choose or develop a spiritual discipline (a spiritual training exercise) to address the issue you face.  (This is something you can do that will put you in a place where they Holy Spirit can do what you cannot).

a.      If you find yourself answering back and then regretting it, try experimenting with the spiritual discipline of silence.
b.      If you find yourself doubting your own self-worth as someone created in the image of God, then meditate on Psalm 139, or the love of Jesus expressed to the woman in John 8:1-11.  This is about being secure in Christ.
c.       On the other hand, if you find yourself being arrogant or stubborn, you may need to seek God for humility.  The spiritual discipline of confession could help you with this.
d.      If you are fearful for your safety, memorize some verses that reassure youy that God is on your side.  E.g. Ps 27.
e.      If you find yourself looking for the approval of others for your feelings well-being, then spend some time alone with God trusting in his approval and love.
f.        If you find yourself isolated and feeling alone when someone is spitting on you, then spend some time with trusted friends who can support you.
g.      If you find yourself growing in anger or frustration toward the person, try praying for God’s blessing in their lives.
Like training for a marathon, these exercises all take time to bring results. 

5.      Can you forgive the person?  (Remember – forgiveness doesn’t mean they don’t need to face justice).

6.      If it is safe to do so, and you believe there is opportunity for reconciliation, consider how you could meet with the person to seek reconciliation. 

Some questions to think about and discuss:

  • ·         What do we do about relationships that don’t improve?  What did Jesus do in that situation?
  • ·         Are you tempted to focus on the “sovereign work of the Spirit” side of the triangle, and neglect the others?  Why might that be?

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Walking Where Jesus Walked

One of the great privileges of our time in the holy land was walking where Jesus walked.  I don't mean the precise locations which after 2000 years are often disputed or uncertain, but the towns and villages, roads, hills and lake sides where Jesus walked. It has made me aware of both Jesus' humanity and his divinity.

Church of the Annunciation, Nazareth
 His humanity first of all.  Bethlehem, Nazareth, Capernaum, and even Jerusalem, are ordinary places. Life goes on in these towns and cities.  We experienced bustling markets in Jerusalem and saw people fishing in Galilee.  We visited the church of the annunciation in Nazareth and imagined the angel telling Mary she was to give birth to the Saviour of the world. Quite apart from the fact that she was a virgin, it must have been difficult to think that anything so miraculous could happen there.  "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?"

Fishing Boat on the lake of Galilee
When Jesus got up each morning there is a sense in which it would have been like any other morning. The empty slopes up from the lake of Galilee where Jesus multiplied the loaves and the fishes were ordinary hills, yet they became filled with the extraordinary.  We were sailed on the lake and the team members spoke about what God was saying to them through the time in the Holy Land and Galilee in particular.
The challenge for all of us is to expect, recognise and participate in the extraordinary things that God will do in our ordinary day. I'm not saying that there aren't special kairos moments in the history of salvation. I will say more about that in a moment. However, we can't wait for the "superspiritual moments" or the "superspiritual people."  God has always worked through ordinary people.  I believe God delights to do mighty things through humble people.  Isn't that what the announcement to Mary was all about? Even if one doubts that God exists, one cannot doubt that some extraordinary things happened in this place.

On the other hand the very miraculous nature of the events pointed me to Jesus divinity.  Just like the disciples in the boat after Jesus had calmed the storm on Galilee, I found myself thinking, "Who is this that even the wind and the waves obey him?"  We drove by Cana where Jesus carried out his first miracle turning ordinary water into the best wine of the wedding.  This picked up a theme of our sabbatical for me, "What miracle do I need Jesus to perform?"

Door at the Church of the Annunciation
The divinity of Jesus was also apparent in the unfolding of salvation history.  Although the birth of Jesus occurred in an ordinary town to a humble peasant girl, it occurred at a special time in history. When Jesus began his ministry he said, "The time (kairos) is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near, repent and believe in the good news."
Christians over the centuries have revered the holy sites we visited, often building churches there to remember the events.  Some tourists are put off by the gaudy monuments and icons remembering what happened there.  Certainly there is a danger of worshiping the place instead of the one who was at work there. However, overall I found it helpful to remember that these everyday places have in a sense been "set apart" (made holy) by the special events that occurred there.  The door at the church of the annunciation depicts the life of Jesus, surrounded by the earlier events that prepared the way for this new relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

This pictorial telling of the Bible stories has been a common theme throughout the churches of the Holy land and Europe. In days gone by, many people couldn't read.  Perhaps that will become more important for Bible stories again in cultures where people read books less and less.

1st Century ruins at Capernaum & church over Peter's house
One final reflection on the divinity of Jesus.  One notable difference between Jesus and other rabbis of his time was that usually students/apprentices/disciples sought out a rabbi they wanted to follow. Jesus on the other hand chose his disciples and called them to follow him.  This was very real to me as we walked on the shores of Galilee, past what archelogists are almost certain was Simon Peter's house.  Jesus invites us to follow him.

The site of the Sermon on the Mount near lake Galilee
I remember a key moment in my call to ministry reading Jesus words in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5-7) and an exposition of these chapters by Don Carson.  There was a sense of that call being reaffirmed as I sat praying and re-reading those words of Jesus on the site where he delivered them.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Stories of Hope from Bethlehem

My previous post about the conflict in the holy land may be difficult to grasp at first reading, so let me tell some stories to give more context.

Shepherd's Fields Greek Orthodox Christian School, in Biet Sahour, Bethlehem, is one ray of hope. We visited this very impressive school, met with students and were briefed by the principal George Sa'adeh.  George is a Palestinian Christian, who went to school in Bethlehem, and later graduated with a degree in aerospace engineering from University of Southern California. Shepherd's Field School as a picture in the foyer which portrays the hope of the kingdom of God - peace and reconciliation - the lion lying down with the lamb.
The Lion lies down with the Lamb - Foyer Painting
This school provides excellent education for Palestinian children (both Christian and Muslim - without prejudice). The Palestinian Authority has little money.  Israelis restrict buildings and agriculture in Area C (over 70% of the West Bank) so the Palestinian economy is crippled, but the five year olds were so bright and happy, with a sparkle in their eyes. Even the senior students we met with (16-17 year olds) expressed hope for their future training and careers, although the sparkle had gone out of their eyes.  Only around 5% of Palestinian graduates get jobs.
Safe play area for children of the Shepherd's Fields School
We finished our visit with turkish coffee in the new library, built with money donated in memory of the principal's daughter Christine Sa'adeh.  George told us their story:
Christine Sa'adeh
George, his wife Najawa, and daughters Christine (12) and Marian (15) were driving in their car through suburban Bethlehem on the evening of 23rd March 2003. They were going grocery shopping.  Without warning, Israeli soldiers opened fire on their car which was hit with 30 bullets. It seems their car was a similar model to one being driven by Palestinian militants which soldiers had just shot.
Christine died. George was shot in the abdomen and back. Marian was shot in the leg.  Najawa suffered minor injuries.
George told what happened: "I saw two army jeeps on Nasser Street and thought about reversing away, but Palestinians know that can be fatal, so I drove towards them very slowly.
"I put on my indicator to show I was pulling out to avoid their vehicles. Just as we passed in front of them, the windscreen was blown in and bullets started flying around the car. I pulled up and screamed at the soldiers to stop the firing, but it continued. I looked behind and saw Christine slumped down, covered in blood."
Despite all this, George continues to work for peace and reconciliation, welcomes Muslim students and families to the school, and has numerous Jewish friends.  He says:
"I've always taught my students that we should live together in love and harmony in the Holy Land, but what's happening now is terrible, people are just getting crazy," he said. He was doing his best as a true Christian "not to allow hate into my heart at those who killed my beautiful little girl".

Salim Munayer, a Palestinian Christian and Director of Musalaha, Reconciliation Ministries, told us, "Hating someone is like drinking poison hoping they will die.  Unforgiveness can't remain."
Several of our team were privileged to hear Salim preach on the words of Jesus in Matthew 5:43-48
43“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. 46If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? 48Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

Signs of Hope!  St Jerome (347-420AD), who also died in Bethlehem, is reputed to have said: "Five gospels record the life of Jesus. Four you will find in books, and the one you will find in the land they call Holy. Read the fifth gospel and the world of the four will open to you."  
This has been true for us in seeing the places were Jesus was born, lived, taught, died, rose and ascended.  It has also been true in seeing the example of these Palestinians living their lives "in Christ" in the holy land today.

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Let Justice Flow Like a River

Christians being baptised in the Jordan river
At one level the solution to the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is simple.  As the Hebrew prophet Amos said, "Let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream." (Am 5:24).  If we could see justice and righteousness like this it would bring peace to this land.  Why then hasn't this happened? Fear, defensiveness, selfish, stubborn human hearts... People on all sides of this conflict so easily get blinkers on and can't see beyond their own situation.  That's true for all of us I'm sure.
One wall which separates Israeli and Palestinian (Bethlehem, West Bank)
One of the barriers to hearing God through Scripture (which I have been looking at over my Cambridge time) is not being able to see beyond the story we have constructed for ourselves. I suspect many Jews could hear Amos 5 from their scriptures and think only of justice for them having more of the land, and not of justice for the Palestinians whose land they are occupying and confiscating in what the UN and the International Court of Justice describe as illegal settlements.

Israeli Checkpoint
On the other hand, Palestinians can easily adopt a victim mentality and blame the Israeli occupation of their land for everything.

After 6 days in the Holy Land I can't pretend to understand this whole conflict.  However, the advantage of being here with World Vision is that many doors were open to us to see things in Israel and the Palestinian Authority (West Bank) and meet people which tourists would miss, especially if they were on a tour organised by Israeli Jews.  We met with the Australian ambassador to Israel, David Sharma, who gave us helpful insights, but also acknowledged that the longer he is here the more complexities he discovers.  We have met and spoken with Israeli Jews, Israeli Messianic Jews, Israeli Arab Christians, Palestinian Christians, Palestinian Muslims, and western Christian World Vision staff.  (Phew! That list in itself takes some understanding and has several subtle but important nuances.)

So, as I try to process everything, let me tell you about some of the things I have seen and heard.
This will give insight into the different narratives or viewpoints that one hears in the Holy Land. Many Western Christians will only really be aware of the narrative presented by the State of Israel, and various Zionist supporters including Christian Zionists.  I am trying to take the advice some Palestinian Christians gave us and not be "for" or "against" either side, but to be "for justice", or as I would say, "for the God of justice and for actions that bring glory to God."

The dominant narrative from the state of Israel has been the need for security.  We visited Yad Vashem (the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem) and saw the horror of the systematic murder of 6 million Jews (as well as 5 million non-Jews such as Poles, Gypsies, communists, homosexuals and mentally and physically disabled people).  It is clear that the Jewish people are determined that this should never happen to them again.  Israelis live under threat from surrounding countries that have been at war with Israel at various times, and they can also face violence at any time within Israel and the Palestinian Territories.  Some Christians, motivated by a particular understanding of biblical prophecy and end times, regard the modern nation state of Israel as the chosen people of God who are entitled to their promised land and can do no wrong.  Unfortunately this results in Western Christian support for Jewish and Secular Israelis forcing Palestinian Christians off land they have owned for centuries.  It can even come across as "these Palestinian Christians are holding up the return of Christ by not letting Israelis occupy the promised land in fulfillment of prophecy."
A Palestinian Shepherd near Bethlehem, with an Israeli settlement in the background.
The wall stops Israelis and Palestinians meeting and talking.  It contributes to the fear each has of the other.  When a new Israeli settlement (like the one in the photo above) is established in the West Bank it exacerbates the problem because access roads cut off neighbouring Palestinian villages from each other.  They aren't allowed to use or cross the new Israeli roads.  Israeli settlements have continuous water and electricity, while  Palestinian villages have restricted water and electricity supplies.

Palestinians can mix together during the day in Jerusalem..  However, when you look at the city, East Jerusalem where Palestinians must live is clearly poorer.  We were told that Palestinian incomes are approximately one tenth of Israeli incomes.  West Jerusalem has the money, shopping malls, and modern construction.  I find it hard to see how peace negotiations can succeed when the power and wealth difference is so stark.  Palestinians have little to bring to the negotiating table.

While most Palestinians are Muslim, there is a small percentage of Palestinian Christians (about 1.5%). These Christian brothers and sisters feel largely abandoned and ignored by the world (including Western Christianity).  They told us "We are the forgotten church.  Christians in the West don't care about us." Life for Palestinian Christians is harsh. If they have the opportunity many choose to leave.  The number of Christians has fallen from 20% in 1947 to 1.5% today. Many Palestinians are determined to stay

We met with some Messianic Jewish leaders.  (These are Jews who have come to believe in Jesus as the messiah). At least one of these leaders saw the need to find reconciliation and peace with Palestinians.  He works with a Palestinian Christian leader we met in an organisation called Musalaha seeking to promote reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians as demonstrated in the life and teaching of Jesus.  He faces some criticism from some Messianic Jews for this.  We also met with a group called Rabbis for Human Rights.  They similarly face criticism from some Jews - but at least they cannot be accused of being antisemitic.  Their activities include:

  • donating 3,500 olive trees each year to Palestinian farmers whose lands are either at risk of land taker-over, or have been victims of violence by Jewish extremists.
  • organizing volunteers to harvest olives in solidarity with Palestinian farmers who face harassment.
  • assisting with the many legal cases where land owners are facing displacement.
  • assisting close to 1000 underprivileged Israelis each year with their socio-economic rights.

Again and again we were impressed with the eloquent, humble, yet determined people working for peace and justice.  It gives hope for this region!

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Jerusalem - First Impressions

Sue and I have been privileged to join a tour of the holy land while we are on this side of the world.
Arriving in Jerusalem has been one of the most precious travel experiences of my life.
Sue at the tower of David
We visited the tower of David, which is a museum in Old Jerusalem.  While the main structures date from the 12th Century with upgrades from the Ottoman empire, some of the structure dates back to Herodian times, and the history of Jerusalem goes back 4000 years.  Reading the historical displays was like an Old Testament survey, because of course that is much of the history of this city.  This has reinforced for us that the Bible isn't just a made up story.  The story of God is anchored in historical events.

This is a holy place for Jews, Muslims and in a slightly different way for Christians also. As such it has been a focus of conflict for centuries, often changing hands, often violently. It also struck me, by contrast, that at various times Jews, Muslims, and Christians have been able to live here together peacefully. That is the challenge Jerusalem faces today.

We have been struck by the compact nature of Jerusalem, and indeed Israel as a whole.  It was a short drive from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and a short walk from our hotel to the Old City.  In the classic photo below, you can see the short distance from David's tower to the Western Wall and the Dome of the Rock, and then beyond to the Mount of Olives.  Again this raises the ever present and complex issue of Jews, Muslims and Christians coexisting.
The view over the Old City, Dome of the Rock to Mt of Olives
It was a short walk from the evening service we attended in Christ Church (the oldest Protestant church in the Middle East), to the Western Wall (the most holy site for Jews), and then just above that wall is the Dome of the Rock and the Al-Aqsa Mosque (holy sites for Muslims).

We were able to join in with two different church services.  A small Baptist church in the morning, and the Anglican service in the evening.  Both sought to be aware of the complex religious context and the worship and prayers reflected that.  Reading a Psalm about Jerusalem and praying for the peace of Jerusalem have never been so poignant for me.  Christ Church in particular sought to appreciate their Jewish roots in a liturgical and historical context.  Both were conscious of the call to show God's love to everyone, including people of other faiths.

The Western Wall at night with Dome of Rock and Al-Aqsa mosque above.
Although there are so many historical sites here, Jerusalem is a living city.  We had some delicious falafel wrap for tea at a little restaurant/takeaways and then walked around the corner on stones that are likely to be the roof of ancient houses, down some steps to a lower level with the remains of a synagogue and a market where Jesus could have walked.  Then down some more steps, through a gate and we were at the Western Wall.  Orthodox Jews pray at the wall twenty four hours a day.  Just above them on the temple platform is, strictly speaking, under Jordanian jurisdiction, and many Muslims go to there to pray. It was instructive to see the level of devotion to a place.
Jews praying at the Western Wall
While coming to Jerusalem is a wonderful kind of pilgrimage for us, we believe praying a prayer at home in Mosgiel is just as effective as a prayer prayed in Jerusalem.

Walking back to our hotel led us through little streets lined with shops, closing for the day now, but where people made their living.

We look forward to learning more about this fascinating place when the formal tour gets underway tomorrow.

Saturday, May 21, 2016

Cambridge Research Insights

Trinity College Dining Hall
One of our serendipitous moments in Cambridge has been lunch at Trinity College with Rose Langley's cousin Michael and his wife Sue.  Rose is a friend back at East Taieri Church.  Her cousin is Sir Michael Berridge, a world renown physiologist and biochemist, fellow of Trinity College, knighted for services to science and a list of awards and honours as long as your arm.  Sue was aware of his best known work on cellular transmembrane signalling, in particular the discovery that inositol trisphosphate acts as a second messenger, linking events at the plasma membrane with the release of calcium ions within the cell.  Currently Michael's area of research is in neurological disorders such as Altzheimer's.

Statue of Thomas Babington Macaulay
The setting was inspiring.  The portraits around the dining room walls began with King Henry VIII, who founded the College in 1546, and continued with Fellows of the College.  Fellows and alumni (members) include: Isaac Newton, James Maxwell, Francis Bacon, Lord Byron, Alfred Tennyson, J J Thompson, Ernest Rutherford, Niels Bohr, A A Milne, Sue Carr, Prime Ministers and members of the Royal Family.  Research from this institution has impacted the world, particularly in mathematics and science, but also in law and literature and other disciplines. It has produced 33 Nobel Prize winners.  Interestingly, it is only more recently that Trinity "Fellows" have included more women and non-europeans.

On the one hand, this was awe inspiring.  Michael kindly helped us do the tourist thing taking our photograph with a statue of Sir Isaac Newton, and also with another alumni, the historian and politican Lord Macaulay outside Trinity Chapel.
One of the strengths (and complexities) of Cambridge University is the College structure.  Colleges like Trinity gather great minds from around the world in many different disciplines so they can interact and learn from each other.  This benefits both students and fellows.  Many a research breakthrough has occurred through an oblique conversation with someone from another discipline or through building on prior research from the same college.  How awe inspiring to be in a place that gathers great minds like this.

Wren Library, Trinity College
However, on the other hand, this time inspired me that we can all contribute something to make a difference in the world.  These were also ordinary people, in an actual place.  They had to sit down and study, think and write and make it happen.  In the Wren Library (designed by Sir Christopher Wren in 1676) we saw AA Milne's original handwritten notebook of Winnie the Pooh.  He had to put the words on paper like any of us. "BANG!" in big letters in his notebook became "BANG!" in the printed book.  We clapped our hands in the cloister corridor where Isaac Newton clapped his hands to make and echo to calculate the speed of sound.  Someone has to take these profound, yet often simple, steps. It may as well be us.
Trinity cloister where Newton calculated the speed of sound
The people who made great discoveries, weren't usually famous before they made them! I have always told our children and our staff, if you are interested in something, find out the best people in the world who can tell you about it and ask if you can talk to them, or read their work.

Michael Berridge shared a research insight he had gained back in his post-doc days.  A fellow researcher had advised him, "Don't be a fluff-wiper".  We asked what that meant and Michael explained that in science (and I would say probably all disciplines) there are some big questions to be answered.  But surrounding these big questions are hundreds of smaller, less consequential questions. Some scientists spend their careers working on the smaller fluff that surrounds the big questions. When they solve a smaller question, they wipe off that piece of fluff, but the big question remains unanswered.  Michael realised that until then he had been a "fluff-wiper".  He stopped work, reoriented his research and went on to make his huge discoveries in biochemistry.

I asked him if had any other advice for researchers.  He replied, "Make sure you have a strong, clear working hypothesis."  That provides a clear path for the research.  Of course the hypothesis may turn out to be wrong, and so is discarded, but at least you have clearly eliminated one possibility.

Our son is getting into a PhD in ecology.  While talking with him about this raised a third piece of advice.  Don't fall down a wormhole!  He had heard of someone who abandoned a PhD because they realised their work was so isolated and specialised it was dragging them away from research of any value.  (Now, I'm sure some "wormholes" have led to valuable results, but the general point is made.)

In an effort to learn from these insights, I am seeking to clarify the big questions of my research into the way God uses the Bible to help us grow spiritually, and arrange my notes and thoughts in a strong clear direction that will be of benefit to people at East Taieri (and others) when we return.

God Bless you,

(Martin and Sue having dinner with our new friends from Michigan, at the table in the Cambridge pub called "The Eagle" where Francis Crick and James Watson dined each week and was where in 1953 they chose to announce they had discovered the structure of DNA)

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Fueling our Passion

Sophie in front of the enclosure
Last weekend, Sue and I hired a car and were joined by Sophie for a wonderful exploration of the south of England. Among the many experiences I found myself reflecting on the things that fuel our passion.  As some of you know I have been reflecting this year on what fuels our passion for God and God's mission.  This connects with my study.  I am exploring how we engage with the Bible and how God uses that to bring growth.  A key indicator of that growth is passion for God - loving God and loving others.

Visiting Salisbury Cathedral had the surprise benefit of being able to view the best quality of four surviving copies of Magna Carta (1215AD).  This was the beginnings of the rule of Law, giving people freedom under the law and the protection of individuals from exploitation and abuse of power by rulers.  You could see the passion for the law in Sophie's eyes as she saw this foundation document in legal history.  Amnesty International were cleverly involved in sponsoring this exhibition put together for the 800th anniversary of its signing - seeking to communicate their passion for justice to others.  Passion seems to be fueled by engaging with significant heritage items associated with that issue.
The document was housed in a special enclosure inside the tent you see in the photograph, and one can't take photographs of the actual document, but you can see in my photo of a print below the delicate, precise lettering that achieved 3,600 words on one sheet of parchment.  Perhaps this is an example of passionate use of a goose quill? Having praised the scribe, we did learn from the passionate curator that some textual variants did occur as the document was copied by hand and by it being read aloud for the scribe to copy.  We could see a phrase correction in one copy.  "Opps! it should have said..."

I have enlarged some of the print below so you can see the beautiful Latin lettering more easily.

Baptistry at Salisbury Cathedral

Salisbury cathedral also had a most artistic baptistry.  I know some folks at East Taieri have been doing some work on the heating system for our baptistry.  Thanks guys! I thought you might like to see this version, although I suspect it is only used for sprinkling, rather than immersion baptisms.  I understand it took some work to ensure it was level for the mirror water surface and water to flow out all four overflow points equally.

Going back in time a little further, we visited the site of the Battle of Hastings (1066AD).  Among other things we learned that King Harold II (the last of the Anglo-Saxon kings of England) was himself a rather passionate man, which may have been part of his downfall.  When William (the Conqueror) led the Norman invasion of England, Harold could have taken his time, allowing William to march his army to Harold in London, stretching the already difficult Norman supply lines.  However, in his urgency to deal to William, Harold marched his army to Hastings and launched into battle before all his troops had arrived and rested.  The events of the battle of Hastings are recorded on a magnificent tapestry housed at Bayeux (in Normandy - near the D Day landings), preserved for over nine centuries.  It shows two other types of passion fueling.  One of William's leaders, Bishop Odo, is shown "comforting" the troops (i.e. urging them on into battle with a large club).  This is often used to argue that the Holy Spirit as our "comforter" in John 14 of the KJV of the Bible has the role of urging us on in the spiritual battle.  Certainly Bishop Odo fired up the troops.  The next scene on the tapestry shows William lifting his helmet so his troops could see his face in order to dispel a rumour that William had been killed.  Seeing him alive inspired the troops onward.

In Hastings itself, we saw two other examples of passion.  The fisherman have huts on the beach from which they sell their catch.  Many of the huts display photos or representations of the fishermen giving the simple huts character and ownership.  The also made various claims to having the best fish around.

Similarly, for that most English of treats, cream tea.  This is tea served with freshly baked scones, clotted cream and jam.  Again, we saw many establishments claiming to serve the best cream tea in England.  Their claims had to be assessed of course.  While this was primarily marketing, it highlights for me the way that excellence and ownership are important for passionate service.

Cream tea in Hastings

Until next time,  Martin.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Rhythms of Worship

Wide angle view of St John's College Chapel, Cambridge
Settling into Cambridge has involved adjusting to the rhythms of worship in this place.  Many of the colleges of the University have their own chapel and choir.  Some colleges have an evening prayer service every day of the week.  This in a country with only 10% of the population attending church.  In the Anglican tradition this is evening prayer is commonly called "Evensong" because many of the prayers are sung.  

St John's College Choir, Cambridge
I include along with my photos, some photos from the internet to give different views of chapels and choirs, which one isn't allowed to photograph during a service.
So far we have attended evensong at St John's College and Kings College in Cambridge, as well as St Paul's Cathedral in London, and Ely Cathedral.  We have also taken part in the "daily offices" of prayer and worship at Westminster College where we are staying.

As I mentioned in an earlier blog, it has taken some time to get used to the differences, but in doing so we have felt God impressing on us the importance of public reading of the Bible, so we hear large pieces of God's word.  Of course the Bible was originally a book that people heard rather than read - in the days when only the privileged few were able to read.

In the choir of Ely Cathedral looking West
Last Sunday we spent the day in Ely and attended morning worship and evensong in the Ely Cathedral, the forth largest in England.  This cathedral is also famous as a film location for movies such as Elizabeth: The Golden Age, The Kings Speech, Jupiter Ascending, and MacBeth.  They did a great job of introducing evensong for those who were visiting. Among other things, they explained that daily services of worship had been conducted there for over 1300 years (although the present building is not quite 1000 years old, it was preceded by an Abby Church established on the site in AD672.)  These services occurred whether or not there were people in the congregation.  This seems silly to our pragmatic minds which are focused on worship services that connect with people in effective (a modern word) ways.  Such thoughts aren't altogether wrong.  I've been part of decisions to stop a worship service that no longer attracted sufficient people to worship. However, faithful daily worship for over 1300 centuries does provide a helpful corrective by reminding us that our worship is first and foremost for God.  How different to our consumerism which would ask: "What did I get out of the service today?"  God is worthy and deserves all our praise!
Sophie in her Choir Stall for Evensong
The Choir (sometimes spelt Quire) is not just the people who sing, but originally describes the space in a church between the main congregation area (the Nave) and what pre-reformation churches called the altar.  This is where the people sit, stand, kneel, sing and pray during evensong.  The architecture makes it clear "the choir" aren't just singing for the congregation, they are primarily singing for God.  I know some worship leaders who grasp this point and teach their worship teams that they are playing and singing first and foremost for God (not for themselves) - get that right and their responsibilities to sensitively lead the congregation in worship comes more easily!

We climbed the west tower before evensong and gained some marvelous views.
My photo of roof of the Ely Nave

Ely Cathedral as we walked back to the train.

Looking Down from the West Tower, Ely Cathedral

Interestingly, the statues and figures in the Lady Chapel of the cathedral were all headless or defaced. Who were the vandals you are wondering?  The Reformers and Puritans who were concerned that the presence of these statues promoted idolatry.  One man we spoke to after the morning service said, "We are lucky that the whole cathedral wasn't defaced as we had Oliver Cromwell living here."
Sue and Sophie in front of Oliver Cromwell's house.

Depending on who you read and your historical viewpoint, Oliver Cromwell is either a hero, or an oppressive - some even argue genocidal - authoritarian leader.

Those who built the cathedral thought they were doing so to the glory of God.  Those who defaced it did so out of zeal for God's glory.

Makes you wonder where our blind spots and excesses are!
Passing Kings College, Cambridge on my walk back to Westminster yesterday afternoon.  Spring has sprung.


Wednesday, April 27, 2016

The Precious Writings

24-25 April - London
My first week of study leave has begun exploring the role of the Bible in helping us grow spiritually.  Part of that is understanding what the Bible is like.  On Monday Sue and I were in London for a missional conversation hosted by Martin Robinson of formission. (As I recall, Seb back at East Taieri is reading Martin's book Planting Mission-Shaped Churches Today as part of his work on a new fresh expression of church.)  This was a fruitful conversation, which I will blog about another time, but while we were in London, we visited the British Museum and the British Library.  Among many things we saw were ancient writings that reminded us how precious the Bible is, and inspired us to read and discover what God is saying to us.  (see also the link to the interview with Bono and Eugene Peterson at the end of this post).
Rosetta Stone

First, in the British Museum, we saw the Rosetta Stone, which dates from the 2nd Century BC.  It has the same decree in three scripts Egyptian hieroglyphic and demotic and Ancient Greek.  This was the key to understanding how to read Egyptian hieroglyphic.

We also saw a range of clay tablets that were over 2,500 years old and gave amazing verification of people and events recorded in the Bible. The Cyrus cylinder dates from around 550BC and is King Cyrus' record of how he captured Babylon, and his policy of returning deported people (like the Israelite exiles) and rebuilding of temples.  Cyrus is mentioned several times in Isaiah.
The Assyrian king Ashurbanipal is mentioned in Ezra 4:10.  His clay tablet records the Assyrian version of the flood narrative.
Other tablets from the time of the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar's reign confirm details from the Bible such as the conquest of Jerusalem and Judah and the exile of the Jewish people, including details such as the name of Nebuchadnezzar's right hand man Nebo-Sarsekim who is mentioned in Jeremiah 39:3.

Cyrus Cylinder

Ashurbanipal's Flood Tablet
Babylonian Cuneiform tablets about Nebuchadnezzar, etc.
Perhaps most moving of all for me was the opportunity to see early papyrus fragments of John's gospel and very early copies of the Bible in the British Library.  The Library describes Codex Sinaiticus as a treasure beyond price.  It is the earliest copy we have of the whole New Testament and much of the Old Testament.  These days you can visit the British Library website and turn the pages of Codex Sinaiticus online.
Codex Sinaiticus - From the British Library website (you aren't allowed to take photographs in the exhibition)
My New Testament Greek struggled to read this text as it is all in capital letters and there are no gaps between words or punctuation.

Nearby we saw William Tyndale's Bible and early English translation which Tyndale completed in the days when religious leaders believed the Bible should only be available in Latin.  Most ordinary people didn't speak or read Latin, so that made the Bible inaccessible for them.  Tyndale and others achievement was to ensure ordinary people could read the Bible in their native English.  Unfortunately Tyndale paid for this with his life, being executed and his body burned at the stake as a heretic.

This spoke to me of two important and precious things.  First, we do have the Bible available to us.  We can read God's word in a language we understand.  We don't have to rely on the experts or biblical scholars.  Second, we are grateful for the experts and biblical scholars who have made the translations for us and helped us move from ancient manuscripts to words we can read.  This also reminded me about the importance of careful exegesis (study and interpretation of the text).  Thanks to the work scholars have done, this study and interpretation can be done by anyone

As part of my study this week I read what Eugene Peterson (of The Message fame) wrote in “Eat this Book: The Art of Spiritual Reading”: “our Holy Scriptures are not composed in a timeless, deathless prose, a hyper-spiritual angel language with all the quirks and idiosyncrasies of local history and peasant dialect expunged.  There are verbs that must be accurately parsed, cities and valleys to be located on a map, and long-forgotten customs to be comprehended.” 

The texts are centuries (and millennia) removed from us, in ancient languages, from cultures strange to us.  So we approach our Bible reading with confidence (we can read and understand), but also with humility (recognizing and appreciating the hard work that has gone in to make these precious ancient writings accessible for us).

Papyrus 782 parts of John's Gospel
Pouring over this papyrus and my Greek New Testament I could read parts of John 1:37-38:
ἠκολούθησαν τῷ Ἰησοῦ.  στραφεὶς δὲ ὁ Ἰησοῦς καὶ θεασάμενος αὐτοὺς ἀκολουθοῦντας λέγει αὐτοῖς, Τί ζητεῖτε; (...followed Jesus. Turning around, Jesus saw them following and said to them, "What do you seek?")

If I reformat the Greek and take out the spaces (no spaces between words or punctuation in the original) and take out the words on the missing part of the papyrus and make letters light grey that are missing off the edge of the papyrus, you might be able to see on the left hand side of the papyrus just above where the white dashes are (starting just above the top white dash):

σαν τῷ Ἰησοῦ.  στραφεὶς δὲ ὁ Ἰησοῦς καὶ θεασάμενος 
αὐτοὺς                                      ἀκολουθοῦντας

Amazing!  How precious to have these words passed down to us from nearly 2000 years ago.

Seeing the work that has gone on to make the scriptures accessible to us inspires me all the more to delve deep into them to discover what God is saying to us today.  Paul Windsor posted on facebook a link to a wonderful interview with Bono (from U2) and Eugene Peterson recently.  Again, encouraging us to treasure all the scriptures, particularly the Psalms, but even the hard parts, because God speaks through them and helps us be a part of what God is doing today.
Click on the photo to watch this delightful short film and grow your devotion to the scriptures as God's way of enabling us to live an abundant life today.

Bono and Eugene Peterson - Delightful interview by Fuller Theological Seminary


Thursday, April 21, 2016

Finding our place in Cambridge

Week One.  Cambridge is a University town about the population of Dunedin and like Dunedin has around 25,000 students.  The main University area is compact and you can walk or cycle everywhere.
St John's College - one of the many Cambridge colleges from the air - off the internet. Sue and I plan to go to evensong here tonight.
"Finding our place" has been true in a number of ways.  First of course we needed to find our accommodation at Westminster College.  This is provided through the generosity of the Cheshunt Foundation which is now part of the United Reformed Church.
The front of Westminster College (URC spent 7.2 million pounds upgrading this in 2011)
We have a small one bedroom flat (the Garden Cottage) with an ensuite and living/dining room.  Cosy and very adequate.
Our little cottage.
Westminster has its own library which looks very good, but I also have a desk in our bedroom which I can work from.
The Westminster Library which I am still to explore

The desk in our "Garden Cottage"
We have sought to join in with the small Westminster Community which is mostly students training for ordination, a small staff, and some others on sabbatical.  The United Reformed Church seems to have a large number of small, struggling congregations, many of them in large historic buildings needing considerable upkeep.  I gather numbers of students for ordination are also declining. Westminster has a short chapel service every morning, as well as lunchtime prayers in the chapel, and occasional chapel communion services.  This has been formal, quiet and very traditional liturgically, although I gather some URC congregations are more contemporary and informal in worship style such as we are used to. While the chapel worship could not be described as high on the engagement, energy, excitement or inspiration levels, it has had a quiet peace about it. [As time goes by we are finding that worship here, and in the URC in general is quite diverse and so there are people and worship that is much more lively, inspiring and engaging.]  Finding our place in this hasn't always been easy as there are things people are assumed to know.  Where to sit in the side facing choir type chapel?  Where did people get those orders of service? Who is this person leading our worship? When is it finished?  What is that hymn people are singing and where are the hymbooks to get the words? I guess this isn't meant to be a seeker sensitive service, but it wasn't easy for this long term Christian to find his way.
The small chapel at Westminster College
In seeking to find our place in the Westminster community here, it seems that people are grateful to have visitors who know how to listen.  Only a few have asked us about ourselves and New Zealand. Most have preferred to talk about their own situations.  Sue and I will have to be careful we don't fall into a pastoral role here when that is not our job.  Having said that, we are appreciating getting to know people here, especially the students who invited us out for a drink after the communion service and dinner last night.  The pub culture here is different to NZ.  Of course the word "pub" comes from "public house" and many of the pubs here are like houses with different, somewhat separate rooms where a group of friends can meet and talk.  Different to the large drinking establishments in NZ.
One evening we went to one called "Sir Isaac Newton".  You guessed it - Newton was a student here in the 1600s.
One of the locals
The scientists among you might appreciate this picture on the wall in one room of the Sir Isaac Newton pub.
Finding our place here has also meant trying to grasp something of the class structure of this ivory tower.  Thanks to Westminister and the Cheshunt Foundation, I have the status of "visiting scholar".
You might not think that very important, but without it I wouldn't have been able to get my precious library card that gives me access to the resources of Cambridge.  Sue was trying to go into the main university library and they turned her away.  When she asked if she could come in with me, they said they didn't think I would be able to get a Cambridge University Library card because Westminster isn't a college of the university.  Turns out that because Westminister only teaches theology, it doesn't qualify as a full college.  The lesser mortals who study at Westminster don't get the precious library card and are limited to libraries of the Theological Federation.  Hence the importance of my "visiting scholar" title.

The class system is alive and well in academia here.  One staff member here even talked us through finding our place somewhere between student and staff.  It's not often I roll out my "Rev Dr" title, but I can see it will be needed from time to time here.

Having grumbled about the class system and the way people seem so concerned about status, I must say that the staff we have encountered have been extremely helpful in many different ways.  I have explored some of the main University Library (which automatically gets a copy of every book published in the UK - part of the way books get copyright here).
University Library

I have also found my way to the very small, but practical and helpful Ridley Hall library.  This is at the college where Matt McDonald's brother Rob is a tutor.  Rob is going to help set me up with some people to interview on my study leave topic.  So far I have written the interview questions and listed the people I will see.

The last part of finding our place that I will mention is getting around the town/city.  The spring weather has been fine and sunny, though cold.  Great walking weather and Sue and I have enjoyed some good exploratory walks around the town.  People have advised us to buy bikes and we will explore buying one. Rob and his wife Anna have kindly offered to lend us one for our time here.

Until next week,