Horse in a Church

Posted: March 29, 2015 in Europe
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The Tuscan city of Siena

Siena in Tuscany is the home of a rather unusual event, the Palio di Siena.

It’s a horse race that is held twice a year and it captures the imagination of the locals right throughout the year. Here in Australia horse racing and religion seem to be poles apart, but in Siena it’s a different story altogether.

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Outside the Church of the Rhino. Each contrade is represented by an animal, and the church is the focal point for each contrade.

The Palio held on July 2 is named Palio di Provenzano, in honour of the Madonna of Provenzano, a Marian devotion that is unique to Siena. The Palio held on August 16 is named Palio dell’Assunta, in honour of the Assumption of Mary. There is a great deal of ritual involved in the preparation for the race and the chosen horses are even taken into church the night before the race to be blessed.

The city is divided into 17 contrade (city wards) and each contrade puts up a horse to participate in the race.  Only 10 horses get to participate each year. Following a spectacular pageant, the race consists of three circuits of the central piazza, The Piazza del Campo, ridden by bareback riders. There is massive rivalry between the 17 contrade for an event that has been held in the city since medieval times.

As our guide told us the stories of the Palio, highlighting the deep religious traditions associated with the race, I was impressed with the level of fervour with which the locals embraced this tradition. The church is the focal point for each contrade and worship is intertwined with every aspect of the Palio. Unfortunately fervour for Jesus Christ seemed to be missing even though religion was held in high esteem.

This morning in church I read from Paul’s letter to the Romans where he said:

Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves. 11 Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervor, serving the Lord. 12 Be joyful in hope, patient in affliction, faithful in prayer.

We may be devoted to many things, but devotion to Jesus should the highest goal. It’s a pity we couldn’t have the fervour for Jesus that the Sienans have for a horse race.

The Piazza del Campo, the central piazza of Siena where the famous horse race is held twice each year.

The Piazza del Campo, the central piazza of Siena where the famous horse race is held twice each year.

Executive Director of Western Mining Corporation, Sir Laurence Brodie-Hall with Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser in Kalgoorlie. Photo by Rob Douglas, Kalgoorlie Miner

Executive Director of Western Mining Corporation, Sir Laurence Brodie-Hall with Prime Minister, Malcolm Fraser in Kalgoorlie. Photo by Rob Douglas, Kalgoorlie Miner

The death of former Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser has prompted memories of one my most embarrassing career moments. I was a journalist with the Kalgoorlie Miner in the late 70’s when the Prime Minister made a visit and I, along with a local ABC journalist were given the opportunty to attend a press conference in his hotel room.

My ABC colleague and I were awestruck by the event, and the large contingent of journalists who were travelling with him who were lined up around the room. The journalists were told they were to give the two local journalists the opportunity to participate in the interview.

My first impression of the Prime Minister was of a tall and very imposing figure, but what followed was the realisation that I couldn’t keep up with a man who spoke quickly and with great detail. Using some shorthand and my own abbreviated version of longhand I desperately tried to make notes of the interview, but knew I was struggling to keep up.

When I got back to the office, the editor asked how I had gone and I responded confidently, but when it came to reading back my notes I realised I would be struggling to write a story that adequately reflected the interview I had just attended. I quickly went to visit my colleague at the ABC – who was similarly overwhelmed by the event – to compare notes before placing my completed story on the editor’s desk.

What could have been one of the highlights of my career had turned into one of my most embarrassing moments. That night the Kalgoorlie Miner went to bed with a local story about the Prime Minister of Australia, Malcolm Fraser, but the local journalist who wrote the story wasn’t confident he had come up with his best piece of work.

DSC02298Why would you want to open a butcher shop on a bridge? For that matter why would you want to build any sort of shop on a bridge. In around the 13th Century butchers, fishmongers and tanners, in particular, began building shops on the Ponte Vecchio (Old Bridge), that crosses the Arno River in Florence.

DSC02207The shops are still there today though they are mainly jewellers and other merchants that cater to tourists. In fact, it was in 1593, when Ferdinand I decreed that only goldsmiths and jewellers were allowed to have their shops on the bridge in order to improve the well-being of people as they walked over the bridge.

While the idea of having a shop on a bridge doesn’t make a lot of sense to me, it certainly got my attention, and when we were in Florence last year I loved taking photographs of the Ponte Vecchio from a range of different angles.

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The view on the Ponte Vecchio

It seems to me that building a shop on a bridge is something you do when you can’t make up your mind which side of the river you want to establish your business.  There are certain advantages in being one side, but there may be greater advantages on being on the other side.  Then again, what if it were on this side ….? Oh dear. I can’t decide. I’ll just build it on the bridge.

Jesus told the story about a man who built his house on a foundation of stone and when the storms came the house remained firm. He compared that with the man who built his house on the sand and it collapsed during the next storm. He said: Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 

When we’re indecisive about the words of Jesus, we may as well be building our lives on a foundation of sand – or building on a bridge. Will I follow Jesus, or is that too hard? A bit of religion is OK … maybe I’ll keep my options open. I don’t need to worry too much about that till I’m older.

Building on a bridge may seem cool, but not if it’s because you’re unwilling to make the decision which side of the bridge you really belong. I made the decision that I belong on God’s side and I’m glad I’m no longer sitting on the bridge wondering if I’ve made the right decision or not.

A Precarious Life

Posted: March 15, 2015 in Europe
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DSC02588If you’re out fishing, how do you identify your own house back on shore? One way is to paint your house a unique colour. That’s the story of the incredible colours that make up the villages of the Cinque Terre, situated on a rugged portion of coast on the Italian Riviera.  Cinque Terre means “The Five Lands” and comprises five villages: Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, and Riomaggiore. The coastline, including the five villages, and the surrounding hillsides are all part of the Cinque Terre National Park and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

DSC02585There are many things about the villages of the Cinque Terre that are memorable including the quaint multi-coloured houses and shops, the precipitous roads we travelled to visit the villages, and the amazing scenery. But one of the things that stood out for me was the way in which the people of the village continue to live as they have done for centuries, making a living from vineyards perched high above the villages in terraced gardens.

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The grapes of the Cinque Terre are used to produce two locally made wines, the Cinque Terre and the Sciachetrà, and all are grown on the side of rocky mountainsides that seem almost impossible to reach.Yet, for centuries the people of the Cinque Terre have maintained this lifestyle and have supported their livelihood in difficult circumstances.

For some of us, life is precarious. There are many pressures and life seems to be lived on the side of a rocky hillside. I’ve been encouraged by the Apostle Paul who described his life like this:

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Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one.  Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers.  I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.  Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches.   Who is weak, and I do not feel weak? Who is led into sin, and I do not inwardly burn?

He then went on to acknowledge the way in which Jesus sustained him with the words: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul went on: Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.  That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

Life may be precarious, but the grace of Jesus is trustworthy.

DSC00828This week it was reported that two Californian women were arrested after they scratched their initials into the wall of the Colosseum in Rome, then took a selfie. Maybe they didn’t see the signs in both English and Italian warning against defacing property, or they didn’t realise they were in one of the great historical wonders of the world, but their comment afterwards was: “We regret it, but we did not imagine it was something so serious. We’ll remember for a lifetime.”

DSC00841J and N only got to scratch their initials into the wall, but my whole name is there at the Colosseum in Rome and I’ve got the picture to prove it. Walking around this amazing structure last year I spotted my name on the wall, a piece of graffiti from the 18th century.

Why do we like to see our name’s written on walls, in the newspaper, on Facebook or any other place where it will be noticed? I think it’s the need to be noticed, the need to know that somehow our presence on this earth hasn’t gone without anyone realising that we had made our mark.

When Jesus was baptised by John the Baptist a voice from heaven said: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.”

As Jesus continued his ministry there were plenty of people who opposed him, treated him badly and in the end, took him to his death. Not many people were pleased with Jesus, but God was “well pleased.”

We may not be noticed by the people around us, and we may not receive the approval of people, but if God is pleased with us, that is all that matters … and we don’t get God’s approval from writing on walls.

The Apostle Paul put it this way:

But in our time something new has been added. What Moses and the prophets witnessed to all those years has happened. The God-setting-things-right that we read about has become Jesus-setting-things-right for us. And not only for us, but for everyone who believes in him. For there is no difference between us and them in this. Since we’ve compiled this long and sorry record as sinners (both us and them) and proved that we are utterly incapable of living the glorious lives God wills for us, God did it for us. Out of sheer generosity he put us in right standing with himself. A pure gift. He got us out of the mess we’re in and restored us to where he always wanted us to be. And he did it by means of Jesus Christ.

Romans 3:21-24 “The Message”

Keep Looking Up

Posted: March 8, 2015 in Europe
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It’s much like travelling through a fjord, but the journey by cruise ship from the Adriatic Sea to the fortified town of Kotor in Montenegro, involves travelling through a ria, or submerged river canyon.

Kotor was one of the most fascinating places we visited last year on our trip to Europe. The old town, surrounded by its high walls and moat, dates back to the middle ages and the history is almost overwhelming as you walk along the cobbled streets and see buildings from the days when the Venetians ruled the town, still being used.

DSC01798It is one of those places where you can become so engrossed in what surrounds you that you can almost forget that there’s still much more to see.

Almost. Every now and then your eye catches sight of something between buildings that makes you realise there’s something above you need to discover.

It’s not just the massive mountain that looms high over the town that beckons, but your eyes are drawn to the ancient city wall that climbs a distance of 4.5km up almost vertical cliff face. You also catch a glimpse of a tiny building halfway up the mountainside and you can’t help but wonder what lies beyond this ancient town.

DSC01815The path upwards is long and winding and half-way up you come across the building you saw from below. It’s the Church of Our Lady of Health and from the steps at the front of the church you can look back at the incredible scenery that surrounds Kotor. The picture at the top of this post is my evidence that I made it to the church.

However, I was still only halfway up. Look up from the church and you can see the mountain path stretching further upwards to St John’s Fortress.

Often my eyes are focussed on what is happening around me. The day to day world of business that crowds in and takes all my attention. Then I get a glimpse of something higher. It’s the realisation that the world is bigger than the day to day, and that God has greater plans for my life.

It’s in those momDSC01834ents that I realise that I can climb higher, and as I meditate on the goodness of God I am overwhelmed by his love and grace and the matters that seem so pressing fall into perspective. I am only part of the bigger picture, but despite my insignificance I am assured that God loves me with a love that is so much deeper, so much greater than anything I can imagine.

The great mountain that surrounds Kotor is a reminder to me of the need to keep looking up. The sights that surround me at ground level are tempting and enjoyable, but their real beauty and worth comes into perspective as I look upward to God and experience afresh his mercy and grace.

The Apostle Paul put it well in the good book: And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love,  may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

Keep Looking Up!

DSC01091Lake Melissani is situated in a cave on the island of Kefalonia in the Ionian Sea. We had the privilege of visiting this amazing lake during our trip to Europe last year and I took this photograph in the spot where sunlight shines through the collapsed roof of the cave.

The cave is 36metres high, 40metres wide and 3.5 metres long and the lake itself is 20-30 metres deep. Excavations carried out in 1951 and later in 1962 unearthed many artifacts dating back to the 3rd and 4th century BC including evidence that worship of the God Pan was carried out in the vicinity of the lake.
In addition to the interesting historical and mythical links, the lake also has significant hydrogeological significance. It consists of a mixture of brackish groundwater and sea water that is sucked in on the western side of the island and is ultimately expelled into the ocean 50 metres away on the eastern side of the island.
As you sit in a small rowboat, the oarsman sings the myths of Melissani in a strong baritone voice, pausing from time to time to explain the history and structure of the cave and the lake. Floating atop the deep blue water it’s hard to imagine the depth of the water below, and the stream that intersects with the lake as it traces its way under the island.
I’d like to think my life is one that runs deep, connected to the stream of the Holy Spirit and drawing on the power and vitality of Creator God. I’d like to think that the people who come in contact with me could be buoyed up by the knowledge that the deep springs I draw on give confidence and hope to their lives.
More than anything my desire is to help others connect with the deep waters that come from a full and satisfying relationship with Jesus Christ.
The promise in God’s Word is  … Observe the commands of the Lord your God, walking in obedience to him and revering him. For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land—a land with brooks, streams, and deep springs gushing out into the valleys and hills …

roadkillThose who have driven on roads in the north west of Western Australia are familiar with Wedge-tailed Eagles sitting on the roadside eating roadkill. It’s not a pretty picture for a bird that looks so regal when it is high up in the sky, it’s great wings spread out majestically.

This morning I shared at church the verse in Isaiah 40 that reads: Even youths grow tired and weary, and young men stumble and fall; but those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.

I can relate to the idea of God lifting me above the troubles of the world and delighting in Him through prayer, meditation and worship, but I can also relate to sitting on the ground eating roadkill. It seems that while I want to soar like an eagle, I spend more time grovelling in my own worries and fears.

EagleswingsSo how do we get to soar like eagles? Well, eagles don’t just sit back hoping. They actively chase the thermals – updrafts of warm air – and as they follow the various air currents they are able to fly long distances using little energy.

Isaiah says that those who hope in the Lord (or, wait with anticipation) will renew their strength and soar on wings like eagles. It takes an act of the will to actively seek God and to delight in him through prayer, worship and meditation. When we’re not doing that, we just may be on the side of the road, eating roadkill and dodging passing cars.

I know where I’d prefer to be.

(You can hear this morning’s message online. Click here)

MagpiesI was watching a group of magpies eating the other day. It’s that time of the year that the baby Magpies are demanding a feed. They squawk very loudly until their parents come and feed them.

The interesting thing I noted was that the parent will often have something to eat themselves before taking food to the baby.  It seems a bit selfish, but I think there’s method in their madness. It’s a bit like the instructions you get on a plane. At the beginning of a trip, safety instructions are provided and you’re told that if you have children put your own oxygen mask on before you put one on your child.

The principle is simple. If you’re not safe yourself, you’re not in a position to make your child safe. Magpies have worked that one out.

Counsellors, too, are very much aware that if they are going to be effective in helping people, they have to look after their own mental health first.

Some people are naturally very caring and want to help people who they see are in need, but at times they put themselves at risk in the process of helping others. While we need to care for others we also need to care for ourselves.

There’s a few ways we can do that. We need to look after ourselves physically, to make sure we eat properly, have proper exercise and not to over-indulge. We need to protect our relationships and we need to guard our time to make sure that there’s a balance between the amount of time we put into work, to family, and to what we may call self-care.

But the other area that often gets forgotten is looking after our spiritual health. Human beings are spiritual beings. Most parents want their children to grow up as healthy, well-balanced adults, and many parents are aware of the need of some kind of spiritual stability for their children.

But it’s easy to neglect your own spiritual health, while you worry about your children or another member of the family or a friend, who is in difficulty.  Spiritual practices like prayer, meditation and worship are important and help to build spiritual health.

But sometimes people think that this is enough of itself. God created people with the need to live in relationship with him. And good spiritual health is most achievable when we live in a healthy relationship with God. The Bible tells us that God loved us so much that he came to this earth himself in the form of a human being, Jesus Christ, and he gave up his life for us.

Jesus invites us to come to him, to admit our faults and failings, and accept his gracious offer of love and forgiveness. Find a quiet time to step aside from everything else that’s happening and have that conversation with God.

Being right with God puts you in a stronger position to be in a good place with yourself. It helps you to get a better perspective on where you fit in the world, and who you are as a person.

But it also puts you in a stronger position to support other people, to be a good role model and to have the spiritual strength to help others to grow as well. Check out the magpies next time you see them feeding their young. And remember if you’re going to be any good for anyone else, you need to look after yourself physically, emotionally and spiritually.

IMG_0453We’ve just had the carpet cleaners in to shampoo the carpets and clean the chairs in the church. It was a pretty big job and took quite a while.

I think there’s something therapeutic about the deep washing of carpets because as you go, you throw out buckets and buckets of mud and grime that have accumulated over time. Then when you think you’ve finished and go over it again, there’s still more.

Yet, before you do that you can walk over the carpet on a regular basis and not even be aware of the dirt that has been ground in to it. The carpet doesn’t necessarily look all that dirty, but the process of cleaning drags that dirt out and the buckets of muddy water that are thrown out are evidence that the carpets were probably dirtier than you thought.

We proceed through life every day, and we’re generally not aware of the dirt that accumulates in our life. I’m not talking about the dirt we get on our hands and feet, but the dirt that accumulates on our minds and in our very being.

As we watch television shows about crime and violence year after year, we become a little bit immune to it. Things that may have shocked us a few years ago don’t shock us any more. We enjoy relaxing in front of the TV to see comedians or to watch comedy, but over time discover that we laugh at things that once we thought were crude or inappropriate.

Little bits of dirt have accumulated on our minds, and we’re not aware that its there, But it builds up bit by bit and over time we don’t notice that we’re a little bit grubbier than we were before.

There was a time when you avoided people who told dirty jokes, you were more careful in the way you drove your car, you were less judgmental of people who were different to you.  Now, of course, you’re older and wiser, more tolerant, but somehow when you look back you realise there has been some slippage. Little bits of dirt have accumulated, and you haven’t noticed it.

In fact, somewhere in the Bible it says: All of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away.  Now, you may think that’s a bit steep. After all, we like to think we’re basically good people.

But the reality is, the bits of dirt and grime we accumulate in our minds and hearts actually builds up into something quite disgusting when we compare ourselves with the purity, and beauty and holiness of an almighty God.

But there’s a solution. You can walk over carpet for years and put off the day you have to bring in the cleaners because you’re not prepared to admit how bad the carpet really is.  Same thing goes for our lives. The Bible also says that if we confess our sins … that means we actually admit that we’re sinners, God is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.

Sometimes we have to admit that even though we vacuum the carpet regularly, we still need to bring in the carpet cleaners to do a proper job. We may assume we’re basically good people, but there comes a time when we have to admit that compared to God we’re nowhere near perfect.

If we’re prepared to confess our sin, and admit our need of God, he’s assured us he’ll hear that prayer and put us right with himself.