Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Further Reflections Greece

Greece is in the main shockingly run down. There are unfinished building constructions everywhere. It is messy, dusty, and dirty. The buildings are in the main in poor shape. It is crowded. Tagging is everywhere! It is on trains, doors, signs, and any surface. Even the rocks beside the shore in Kavala are tagged! And the tagging is poor. Thessaloniki was the worst, but even here in Kavala, by far the nicest place we have visited, it is everywhere.


The people drive madly. The drive from Tolo west toward Patara along the northern rim of the Pelopenese was a lesson in driving. I thought I was in a formula one race. Rather than a nice 2-lane motorway as we had previously experienced, there was one lane with a wide shoulder (not wide enough for a lane). Everyone flies along firmly pressed into the shoulder and it is 'who dares wins' in the passing stakes. It is bedlam. The speed limit is 120 but that is clearly a guide. In fact, all road rules here are general guidelines, anything goes. Eventually, the Schumacher in me was found, and I went for it. Emma held on for dear life, and we came through unscathed after no close calls.

We had some fun on the bridge from the Pelopenese to the northern half of Greece not far from Patara. The bridge was blocked by a crowd of Harley Davidson's from all over Europe setting a world record for the most bikes on a bridge or something. It was entertaining seeing the bikers in their thousands roaring along beside us. It did slow us up rather!

Obesity is a huge issue here in Greece. It is not surprising when you see what their restaurants and cafes sell. Pasties are everywhere, cheese pies! Big ones. They eat a very high carb diet indeed. Men everywhere look 9 months pregnant and ready to breast feed. I feel rather odd as a middle aged man and relatively fit and slim. I should have a pastie gut hanging out over my jeans. In fact, life really revolves around food here. I am also tall here, not too many 6' men, most in the mid 5' range.

The language here has surprised me having done NT Greek to a reasonable level. I am finding I can read a lot of the words and understand them. It would not take much to grasp this Greek at a reading level. However, understanding their speech is another thing altogether, the speed of speech is amazing. Subtitled English programs are fun, trying to read the Greek; it is surprising how much I recognise. One example is thank you: ephcharisto i.e. 'grace (charis) upon (epi) you.' Parakalo means 'you are welcome, please' and the term is found in the NT regularly of 'I warn, encourage, exhort, urge' etc.

The religiosity has been an experience. 98% of Greeks profess Christian faith of the orthodox variety. There are church's everywhere, and little shrines on the sides of the road. On Pentecost Monday it was a holiday across the nation and churches were open for worship. It is a given that people believe in God and that Jesus is for real. Yet, the religion is very traditional and nominal. There is little evidence of young people having a passionate and committed relationship with Jesus. To me one of the things about Christianity that stands it apart is its freedom, its ability to adapt to culture, its openness to new worship forms etc. Yet here it is locked up in history and tradition. Furthermore, Mary who is Theotokos ('mother of God') is the number one hit. It all resonates with Roman Catholicism. Icons everywhere. Paintings abound. Mary, Jesus, and the saints of the eastern church. We watched worshipers enter the sanctuaries genuflect and then kiss the paintings as they came to worship. Jesus is the boy with Mary as the main event more often than not. As in Rome, I was faced with the dilemma; is this authentic worship that pleases God? Or is this idolatry? Or does it depend? I am an evangelical charismatic protestant through and through! The worship is deeply sacred however, and the spaces are awe-inspiring. In one service we listened to a group of Greek women chant; it was very discordant but strangely moving. There are candles everywhere, one pays a euro, and lights one. There are sarcophogi everywhere, the great saints buried in the churches. These are little shrines, people writing prayers and placing them upon the graves asking for the saints to answer them. There is no Pope, but intercession is needed. The priests face away from the worshipers, separated from the worshipers by a wall with a door through which to view their backs as they go about whatever it is they do there. It feels very ritualistic, more ancient Jewish worship in the holy of holies, rather than the freedom of access all believers (who are priests) to our Lord through our one high priest Jesus. So, it is deeply perplexing.

In my view, whatever God's verdict on such things is, western European Christianity is in trouble big time. There is little evidence on young people embracing the faith with passion. They populate the bars, cafes, shops, restaurants and more, listening to rock music, dressing provocatively; money rules the world. Their religion is not open to their culture at all. If the church and faith is a worry in NZ, it is worse here! Greece will never fall to Islam though, their history of conflict with the Turks rules this out. However, there needs to be a renewal. I can't see the Orthodox clergy opening themselves up to youth worship? Unless it is happening where I cannot see it, which is possible.

Hawkers are everywhere in Greece. It is due in part due to the tourism opportunities, and also because of the economic problems here. One Greek man told us that the shops are empty and unemployment is everywhere. It is clear in the cafes which are full of middle and older aged men with nothing to do. Many hawkers are Africans who have escaped their countries and seek to sell bags, watches and other items for a quick buck. They are illegal so if a cop comes near they grab their stuff and run as if their lives depend on it. When the cop moves on, they come back out and carry on as if nothing has happened.

Greek men are unashamed to perv at women. I have watched men as old as say 80 giving girls of 15 the once over. Emma has been on the receiving end of a few Greek men giving her the eye. What is done subtly in NZ, is done openly and brazenly here. It is hard to get used to!

Corinth was a stunning place. The site is superb. All the Greek sites are well signposted, unlike Rome which needs sorting out. They could do better even here, making it user-friendly. I get the sense that these people do not realise what a gold mine they sit on. The Acrocorinth and its views were absolutely amazing as the photos on Facebook show. One can imagine Paul, Luke, Timothy, Silas, Lydia, Clement and others up on the hill praying for the Greek world. Tolo was a cute little beach town. We needed a break and got it. I had a swim or two. On one swim I swam about 600m or so to an island and back. When I returned to the beach by the hotel the hotel was lined with residents clapping and cheering me. Maybe they aren't used to seeing typical kiwi lad behaviour. It was funny!

Delfi is phenomenal. The views were stunning. The site of the Delphic Oracle Apollo temple is amazing. There is a great theatre, a gymasium, a temple of Athena and more. There is a great emphasis on money where people bought offerings to hear their fortunes read. Were we doing it again we would not stay the night, a day trip is enough.

We have been stunned by the lack of reference to Greeks renowned philosophic tradition, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. There are some streets named after them, and there are some statues. However, the gods are more prominent. Perhaps it indicates what is left to look at. Perhaps it indicates that whatever the impact of philosophy on the normal person, religion ruled the world.

Thessaloniki was a dump. They are sitting on an archaeological gold mine, but it is undeveloped. Sadly the ancients sites sit below the developed city, so it is unlikely that much will be uncovered. We stayed on the Egnatian Way though; if you draw a line through the Galerius arch through to our hotel, we slept in the centre of the ancient road, where Paul walked.

Kavala is lovely, the nicest town we have visited. There is little of Paul here except a church on the supposed site of his arrival. There is a great acropolis castle which has been built on since Paul's day.

One of the most interesting parts of the trip is getting a feel for geography. Paul was a legend. It took 90 minutes to drive from Athens to Corinth. Paul walked it. It took 5 hours by train often through hills from Athens to Thessalonaki. Paul walked it. It took another 105 minutes from Thessalonika to Kavala (Neapolis), Paul walked it. The early Christians were amazing. He was probably about 5' tall. He would have been super fit, no doubt, without a shred of fat on him. Amazing!

Paul's strategy is interesting. I pondered why he did not stay in Neapolis, Amphipolis or Appolonia, but chose to stop in Philippi, Thessalonica, Berea etc. One can only surmise that he chose some towns because of his strategy, assessment of their importance, mission possibilities and Spirit-guidance. Philippi had few Jews, so we cannot assume he did so on the basis of a Jewish community. I suppose he couldn't stop everywhere. Philippi was the centre of the Roman colony. Thessalonika was the ancient capital. Athens speaks for itself. Corinth was the major Peloponese city. Interesting.

Smoking! The Greeks love a fag. Women, men, everyone. It was hilarious sitting on a bus with two signs forbidding smoking and cell phone usage with a driver smoking like a chimney and often talking on his phone. It was manual bus, but it did not stop him using his hand held phone! Not in NZ! Men often stand in their shop front doors with a fag in the hand; no worries in Greece. I wonder at the life expectancy of Greeks with their diet and smoking; alcohol is also pretty big here. Perhaps it is the price of a dwindling economy; one has to find something to do?

The highlight for me has been Philippi. It was a small town nestled into the Acropolis hill. There were multiple temples to Artemis, Athena, Nike, Dionysos and others. While much is post-Paul it appears there was a gymnasia, library, agoara, fountains, Stoa, the jail, baths and more. It was very Roman. The new museum is exciting with some great finds. One of the highlights was (and don't tell anyone) jumping the gate and getting some shots in the prison. You can check them out of facebook.

Another highlight was meeting Konstantino. We were looking around the site of Paul's landing in Neapolis (Kavala) and a man in a cafe asked us what we were doing. This led to a wonderful encounter for about an hour. He brought us a drink each. He was a 77 year old Greek man, an ex-opera singer who had travelled the world. We shared stories. It was one of those moments of glorious humanity that one gets travelling. We returned to the same place today and I gave him a copy of my book, Whats God up To? He was most appreciative. There are beautiful image bearers all over God's world!

So we now await the next phase of our journey; we leave Kavala and travel to Drama by bus (about 20 or so k's, just past Philippi), and then do an overnight train trip to Istanbul. We are ready to move on from Greece.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Corinth

Corinth! What a day it was. We hired a car, effectively tossed a coin as to who would drive (neither of us were keen), and headed out of Athens about 90 mins or so to Corinth. The drive went without incident thankfully; although I have to say that driving on the right hand side of the road in a manual with right hand gear changes challenged me greatly. Here’s hoping we can continue to do so safely.

Before coming to Corinth we stopped at Isthmia to view the canal. Unbelievable! Fantastic! I recalled that Nero had wanted to build this. When I saw the dug out sides of the Canal which were hundreds of feet high, I could see why it was beyond him! Amazing! I reflected on what it was like for the slaves and animals to drag ships across the isthmus back in the day! Crazy!

We passed through modern Corinth proper, a lovely little town. Then we arrived at ancient Corinth. What a lovely little place. The day was gloriously fine as the photos on facebook testify. We wandered the ancient site. The temple of Apollo, although incomplete, is amazing. We saw the range of shops, one of which no doubt was that of Priscilla and Aquila, where Paul sewed tents and talked religion with shoppers. We saw the Bema in the Agora where Paul was taken before the philosopher Seneca’s brother Gallio sometime in 51-52AD. We imagined him there, the case being dismissed. We wondered too whether here Paul preached the gospel to the Corinthians in the open air, with fear and trembling, preaching Christ crucified. We noted the powerful impact of the Imperial cult in the Julian Basilica and the amazing array of busts and be-headed statues of emperors Augustus, Julius Caesar, and Nero. We saw the inscriptions which mentioned Caesar regularly. Clearly, the imperial cult was big in Corinth at the time of Paul. We saw some of the remains of the Asceplius cult, stone female breasts and men’s genitals. This recalls the sexuality of Corinth with its great interest in female goddesses especially Aphrodite, Artemis and Athena. There are a great number of temples confined in this small site and the museum has as wide a range of idols as did Athens. Corinth was clearly a deeply idolatrous place.

The Odeon and theatre were amazing. One of the highlights of the visit was the Erastus inscription. In Latin it reads ‘Erastus, commissioner of public works, bore the expense of this pavement.’ Is this the Erastus of Rom 16:23? It certainly fits with Rom 16:23 saying of Erastus, ‘Erastus, who is the city’s director of public works.’ I was interested in the site of the inscription, beside the theatre. It would suggest Erastus was a lover of the great dramatic tradition of Greece. Now he followed the great story of Jesus.

It was exciting to see the inscription and fresco that reflected the Synagogue of Corinth in which Luke recalls that Paul ‘every Sabbath, reasoned … trying to persuade Jews and Greeks’ that Jesus is Messiah (Acts 18:4). Luke then goes on to say that these Jews reacted strongly against Paul and drove him out of the Synagogue so that he moved to the home of Titius Justus and that Crispus and his household and many others came to faith through his ministry from this home (Acts 18:6-8). I asked where this had been found and was told along the North Western Shops almost directly opposite the Bema across the Agora. I went and looked at these shops and in one an arch is still standing amidst walls that clearly marked the various homes/shops from one another. I pondered the possibility that one of these was Paul’s base? Was one of these the Synagogue? If so, it sat directly under the temple of Apollo; as such, it was sandwiched between this dominant temple and the Bema. I considered the bravery of both Jew and Christian in an environment like this! We have no idea what it was like and what courage they had.

We wandered the site including the ancient road that runs through it, the latrines, the fountains; at least what was left of it all. Corinth must have been a wonderful little city, a mini-Rome, after all, it was a very wealthy spot.

After exploring the site we headed up the Acrocorinth. It is dominates the landscape towering over Corinth. We drove up as far as we could go and then walked the rest. It was breath-taking on a cloudless day to see the Greek coast, ancient Corinth, modern Corinth and the area to the south. We explored the area on which once stood a huge temple to Aphrodite with a thousand temple prostitutes and a fort. I pondered how it worked to have thousands of soldiers and prostitutes together 24/7 on this hill! The history of this hill is amazing with the Romans invading it, it later falling to Ottaman Turks etc. Fascinating. The view from the top was worth the trip to Europe!

I imagined that Paul climbed this rock regularly during his 18 months in Corinth. He would no doubt have looked out across Corinth and Greece and prayed for the people of this nation. He would have pleaded with God for the Corinthians who, from the start, gave him a hard time, immersed as they were in the Greek and Roman world to such a strong degree (see 1 Cor 3:1-5). What a great place to pray!

I loved Corinth! I write this as we are domiciled in Tolo, south of Corinth, on the coast. We are having a couple of days r n r. It is lovely. I swam today, and sunbathed. Sorry if you are feeling the cold in NZ! We are slumming it. The hotel is lovely except that a party of American classics students were here last night partying. It was more like Parachute than a hotel. We are informed that it will be quieter tonight. What a blessing this is. Hopefully, the photos will be up on Emma or my facebook page sometime in the next days. Check them out. The undoubted highlight was G-string man on the beach... a rather slim and bronzed guy with a G-string. It was so tight, I think it was in tune! From paradise, this is Keown, out.

Athens

Rome was incredible, but as I said in an earlier blog, I struggled with it for theological reasons. It was also lacking in good signage and guidance. Athens I love without reservation. Everything was signposted, its history easily explained, you always knew what you were looking at.

In Acts 17:16 Luke tells us that ‘while Paul was waiting for them (Timothy and Silas) in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.’ This is clear even today as we visit the ancient sites. The three temples of Acropolis dominate the city and are devoted to the patron goddess of Athens in particular, Athena. There is the remains of the Temple to Zeus completed by Hadrian after the time of Paul. There are temples everywhere. The Parthenon must have been a glorious site, resplendent with marble dominating the city. There were also temples on the other hills around the Acropolis.

Another key difference with Rome is that the historic sites are not overlaid with centuries of Christian tradition focused on Mary, Popes and the Saints. Mary is big here, but not on the sites of the historic temples. So one gets a strong feel for what spirituality was like at the time of Paul. In Rome it is lost underneath Christian churches and tradition.

One thing that blew my mind was the complete absence of any reference to the great philosophical tradition of Greece around the Acropolis and other sites we visited i.e. Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. I expected a balance of religion and philosophy; all I saw was religion.

One thing seeing the Parthenon does for one is ponder how the ancients built such things! They had to drag these enormous buildings up piece by piece and then put them together. Crazy! Slavery no doubt provided the man-power. They are astonishing works and no doubt many died in the labour. The history of the Parthenon is amazing too, it being a temple to the gods, then a Christian church, then a mosque, and now a tourist attraction.

One most interesting afternoon was a visit to the ‘Jewish quarter.’ After walking up the to the Philippousus site atop the hill beside Mars Hill, I went looking for the Jewish synagogue. Acts 17:17 tells us Paul reasoned with the Jews and God-fearing Greeks at the synagogue. I thought that there might be a connection with the current synagogue location and the earlier one as in these ancient cities the Jewish quarter remained the same. It turned out that this was true of Athens, although the woman at the synagogue Rosa was not sure where the ancient synagogue had been situated. She thought it would have been in the area.

I pondered why it was that Paul was so ineffective evangelizing both Jew and Greek in Athens. I can imagine that the great philosophical and religious tradition of Greece was difficult to break through. In fact, Christianity did not really take root in Athens until about the 5th century unlike its early impact in Rome and other cities of the Roman world.

The trip to the synagogue led to a really interesting encounter with a young Greek woman. I got lost on the way and asked a young girl for directions. She said that she was walking that way and said we could walk together. As we walked, I asked whether she went to church. I had heard from a tour guide that 98% of Greeks consider themselves Christian and Orthodox. She was very sheepish and reticent. Later she said that there were two reasons for this. One was that it is decidedly uncool to go to church if you are young. Second, Greeks do not normally talk to foreigners, and not about those things. In fact a few people laughed at us as we walked along; she explained that it was weird thing for a young Greek girl and a foreigner to walk along talking.

Anyway, that aside, her response led to an amazing conversation. She told me that she had started going to church again recently because she was searching, she told me that she was looking for the meaning of life. Not being one to miss such an opportunity, I told her about my recently published book which was about the meaning of life and explained to her the five R’s of the Christian message. She was hungry to understand. She seemed to know little about Jesus and God’s glorious plan for the world. She was wide open.

She asked to join me at the Synagogue. We had a great chat with Rosa who told me of the anti-Semitism that is widespread across Greece. I sympathized with her. It seems that across Europe right wing ideals are on the rise; in Greece with the desecration of graves etc. Sophia, my Greek friend cried as she heard of this. I had noted she was greatly moved by the idea of God wanting all humanity to live together in peace without ethnic barriers. We had laughed at the idea of a kiwi dude walking along with a young Greek girl talking God-stuff. She clearly longs for the world God has in mind for us all.

After the synagogue visit we went to part company. I asked if I could pray for her. I did, and she wept. God touched her life. She then took off going her own way, and I mine. I had been touched by the hour or so we had talked; she seemed to be too.

Now this is where things get a little weird. When we were at the synagogue I had taken a photo of the synagogue. I had asked her to stand in the photo, she had happily agreed. However, when I looked at the photo later there was no person in the picture. It was all a little weird. I could have missed her out perhaps, or???? The whole thing was interesting. One more thing she did say was that she feels that the Greek culture is still living in its great past. She spoke of Greeks who are annoyed that the world has taken its philosophical and democratic ideals and seek a renaissance of Greek culture. Such people are very anti-foreigner. She was not happy with this and believed that Greece needs to stop living in its past. I hope she emails me, I left her my email and told her about my book. Please pray for her if your read this. Or was this an encounter with an angel?

Anywho, back to Athens. It is amazing. The Philippos Hotel is great if you ever visit there. The Acropolis Museum is amazing as is the Acropolis. A highlight was standing on Mars Hill at the place where the Areopagus supposedly met. I say supposedly, because it is really just a big rock and it is disputed. I pondered Acts 17, the unknown God, Paul’s use of Greek poets, his appeal for faith based on resurrection. It is generally accepted here that the male convert Dionysius was the patron saint of the city at the time. Acts 17:33 tells us that he was a ‘member of the Areopagus.’ I see no reason to dispute this, although many contemporary scholars do. So, even though the faith did not root deep as in other Greek cities and elsewhere, God still planted faith in the heart of the Athenian culture.

So, Athens is great. We are going back in a few weeks and I want to check out the archaeological museum and maybe the Jewish museum, if I have time.

Other things of note include first the impact of the recent riots. We saw a couple of burnt out buildings including the bank where three workers died. This seems to have taken the wind out of the anarchy as has the billions given to Greece to bail it out. However, there is clearly a problem with unemployment. There are many incomplete buildings. There are many youths hanging around doing nothing. As in Rome, there is graffiti everywhere. Second, the people are lovely. They are very friendly. They are gregarious, but not as excessive as the Romans. Third, they drive rather crazily, but perhaps not as mad as the Romans. Motorbikes are order of the day in both Italy and Greece. Emma now wants a Vespa and perhaps I will get a bike to get to and from Laidlaw? It looks a lot of fun.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Other thoughts on Rome

Roman people were interesting. I found the word that came to mind was 'swarthy'.  They tend to be of short stature, olive skinned, dark haired, and well dressed. I saw few blondes. Emma stood out in this regard. In fact, I noted quite a few locals admiring her form. It seemed the norm to do this. I allowed myself a little pride at this point - she's mine!

We found the people loud and demonstrative. When there were in crowded places, this did not dent their enthusiasm to express their opinions openly and loudly. Most unkiwi!

We noted in Rome too that everywhere we went, groups of men in suits were standing around idly chatting. It seemed obligatory to be standing in one of these groups!

Does everyone smoke in Rome? It seems so! We thought, to love and kiss a Roman would mean to taste smoke! Mints were freely available, perhaps needed!

Affection was everywhere. The double kiss, one on each cheek, was the norm for men and women. We often saw women out walking arm in arm, a lovely expression of natural affection. Romans are so much more affectionate than Kiwis!

Money is big here. Perhaps it is true that the real god of Rome is mammon. Mind you, is Rome alone in this? No way! Hong Kong was no different. Neither is NZ! There were hawkers everywhere in Rome trying to sell scarves, art, trinkets etc. It was great watching them run when the cops came, clearly it was not legal. It was equally amusing watching them return as the cops went off!

It is also a strange and good experience to be among people speaking non-English languages as the norm. It is amazing how one's ears perk up when one hears a NZ or Australian accent. It makes me realise what it must be like to be a foreigner in NZ. It is not easy! By the way, learn Mandarin if you have the chance!

There are some great things about NZ we often do not acknowledge. The supermarket is great! The mall is fantastic. The motel is a glorious invention where one can cook and do washing while living in one place; it keeps things cheap.

TV here is priceless. It is US programs dubbed in Italian! We did watch Italy's top model which was a great laugh; we could follow it because of the format. In the main however, they dub US programs. US culture is slowly taking over the world and the world resists little. MacDonalds and coke are everywhere to prove this point!

The Italian train system needs to be sorted. A 4 hour train trip turned into a 7 hour marathon after a 3 1/2 hour delay. This meant a missed ferry! A local told us this is norm.

Watch out for unauthorised cab drivers. We had been warned but were in a rush. We lost out! Don't make the same mistake! Only the authorised!

One thing that stands out to me is this: AUCKLAND NEEDS A SUBWAY! Athens opened theirs in 1998. We can do it too; linking north, south, east, west, all meeting in the centre. We can and must do it. They transform cities. Get the designers of Hong Kong's to come and design ours. We should pay tolls until it is done! Come on, we can do it!

Police with guns are erywhere here. They are a great comfort and deterrent. If I was inclined to do some crime, I think I would think twice. It is comforting knowing too, that if someone has a crack, these guys mean business. In Italy we saw more machine guns than I have ever seen!

But, NZ is great. A trip like this makes you realise you live in paradise.

Rome More Thoughts

Italy overall was surprising. It was fantastic to visit Rome and all the ancient sites. But the country appeared to be very run down. There was graffiti everywhere, and bad graffiti at that. Apartment living is the norm. Unlike Hong Kong, which is full of enormous skyscrapers, the apartments of Italy seem 4-8 stories hight and in the main, in very poor shape. One tour guide suggested that the Romans gave the world apartment living. They need to rebuild themselves now!

The driving here is chaotic to put it nicely. It seems reflective of life. There is a semblance of order but the rule appears to be: stick to right, at least most of the time, however, anything goes; have courage, just don't hit anyone. Somehow it works. We had a MacDonald's meal in Bari, and the same rule applied. Line up and then ignore the lines and go for it. We tended to get boxed out, but we are learning.

Rome is so narrow and crowded! People drive scooters and smart cars and park at every possible angle. Roads are amazingly narrow and one has to have one's wits about you at all times to avoid being run down.

Beggars, as in Hong Kong but with more frequency, are around the place. They are mainly disabled and elderly. The elderly women would have a can with a rosary and/or a picture of a saint, pope or biblical character (usually Mary), and sit in the prayer position face down and immobile awaiting and coin. They are found at all the holy places and it is ironical to see them there whilst inside there is utterly millions of dollars worth of painting etc.

The ancient area of Rome left us with mixed feelings. On the one hand it was amazing visiting the Colosseum, Forum, Palatine, Pantheon, St Peters, Vatican and the many churches. The Colosseum and Forum speak of the power of Rome particularly in the Imperial period. Rome, must have blown the mids of visitors. It was 4x the size of any other ancient city. Caesar's seemed to do two things in particular. First, they would expand the Empire and bring the wealth back. Second, they would build stuff: arches, temples, forums etc. What must it have been like for Paul to come as a prisoner in chains, to go up the Palatine with its flowing gardens and opulence, and then through the temples and forums and arches into the prison. I had read that scholars are dubious that Paul was incarcerated in the Mammertime Prison; yet it seemed an obvious place for his initial imprisonment and perhaps he was there as he wrote Phil 1:12-13 of being in guards among Roman soldiers who knew the reason for his imprisonment i.e. for Christ. Perhaps he was initially in this place and then perceived as little threat and moved to his own apartment near the Jewish quarter beside the Tiber (we visited this, interesting!). Tradition has it that his house is there and a church is built upon it. Perhaps after preachign and teaching for two years he was reimprisoned there for trial and perhaps remained there until his death. Or did he get out, do another missionary journey, and then return to Rome only to face Caesar again and his death?

The temples in the Forum dedicated to Julius Ceaser and Augustus spoke powerfully of the Imperial Cult. Supposedly it was stronger in Asia, yet here it is found in the centre of the Empire, the seat of Roman power. Clearly, alongside Saturn, Castor and Polliux, the Emperor was deified and worshiped after their death. The big guns appear to be Julius, Augustus, Trajan and Hadrian. Less mentioned were Caligula, Claudius and Nero.

The various buildings around the Forum recall Trajan in particular, from the early second century. These include a pillar, markets and his forum. The interchange between Pliny and Trajan came to mind as the threat of Christianity was growing and they sought to work out how to deal with this pernicious superstition. The impact of the Fall of Jerusalem in AD70 is found with images on Trajan's Arch of Jewish prisoners of war and the money's from the pillage of Jerusalem used for yet more building projects in Rome.

The Palatine hills where Rome was founded around Romulus and Remus (mythology aside) must have been a grand place with Emperor's residences and other important buildings. The whole forum must have been astonishing gleaming in white marble and adorned with frescos and mosaics.

The hippodrome of Domitian must have been amazing, a huge aquatheatre in which they enacted naval battles. No doubt the flowing gardens, gloriously adorned buildings etc, would have been both beautiful and awe-inspiring.

All this speaks to me of the courage of the first Christians who dared to follow a peasant Roman-crucified Jew who preached peace, love, equality, liberty and hope rather than hubris and power and the Roman pantheon and emperor! They dared to resist and the world has never been the same. They dreamed of a better world and so I too dream.

The Colosseum was stunning. Built in about 80 by Titus and then Vespasian, to me it represented the complete antithesis of everything Jesus. It speaks of military and political power and might, of brutality and blood lust. It seated 60,000 mad people longing to see blood. People sat in accord with their social status, the poorer at the top, the richer and powerful closer to the action. The Emperor sat on the left as you enter the arena, the senators on the right. It was not the place of Christian killing aside from Ignatius and Telemachus (tradition says). However, it was a place of appalling atrocities.

The daily progam involved utter barbarism. It began in the morning with wild animals fighting each other. Imagination goes mad as you consider lions fighting bears, rhinos fighting hordes of hyena etc. All the animals were starved for the combat and the crowds must have gone mad as they fought to the death.

After this came the public executions of criminals, nice.

Then came the main event, the curtain raisers over, the Gladiators. These were highly trained warriors. Beside the Colosseum is an excavated training camp. They lived in these camps, trained for 9 hours a day in all sorts of methods of combat. They were mean lean fighting machines. They were not all big men contrary to our thought, for the average man was a short man, around 5' 3''. One guide quipped about fighting dwarves! If they lasted 7 years they were granted freedom. Those who lasted were public heros. They were the Richie McCaw's of their world. Men who defied the odds and overcame.

Apparently they had agents who cried out, 'show me the money!' They took up to 80% of the warriors substantial pay. Nothing has changed!

So for the ancient Roman, such was sport. We moan about rugby and league or even boxing, but they are tame beside the madness of the Romans. Initially there were a few events a year, but at its zenith the games occurred 150 days a year, almost every second day. When an Emperor brought home a whole load of prisoners of war, the games ensued with these warriors 'canon-fodder' for the gladiators. As the gladiators fought, parts of the stage would open with trapdoors or even overturn, and fresh animals were introduced. One had to have one's wits about oneself!

The floor of the stadium was wooden, with sand atop to absorb the blood, nice!

When someone died, in came the slaves in black to bundle them away for quick burial in a pit - unless a family member was there to take them away. Not that every gladiator's defeat ended in death. They could appeal to the Emperor to be saved. The crowd would cry sword or save, and the emperor with the move off the thumb would decide his fate.

The Caesar's were at the heart of the show. On entry the gladiator would salute him seated as he was on the left of the auditorium. They would cry out, 'we who are about to die, salute you.'

All in all, to me, it speaks of the clash of kingdoms and power between the non-violence of Christ and his message of peace and love - compared with rule by barberous violence which besets the kingdoms of the world. We cannot however just blame the emperors, people loved the contests!

The games thankfully died out as the Roman Empire waned and its wealth diminished. The place became a market and even a garden. In the 18th century a number of exotic plants were found there no doubt having come with the animals brought in for the games centuries earlier.

It is amazing that Rome's population at the time was 1 million. Athens was around 275,000. No other city approached 1 million until the industrial age. Most of these people were slaves. As Rome's power and wealth dissipated, the population declined, and the games were unsustainable. In fact Christianity had a good deal to do with this as people became less violent and concerned for status.

To me the Colosseum represents the disgrace of human power and lust. Thanks be to God that he has revealed to the world another way, the way of the cross, where power is found in selflessness, sacrifice, service, sufferng, humility i.e love! Thanks that true humanity is found in a crucified Messiah.

The other side of Rome was disturbing. The Pantheon, the Vatican, St Peter's and the many church's are amazing! The art is astonishing. At one level they speak of faith.

Yet for Emma and me they left more question than answers. Where are the worshipers of today. These places are historic places for photo opportunities and there are few there from this society worshiping. Faith is more historic than real and present. Faith is replaced by historic interest.

The nature and content of faith is also deeply disturbing. Mary dominates! She is more present than Jesus, God and the Spirit, who rarely gets a mention if at all. Jesus is the little boy beside Mary, and she is the main event. It seems that Mary, God and Mary'ss her son are the trinity; in that order. She as goddess!

The saints and the popes are of equal importance to every biblical figure and even Christ himself. Images of holy wars are accepted as part of the tradition, even though in them the power of Christ is utterly subverted by the power of the sword. No problem with the church taking up sword and political power in its quest for world dominion. I found this deeply disturbing when one realises who and what Jesus was and how he came to change a murderous world.

Then there is this question: when does image or statue reflection cross the line and become idolatry and a violation of the first two commandments to worship God alone and not to worship images. I thought of Paul in Athens who noted their penchant for worshiping idols, and wondered, does this cross the line? I watched worshipers touch the feet of the wonderful sculpture of St Peter in St Peter's beside his supposed grave, there was real reverence there; to whom? For what? Christ? Mmmmm?

Then there is the problem of faith and wealth. There are billions of dollars worth of art in these places. Yet true faith cares for the poor, the marginalised, the despised. True religion resists injustice and oppression. Yet I heard more religion as oppression and was disturbed. Faith feels fused to power and wealth in Rome!

It is ironical that Christianity was initially fiercely persecuted and marginalised in Rome. As it became dominant it seems, that it became the oppressor; power corrupts! To me, this violates the pattern of Christ.

So, all in all, we were left with more questions than answers. There is something powerful in Rome and its churches and history. Yet, like all Christian history, it is flawed, an admixture of the glorious with false religion, syncretism and human faith-failure.

I feel very much a Protestant as  I write this. Unlike some other Protestants I will not write off all Catholics. However, I can never see myself turning to this form of the faith. I will leave the details to God, but for me the reformation with charismatic renewal.

One feature of Rome is the way in which ancient pagan worship sites are taken over by Catholicism. Take the Pantheon for example; once a temple to the pantheon of Rome, it is now a church to Mary. Take the Vatican, once a place pagans killed Christians including Peter, now the site of the centre of the Catholic faith. The take over of the pagan world is apparent. Yet the absorption of paganism into 'Christian' faith in the time of Christendom proves that 'the Empire strikes back.'

Much more dangerous than direct religious takeover with force is the subtle subversion through ideas and syncretism. This is where the real battle takes place and where Satan is 'at his best.' Subtly, over time, he corrupts that which is beautiful and innocent. Human sin needs no help most of the time as lust for power and greed work together to mar, flaw, corrupt, infect, corrode, and subtly turn that which is beautiful and sacred into that which it overcame.

Great Christian movements inevitably become flawed. The problem is usually pride as belief in the movement becomes the movement and the one behind the movement is lost in the sense of human need to defend. The fight that goes on is not just for orthodoxy, but orthopraxy, orthodoxology, orthodiakonia and orthokardia. We need constant renewal and the key to this is humility.

Yet here is the challenge. We are not to leave the world but remain in it engaged with it. We cannot just withdraw which feels so attractive. This is our deathknell. But as we remain engaged, we cannot help but be influenced and corrupted; assimilated to the world and its magnatic pull. The challlenge is to be able to stand outside ourselves while in full participation and self-critique against the gospel. We are to be constantly repentant and engaged.

How? Sola Scriptura! Sola Fidei! The pattern of the cross: selflessness, sacrifice, service, suffering and humility i.e. love. Walking in worship! All these things keep us earthed to Jesus and he is the key. We must become less, and he more! Not just the victorious Jesus, yes to him; but the crucified Jesus! Amen.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Rome

So, what do we make of Rome. Day one we arrived after an uneventful trip. It was a worrying start as our lift was not waiting and so we had to shell out for the trip to the hotel; that put us back a few euro! Still, we can get that back. Out hotel is the Hotel Trevi near the Trevi Fountain. It is a comfy wee place. On the first day we went exploring checking out the Fountain, which is always overflowing the tourists throwing coins in and making wishes. We then found the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and checked out the Pantheon. It was built just after Paul’s time, a temple to the gods of Rome. As Christendom took hold it became a church to Mary. It seems to me that Mary is bigger in Rome than Christ, which is most disconcerting for a Protestant. We then found out that MacDonalds is as nice here as anywhere, average!


After an early night, yesterday we did the crypts and catacombs. The catacombs were amazing. Over 60 underground burial chambers used by early Christians from the second century on. It is estimated that there are around 2m people buried there. Christians were permitted to bury their dead outside the city walls. However, if they went to the catacombs for worship, they could be martyred on the spot. The huge numbers is testimony to the courage of the early believers who were martyred, to the low life expectancy, and the high level of infant mortality. The burial slots are very small, a testimony to the shortness of the people of Rome of the time; men were around 5’ 3” and women under 5’. I was thrilled to hear that exposed babies who were left to die outside the city walls of ancient Rome were taken for a Christian burial by the first Christians. The burials of Christians did not follow the common pattern of cremation, indicative of early Christian belief in the literal resurrection of the dead. The tour guide stated that Christians now take a spiritual view of resurrection. I know that is true of many, but not of many like myself who believe in a bodily resurrection (cf. 1 Cor 15).

We also visited the Church of St Clemente, Clement of Rome from the late first century and early second century. It is an amazing site with three levels. The first is a 14th Century Basilica. The second was a 4th century Christian church. Underneath is a Roman apartment block which we walked through. Romans lived in apartments at the time of Paul’s visit. This interested me, and I wondered whether Paul was in such an apartment when he was imprisoned on his arrival in Rome (Acts 28:30-31). There was a room which was purportedly used for Christian worship. It was about 6m by 8m into which 50-70 men and women would crowd to worship Jesus. The 4th century basilica housed around 500, indicative of the change in mindset in Rome toward Christianity after Constantine. The reason for the burying of ancient ruins is the regular flooding of the Tiber.

Yesterday morning we walked through parts of the Forum, past the Colosseum, the Circus Maxima etc. We did not do the tour, we will do that tomorrow. A highlight was the Mamertime Prison which purportedly housed Paul and Peter. The truth of this we can’t be sure. Still, it is perfectly placed beside Nero’s Forum and could easily fit the bill for Phil 1:12-13.

The last place we visited yesterday was a church near our hotel. It was from a group of breakaway Franciscan monks in the 16th century who had decorated rooms with their bones! It was a deplorable place. A monument to the fickleness of existence and the need to use our lives wisely. The message was good, but it was revolting. I found nothing to redeem it. Neither did Emma.

Today we went on a bus tour visiting the Vatican Museum. It was an astonishing experience seeing all the statues, gods, and amazing artwork; especially the Sistine Chapel. What a place. I found myself in a state of conflict. Jesus was submerged beneath Popes and Mary. I found myself torn with the glory of the art, and what seems rather dubious theologically. Much thought required here.

So far, extremely interesting. Paul seems lost here though. I want to find him, but there is little to find.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Ministering Among the African Asylum Seekers

One of the greatest things about the Vine Church in Hong Kong is there ministry among asylum seekers. Hong Kong is a hub, so many people come here without documentation having, for whatever reason, fled from their native country. They get put in detention, released, but wait while there case is assessed in the hope of being able to go to another country on refugee status. One guy at church, a Kiwi, decided one day to do a prison visit to some of them. This opened the door, as on release, he came to church. Now there are over 350 of them at the Vine. They have mid-week services for them; African, SEAsian, and Nepalese. I had the privilege yesterday of preaching to over 100 of them.

It is astonishing how hungry they are for God. NZ is a spiritual wasteland compared to them (if comparisons are fair). We are cynical, skeptical and reticent spiritually. Whereas they pray with genuine fervor, pouring their hearts out to God, worshiping without restraint, crying out to God in joy and suffering, we sit back and critique the music and the preacher.

I did a sermon on Mark in which I led into Mk 1:14-15 with an account of a world of war and vying for power. I talked about how this was Israel's history as well. I then talked about Messianic expectations, Caesar and how the whole world was based on power through force, status, wealth etc. I then went through Mark talking about how Jesus turned the world upside down. The received it with great joy. I was blessed.

Instead of a prayer session, we then had a question and answer time. It was amazing as the Africans asked me questions about sin, the Spirit, God, Jesus, sexuality, alcohol and more. It was a privilege and honour. I could have talked with some of them into the night. They are so hungry for God, so desperate for him.

It made me think of NZ. We need to rediscover our passion. It can't come through engineering, it must come through the Spirit. I believe it will start with repentance for our attitude. We are not fervently living the Christian message. We have lost our desperation. We are in a poor perilous spiritual state, we need to rediscover Jesus.

The stories they told me we horrendous. One man had seen his father cut in pieces, his 6 sisters and brothers murdered. He had escaped. He had got into Uganda and from there to Hong Kong. He is a brilliant young man, 21 years old. I mentioned Jesus' forgiveness, and he said that he had forgiven the man who had come to his family and apologised!!!!!!!! He is hoping to go to Moody College in the USA if he can get asylum and a means of transport. A friend from Uganda will set him up.

These men and women are bright. There are great leaders among them. they need training. The need people who will sit with them and guide them. They are hungrier than any Christians I have ever seen in NZ.

God is doing great things in the Vine, in Hong Kong, China and Asia... Praise the Lord. Let us western Christians get on our knees, repent of our faithlessness, our reticence, our fear, our prayerlessness, our cynicism, our skepticism, and rediscover the passion of Christ. Only then will the things we dream for start to happen. Come Holy Spirit.

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Back to Jerusalem

I remember when I read the Heavenly Man a few years ago and saw that there were Chinese Christians with a desire to head east with the gospel until they reach Jerusalem. I didn't take much note of it. Being here has ramped my interest in this idea big time.

In preparation for a sermon I looked into Google Books and found a title 'Back To Jerusalem' by Paul Hattaway in which three Chinese Church Leaders speak of the vision. It is a very intriguing idea. One chapter speaks of how the gospel spread west after Christ. These Chinese leaders had looked east and seen the Islamic world which resists the gospel.

They have a strategy to go into these countries, start Chinese restaurants and from these bases establish networks of 'underground' house church's. These are people worthy of respect. They have all suffered greatly for Christ. They know what it means to live in a persecuted context, the Chinese church exploding after Communism in 1949 and despite persecution. They are ready to die for Jesus. They know how to function.

They are all inspired by the initial vision of Hudson Taylor who was truly incarnational in his approach, learning the Chinese language, taking on their clothing, and working in unity with the Chinese of all denominations. It was Taylor's vision that saw the gospel go from the eastern Chinese seaboard into the rural regions of China. These Chinese leaders see their mission as continuing this on until the gospel is fully proclaimed through to Jerusalem.

I have to say this lights my fire! It is exciting. They see it as completing the Great Commission. I will have to ponder this idea, will it be? Anyway, it is an amazing vision. May it come to be.

Eddie Jones and Frank Hadden

What a treat. Last night I was invited to a get together of Hong Kong rugby dudes to hear Australian coach Eddie Jones and Frank Hadden an ex Scottish coach. Frank was interesting, talking about trying to get Scotland to improve in the face of very few players and money. He was good.

Eddie Jones was excellent. I of course wore my All Black rugby jersey for a laugh. He spotted me coming in and made a couple of jibes my way, I said back that I was wearing it now because the way things are looking, I might not be able to after the 2011 World cup.

He is a great analyst. He noted how rugby had oscillated attack - defense - attack - defense since the mid 90's. He claims rugby is now in a great state, attack is dominating. He thinks by the 2011 world cup defenses would have adapted and defense would be back dominating. Others in the room were not so sure including a ref who believes the new tackle law will ensure attack keeps dominant. I think I side with Eddie. He believes the second person to the breakdown will stop trying to get the ball, but will go into the space beyond the ball and disrupt, enabling defensive teams to slow it down.

He also explained how Aus beat NZ at the 2003 world cup. They had realised that Carlos Spencer liked to kick into his right corner (the defensive teams left corner). He noted that the All Blacks had a brilliant three quarters unit and that if you then kicked back they would run you off your feet. This had happened earlier in 2003 when the AB's had smashed the Wallabies 50-12 at Sydney; he called that game, embarressing. They resolved for 20 minutes that the AB's kicked to the corner not to kick it back. He believes this disrupted the AB pattern, and victory was assured.

Aside from being gutted on the one hand, and deeply impressed by his ability to read on the other, I was impressed with his strategy and ability to read the game. We must remember that Eddie got the Wallabies to the 2003 World Cup Final and that he had an advisory role with the 2007 Springboks who won the cup. So he is good! Why doesn't NZ employ him to work with Henry and the lads? Never I suppose, because NZ don't need him. Yeah right.

Anywho. I got to thinking about Christian leadership. Both Frank and Eddie spent hours analysing. Every player gets analysed. Their games are broken down, videoed, analysed and the data used for improvement. Eddie believed that emphasis should go on player's strengths not weaknesses. He said it is a waste of time trying to correct weaknesses, rather they should build on strengths making them stronger, and often the weaknesses improved too. He said teams should do the same, find their point of strength, and then focus on that 70% of the time. That is interesting to me and he is proving this idea successful.

He also noted a need for balance in a team. He talked of the Springbok locking pair, Botha and Matfield. He suggested that Botha is the grunter and Matfield the run around stay out of contact seagull lock. He talked of how you needed that balance. Two Maftields or two Bothas would be a disaster.

I think we as Christians need to be much more analytical in our churches and strategies. Yes, what we are doing is spiritual. But it is also human as well. Strategy is important, analysis is important. This approach for Frank and Eddie was very human. They talked of knowing your players, what motivated them, what made them tick. Eddie mentioned Ben Darwin an Aussie prop who played rugby to make his Dad happy, his Dad and Mum having split. Eventually he got a sports psychologist to work with Ben to get him to play for other reasons, to find restoration. He ended up playing 45 tests for Australia. The point is, that their approach to coaching is very relational and personal. It involves mentoring on a one to one level. This ensure things are not mechanical and the human 'pastoral' element is still central.

We of course need to work to analyse within the framework of the gospel and love. One of the difficulties of Christian ministry is measuring success. However, we must work to find ways of doing this at a spiritual and human level. It is not just bums on seats, but growth in the Lord. But it is still worthy of some sort of measure.

When people are motivated with a clear goal like making profit or winning games, you can work around it with strategies and analysis. We Christians need to get back to recognising our core goals. I see them as: 1) Seeing people won to faith in Christ through the true Gospel; 2) Seeing them grow to full maturity; 3) Building God's people in church's that reflect the mission and pastoral heart of God; 4) Expressing our gifts in the world in mission seeing God's world built up i.e. work, play, life.

We need a strategy for our context. Jesus had a clear strategy: grab 12 men, go through Palestine preaching the good news of the Kingdom drawing people to faith in Christ, suffering rejection and dying on a cross to save the world and lay down a pattern for human existence, rising from the dead, empowering his people with his Spirit and calling them to go to the world and make disciples of every nation.

Paul had a strategy: to go move progressively west from Jerusalem proclaiming the King and Kingdom, establishing church's in the main urban centres, equipping the new disciples for the mission, and moving on. He hoped to get to Spain with this strategy.

Wherever we minister, whether it be in a business, school, church, family, workplace, sports club or wherever, we need a strategy. Of course it will include our core business. But it will have a localised dimension right for our context e.g. Glenfield in Auckland. We need to analyse our progress, our leaders, our approaches. We need to do so in an atmosphere of grace and not judgement. This perhaps is the character key for the human strategy. Analysis soaked in love and encouragement.

It is amazing what you get out of a rugby chat.

One more thing. He thought the All Blacks will win the Tri Nations this year, Australia second, South Africa third. He thinks the Springboks are now too old. We will see if he is right. My pick: SA 1st, Australia 2nd, NZ 3rd. I don't care who wins this year, its about who peaks in November 2011. He did not say who he thought would win.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Another Day in Hong Kong

I saw another side of Hong Kong today. The south side of the island is full of beaches, markets, and resorts. There are high rises but there are also homes more akin to those in NZ with bigger sections and houses. It was teeming with people at Stanley. I met a sad burnt out artist. He had given up art because he was fed up with people not being interested in artists and quality and buying stuff of the shelf. His name was Vincent. I brought a painting and chatted to him. He got out a photo album and showed me his paintings and awards he had won. I encouraged him and told him that artists should paint whether anyone appreciated it or bought them. It was nice moment.

Saw a Baptist Church where there was a full on healing time on. The church was in the middle of the market. Interesting.

So, Hong Kong is not all high risers. The south side is more akin to something a Kiwi would recognise. Ate a Korean bbq dinner. You cook your own dinner on a bbq in the centre of the table. Excellent.

I also went into a Dymocks, yes there are Dymocks in Hong Kong. I saw a book, Philip Pullman's, the Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ. Had a quick flick through. His idea is that Mary gave birth to twins not just Jesus i.e. Jesus and a brother, Christ. Christ follows Jesus around. He is the one who tempts Jesus. He betrays him. When Jesus dies and is buried, they fake his resurrection using the twin brother! I thought, what next? Such absolute rot! I looked around the shop and this was the only book I could see on Jesus. I thought of all the great books in the world that could be in this shop and wondered, why this one?

Us Christians have to rethink our approach to selling our literature. We create our own separate shops in our parallel universe and leave the bookshops of the world to such rot. I suggest this. We Christians decide on the books that should be in the bookshops of the world, and instead of buying them at Manna or whatever other Christian bookshop we normally use, we should go to the local bookshop and order them. We could target these shops and go in in droves ordering them. This would force them to bring in the books that should be there like those of Strobel, Wright, Stott etc. This would lead to them stocking more than the books of loons like Pullman!!!What we have done is abdicated the bookshops of the world preferring isolation and separation. It is a road to disaster.

So, go to your local bookshop and order 'What's God Up To On Planet Earth' from Castle and Affirm Publishing and they will order them in. Then the lost may find it, read it, and get saved. If not this book, let's get all the great Christian books back on the shelves of Whitcoulls, Dymocks, Paper Plus, Borders and whatever other book shops are in your area. Spread the word at church... I think it is a plan.

Back to Hong Kong. I have nothing else to say... amen.