Friday, July 2, 2010

Reflections on London and Paris

Our time in London was spent at East Grinstead at the lovely home of Emma’s cousin on her Dad’s side, Sue. Sue and Tom live in a picture postcard home near East Grinstead at Dorman’s Park. Tom Cruise and Peter Andre among others have homes here, so it is rather a nice area. I have never stayed in such a nice place. The pattern of family generosity continued as they took us out and about to a lovely Italian restaurant near Harrods followed by a drink in the Harrods’s bar, to a lovely Spanish restaurant in East Grinstead just up the road, and generally made our life wonderful. We had our own bedroom, ensuite in one of the two wings of the home. Tom and Sue have worked really hard for what they have. They both began at the bottom and Tom worked his way up. His is a great story of character and determination. He grafted hard in his early years working for a wood company. Twice others saw his character and grit and offered him opportunities. He has done really well, owning this property and another in Spain. He also has owned a pub, and is an accomplished musician. Sue and Tom are fantastic people. We had a blast with them and their generosity knows no bounds. We shot in and out of London on the train from their place, did a few spots like St Paul’s. Having been to London before we didn’t do a lot.

Then it was off to Paris from Luton. It was cheaper to fly than train (substantially). We went Ezyjet. It is not the most efficient airline, but cheap.

Paris was astonishing. I have to say it was my favourite city (it’s everyone’s isn’t it?). It is tidy, lovely, and full of things to see. Again we were beneficiaries of astonishing generosity courtesy of our friend from Rotorua days Sarah as she was then. She is married to a Frenchman Marc (great name), and has two kids. Sarah is a genius (she denies she is, but I think she is!) and her daughter Zoe was astonishing, 3 and reading letters and conversing easily. They live at Bagneux about 30 mins out of Paris. They looked after us superbly! Man we have been blessed. We are looking forward to being hospitable to all these relatives and friends when they come down under.

In Paris we went to Musee D’Orcey, Sainte Chappelle, Montmartre, Sacre Coeur, Notre Dame, Champs Elysees, Arch de Triumph, Pantheon, the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre, and wandered past the Moulin Rouge (didn’t stop around, red light area!). Sadly we had to queue so long at the Eiffel Tower that we didn’t have time to go into the Louvre. Next time. The places are amazing. Our favourites were the artists of Montmartre who are incredibly skilled at painting portraits, the Eiffel Tower for its stunning views, and the Pantheon which gives a history lesson to visitors. Many had told us that Sainte Chappelle was their highlight. It was amazing, but I found the Notre Dame and Pantheon more stunning because of the tie up with history. Both are sites of pre-Christian ancient worship, they are older, and both became temples to reason! Again I was struck by the familiar story of colliding empires. In France’s case it was the Celts, the ‘Barbarians’, the Romans, the Vikings, the Normans, the Catholic Church, the monarchy, Napoleon, the revolution (actually, 5 revolutions), the enlightenment and so on. Now Islam is burgeoning with an evangelistic mindset and high birth rates! France’s history is full of violence, politics and bloodshed. It is the home of the Enlightenment; at the Pantheon many names familiar through reading and study are buried. It is now a Monument to the great ‘Fathers’ of France like Louis Pasteur, Voltaire, Rousseau, etc. If anyone wants to get philosophical, they must deal with the French thinkers. Modernism – Postmodernism. Atheism is the main ‘religion.’ Sarah also has told me that the occult is booming in France with many in power freemasons and into different occult practices such as horoscopes. My word, the church struggles against almost insurmountable odds. It is a remnant in the nation and turning it around is a prodigious challenge. If ever a nation is leaning on Jesus' words 'I will build my church', it is France.

Again we visited glorious church buildings, but the church is weak. These churches are overflowing with tourists and few gather to glorify the Lord. They are full of the usual saints and Mary, Catholic in their history. The problem here and in the adjoining countries is that the ‘Christian’ faith is so traditional, so locked into these monuments, so seemingly outdated, so irrelevant to the youth of the nation, that they pursue the gods of image, pleasure and money. I don’t believe they have seen an alternative.

One thing we noted was, while the places are magnificent in Paris, the service was not great. At the Museum D’Orcey the opening time was 9.30. We got there at 8.50 and headed the queue. Then they didn’t open until 10, no explanation. The queue filled the square outside and went down the street. On enquiry at point of entry they simply said ‘there was an important meeting’ and when anyone got a little shirty about it, they responded exponentially with utter disdain! At the Eiffel Tower there were no decent signs and we lined up for ages. It was only as we got our tickets after waiting for over an hour we realized we could have walked up across at the other leg of the tour. We took the lift up to the second floor had a look and then were told we had to buy another ticket for the summit. No one thought to tell us that the ticket only got us to the second floor. We had to queue for another hour up there! Such is the service in Paris. Our hostess told us that France has no service sense and that we needed to get used to it. However, a little bit of French goes a long way. Always say bonjour on entry to a shop, use any French you know, and always be courteous. We found that people warmed to us and were very helpful. Getting stroppy I think has the opposite effect! Generally we found the service was poor to average, the city was amazing to utterly glorious!

I have come to be much more optimistic about NZ Christianity now that I am heading to Cambridge for a conference. When I left Hong Kong I felt despair, the church there is exploding. The same message I have preached in NZ a number of times with little effect except ‘that was a lovely sermon’ (or some other puerile sentiment [woops, I am sure it was genuine – you get my drift]), sees people giving their lives over to Jesus in droves! I thought, ‘Lord how can we keep going? Where are you Lord?’ Yet after Western Europe, I am refreshed with hope. Across Italy, Greece,  France and Britain the faith is locked up in tradition, its bloody history of church and state, its irrelevance, it’s confusing worship of saints, popes and Mary, its buildings and so on. In NZ we have shed a lot of this. We never really built the buildings. The people came to NZ in many cases to get away from all this. The exodus from the church is now over, it occurring in the 1950’s on. Many churches are renewed with contemporary worship, and openness to today’s culture. Sure, the church is still a long way from what it can be and should be. We are locked in a ‘performance/concert’ mode, our theology is reductionist in many cases, the preaching is often poppy and Word-less, it is confused theologically, it is anti-intellectual, it has become corporate etc. But mark my words, our problems are nothing compared to Western Europe. The toughest call in the world would be to come to minister in France, Greece, or Italy. In France you clash with secularism and atheism. In Greece the power of the Eastern Orthodox heritage with its concern for ancient worship patterns makes renewal hugely problematic. In Italy and Ireland it is the power of the Catholic tradition. In Britain there is more hope with many Anglican church’s renewed and renewing along with the evangelical, Wesleyan, Baptist, Presbyterian and Pentecostal movements all having their points of renewal and strength. Yet the continent is a huge challenge! Islam is spreading through it.

I see tough days ahead. I cannot see western democracies remaining as they are in the face of spreading Islam. Already the Burqa is being banned in many nations. The tolerance, liberty, openness of these nations has opened the way for Islam. My view is that as Islam gains traction this will be challenged and we will see a quest for identity and a hardening. I can see a right wing uprising. One woman told me this is happening in Greece already and the news suggests it is happening further. What this will lead to is anyone’s guess. My read of fallen ‘man’ is that when they challenge grows, old attitudes will return! They will have to or Europe will be consumed by Islam. Western Europe has an enormous philosophical challenge ahead of it as I see it. How will they deal with this?

So now it is off to Cambridge for some more research and the presenting of a paper looking at Christos (Christ) in Philippians and beyond. Most scholars argue that Christos by the time of Paul’s letters is merely a title for Christ and has no real messianic meaning. I am arguing the converse. I have found one ally, the great N.T. Wright to whom I am grateful for his work on this. He argues that Christos should be translated ‘Messiah’ in Paul. I don’t completely agree with him as I think context should define where it should be and where it shouldn’t be. I do think in Romans, 1 Corinthians, Philippians and Galatians he is correct. Not so sure elsewhere. Still, I think Paul using Christos as his primary name for Jesus is astonishing in a world where Christos was a purely Jewish word and had no religious significance to Greeks and Romans. For Paul, Jesus is Christ crucified, risen Lord. He is the Jewish Messiah become Saviour of the World. That is why he prefers it to Lord, to Saviour or any other title for Jesus.

This brings me back to the biggest lesson of the trip. Jesus came into a world of clashing empires, politics, armies, violence, arrogance, and glory in wealth, autocracy, and supremacy through power, sex, greed and the like. He renounced it all! He died on a cross rather than yield to the temptation to ‘go there.’ He could have. He had the power. He could have taken control through force. But no! He came to show another way. He died to save us. He died to transform us. He died to show us a new way of being. What is tragic through Europe is that after an initial period of cosmic transformation through logos and agape, the church allied itself with those things Jesus renounced. It used Jesus as an instrument of power and force and in so doing violated the gospel completely. The church itself became utterly flawed. Still that is no surprise; weeds are always planted by the enemy. Greatness and wickedness coexist in us all and in the church. The challenge I face and we all face is how to live Jesus’ way. The start is being ‘in Christ’ and ‘Christ in us’ – the power of the Spirit (‘not by might, not by power…’). Then it is yielding to the Spirit and to love – grace, mercy, compassion, suffering, weakness, the path of humility, agape, and so on. We must be utterly yielded to and committed to the faith of the gospel, and then we must live it. That is the challenge for us all.

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