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.