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,

Arles and Carcassone

17-18th April - Arles and Carcassone
Our France holiday drew to an end and we delivered Sophie and Jessie back to Bergerac, and flew back to England to start study leave at Cambridge University.  On the way from Nice to Bergerac we stopped at Arles and Carcasonne.
Roman ruins at Arles
 Arles is famous for Vincent van Gogh living and painting there.
The Harvest - Arles

It was also an important Roman town before and around the time of Christ. The Roman Amphitheatre is still used today for various performances.
The Arles Amphitheatre
We stayed overnight at Carcassone.  Sue and I enjoyed a hearty cassoulet that rivaled our friend Hugh's outstanding recipe.  Cassoulet is a specialty of the region (duck, pork, sausage, white beans in a kind of casserole).
Sue, Sophie and Jessie on the bridge over the Rhone, with the city's medieval fortress in the background

Entering the fortress - lit up at night

The outer battlements and the next line of defense
Bergerac was a beautiful sunny day for us to say au revoir to Sophie and Jessie and return to England.

In 10 days we saw a lot in France.  However, we are glad that we didn't try to "see it all", or as some people say in that horrible phrase "do France".  This means we have good memories of the particular places we were able to visit and some of the people we met.  The man who told us about cassolet in Carcassone is one example, and joining in with Sophie's church in Bergerac is another.  We appreciated the hospitality of a wonderful couple in Sophie's church who had Sue and I to stay for three nights while we were in the Dordogne. So, while we gained something of an overview - it was the particular places and moments that form the memories.  I guess there is something incarnational about that.


Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Joining the Rich and Famous

14-16 April - Monaco, Nice and Cannes
The South of France was warm and beautiful.  The Mediterranean was deep sparkling blue.  We were joined by Sophie's friend Jessie Boston (Grace's sister) and had three nights in an excellent value apartment in St Laurent du Var (right next door to Nice). Shot Sophie for scoring the apartment!

Sue, Sophie and Jessie at the Fortress above Cannes
We were amazed at the number of high end sports cars - Ferrari, Lamborghini... everywhere!  On the trip down we were on the 130km/hr toll road which seemed pretty fast to me until a Ferrari whizzed by.  Buy why have these fancy sports cars in traffic congested Nice , Monte Carlo and Cannes?  They wouldn't get out of first gear.  We couldn't even find a park on our first pass through Monte Carlo.  (Unless they were in the Monaco Grand Prix) Yet they were cruising through the streets.  Gotta be seen in an expensive sports car.
The Monaco Grand Prix wasn't on, but the Monaco Tennis Masters was - the city was busy.

Macaulays in Menton, just past Monte Carlo (Italy in the backgound)
Unlike our rather casual attire, many of the beautiful people in Monte Carlo and Cannes were dressed to the nines.  We saw one man walking his dog along the Cannes waterfront on Saturday morning wearing a suit. It all seem a classic case of obsession with looking rich and beautiful.
Beauty again, this time in the St Nicholas Cathedral above Monte Carlo
The juxtaposition of these images and their timing (walked into this cathedral minutes after seeing police and bodyguards arrive to safeguard the royals of Monaco heading out from the palace) made me reflect on the importance we all place on image and beauty.  Looking good is, well, beautiful.  It is a good thing.  But is it the most important thing.  Again it challenges me to think whether I worry more about what people think of me, than I do about what God thinks of me.  I recall Jesus criticism of the religious leaders who loved to be seen praying on the street corner.  "Look how spiritual I am" And I wonder how much of what I do is motivated by looking good to others.  A final twist in the tale.  Princes Grace of Monaco (formerly the actress and fashion icon Grace Kelly) is buried in this cathedral, and is listed in the international best dressed hall of fame.

Hope you're looking good!
The beautiful Sue on the Cannes waterfront, with our bagette for lunch.
Our box of beautifully presented (!) patissaries from St Laurent du Var (the labels are chocolate)

Sunday, April 17, 2016


14th April. Avignon on the Rhone river was an overnight stop for us on our way to Nice.  Another ancient city.  We saw some first century Roman ruins.
Sue beside some first Century AD Roman ruins, across from Palais des Papes.
In more recent history, the1300s saw the papacy move to Avignon. That's still 700 years ago - I'm still blown away by the depth of history here.  This became the seat of Western Christianity for the 14th Century and a palace/fortress was built here, described as one of the largest and most important medieval Gothic buildings in Europe.  Got to love all these claims though - every town and city has "something" that is the biggest, or most important, or... in Europe.
Sue and Sophie in front of Palais des Papes

Here we found the best coffee so far in France.  My strategy has been to order cafe espresso, because most French cafes don't texture milk the way we do in NZ for a latte or flat white.  I haven't worked out whether they don't like it that way, or just can't be bothered because most people have espresso (without milk).  Here I used my few words of French to thank and complement our barista for the coffee.  I was rewarded with a smile, but also a reply in French which I couldn't understand.  That's the trouble.  Sophie is a great help here.  Here French seems excellent and she if often complemented on her accent (or lack of it).  She says the French vowel sounds are almost identical to Maori, so NZrs should have a head start.  Sue and I are trying to discipline ourselves not to rely on her to speak for us, although I only have two years of high school French.

Avignon retains much of its original city wall, now functioning as a border for the old city.  Also a bridge (Pont d'Avignon) which will be known to some of you from the song.  A good friend of ours lived here for a year or so.  I include a photo of part of the university for her.
Pont d'Avignon (Pont Saint Benezet) built 1177-1185 across the Rhone river.  Photo from the city wall.

Universite d'Avignon

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Le Puy en Velay - A day of pilgrimage

13th April.  A wise friend commented that we might well find it is in the unexpected times and places that we have special moments (including times when we feel especially close to God).  Staying at Le Puy en Velay was one of those times.  It began as a convenient stop on the way from Ambroise to Nice, but then the discoveries began

First, Sue found one of the local specialties is lentils.  Some of you may have enjoyed the lentil, beetroot and feta salad Sue makes.  At home the Le Puy Lentils are not easy to find, but here!

Next we discovered this is a place of pilgrimage.  It is one of the starting points for El Camino Santiago pilgrimage (profiled in the movie "The Way").  Several friends of ours have walked this taking 6 weeks or so, and one couple we know is on the way at present. Pilgrimage takes a journey and makes it a time of reflection and spiritual growth.  We visited some of the sites that makes Le Puy an appropriate place to start this journey.

This cast iron statue of Notre-Dame de France is atop the core of an extinct volcano.  The statue is quite modern, inaugurated in 1860, however, pilgrims have traveled here for many centuries before that, climbing the many steps as we did.  The first church established here in 430 AD recognised a tradition of the Virgin appearing here and a flat volcanic stone "the fever stone" has miraculous healing associated with it.  Some of this seems superstitious to my Protestant mind, but I can't deny this place was special.  Sue, Sophie and I prayed together in a chapel below this statue, called the Baptistry of St John which is part of the 11th Century buildings, but parts of it may date from as early as the 5th Century.  It was a moving God moment, thinking of the Christians who had prayed and indeed been baptised there for 16 centuries.  When we prayed the Lord's Prayer, reading from Matthew 6, I was quite tearful, sensing my connection to those early disciples who first learned those words.  Interestingly, the chapel had the apostles creed (in French) displayed on a wall banner).
Inside the Statue

On route to the statue (in background)
Cafe before the climb - You can see the statue above the street in the background.
The "Fever Stone" in the cathedral below the statue.

Walking to Aiguile, the Rock and Chapel of St Michael
The Rock and Chapel of St Michael - quite a climb.


Wednesday, April 13, 2016

Chateau of the Loire Valley

The Loire Valley was close enough to Paris for the wealthy French nobility to build castle palaces or chateau for their holidays and to impress people.  There are hundreds! Only having a day and a half in the Loire, we chose to stay overnight at Amboise a lovely town in a central position of the  Loire, and we decided to visit three quite different Chateau.
Sue and Sophie in the evening sunlight by the Loire River in the beautiful town of Amboise. (Thunderstorm just passed)

We began with Chambord - the largest and outwardly most impressive of the Chateau.
Chambord is a beautifully designed, impressive edifice which King Francis I began building in 1519 to show everyone how powerful he was.  Unfortunately, it seemed to become something of an expensive, impressive white elephant.  No one really wanted it as it was expensive to run, cold in winter and infested with mosquitoes in summer.  The hunting in the surrounding grounds was good, but over the centuries no one was very successful at draining the marsh.  This outwardly impressive building was uncomfortable on the inside and the King only ever visited a few times.

At the centre of the chateau is a spiral staircase - actually two staircases, one on top of the other.  One can climb to the next floor seeing people across from you also on the staircase but never meeting them. It is a classic case of people wanting to be seen, but not known; being concerned about appearances and what people think of them, rather than the substance of who they are.  I might be reading too much into all this, but the main function of the chateau seemed to be to impress people, rather than be a place where people could enjoy living.
The central spiral staircase
Looking down the centre staircase
Sue & Sophie on the other stair
The second Chateau we visited was Cheverny.

Chateau Cheverny snapped on our way for a cup of coffee at their restaurant/cafe in the converted l'orangery 

Wedding gown - Cheverny
This was a smaller, much more homely palace.  Interestingly, the chateau has been lived in continuously (in contrast to Chambord) and has been owned by the same family almost continuously since it was built around 1622. The owners still live in the wing on the left of the picture.  It was still a luxurious palace, but I found it somehow less pretentious than Chambord.  We all commented that except for some of the 17th century bedrooms, we could all live there.  The Belgian comic book creator Herge used Cheverny as a model for his fictional "Chateau de Moulinsart" in the Adventures of Tintin books.

Cheverny seemed to escape the power plays and infighting that seem to be so much a part of the history of other chateau.

Our third chateau visit was Chenonceau.
Sue and Martin at Chenonceau
Chenonceau like Cheverny was a desireable place to live, but unlike Cheverny was caught up in the politics and power plays of France at the highest level.  We saw the room from which Catherine de Medici governed France after the death of her husband King Henry II. We gained a rapid French history lesson. I left with my mind swirling with stories of conspiracies, rivalries, adultery and assassination.  Beautifully preserved, including its gardens, this was the most magnificent chateau visit.  The 16th century chateau was built over the River Cher.  Astounding!

Lasting impressions?  Beautiful buildings, tapestries, paintings, furniture, ... But also questions about the legacy we leave according to the kind of life we live.  Greed and power games don't seem to have led to a happy home!  Most of us don't, or can't, build in Francois I words "a big, beautiful and magnificent edifice" like Chambord to make people think we are powerful, but how much do we worry what people think of us?  Chambord seemed to be all about outward impressions. How much time, money and personal energy do we give to "impression management".  I remember when Samuel was choosing the future king of Israel, the Lord said to him: "Do not consider his appearance or his height... The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart." (1 Sam 16:7)  I also reflected that only God can change our inner selves - giving us a "new heart".

Blessings as you tend to your hearts.