Monday, August 14, 2017

Speaking Up and Out

Two messages in my email today. One from a clergy group in my county, the other from the staff of my church's collective governance folks, both responding to the violence in our state, in Charlottesville. The whole incident has me dismayed, at the lack of leadership displayed by so many, maybe even by me. This is a call to all of us to speak up and speak out.  Good words are not hard to find. Here are some:

"The images of the violence in Charlottesville – physical as well as ideological – remind the Church that there is work that needs to be done.  The sin of racism is not new, nor does this pervasive form of idolatry exist solely outside the church.
As followers of the Christ, let us be clear where we stand.  We are all formed in the image of God.  The Confession of Belhar calls us to remember that we are to be ‘the salt of the earth and the light of the world’, therefore, as a Presbytery, let us be that beacon of light.  Encouraging one another to live into a ‘new obedience’ we urge our member churches in both word and deed to actively confront racism that exists in our pews, and our communities. " 

I'm proud to stand with the church of Jesus Christ on this one.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Newsfeed or Good News?

Facebook Prayer
I've given up Facebook. I started this Facebook fast at Lent, and haven't been back, except to see some of my son's posts on his own site about the business he's in--3D printing. Since most of my Lent time would have been away from internet connectivity anyway, I stopped visiting this social media site on the 1st of February. It's been a big revelation to me, how much of my time was spent in reading my "newsfeed"--the cumulative activities of all my 300+ Facebook 'friends.' It's a time I've recaptured for prayer, before bedtime and upon waking up.
Still I'm torn. Many of my clergy colleagues are habitual posters and I've missed seeing what they're up to. However, for me, it was too easy to substitute looking at their newsfeeds for personal contact, and to fool myself into thinking we had a real relationship. We didn't. It's a lot harder to invest in real people and takes a lot more time.
My sabbatical time gave me lots to think about the time involved in investing in real contact with real people. Just knowing about someone's activity is a poor substitute for a real relationship.
So it is with God. Sometimes I think that our bible study can be a substitute for a real relationship with God. It's the default position for us intellectual types that we read the bible like God's newsfeed--a kind of long description--so we don't really have to spend time with Godself. How odd! Back at work this week, I'm prioritizing contact with real people and the real God who doesn't want us to be lonely.  That's the Good Newsfeed I need for today.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Venice April 3&4

What an end to our cruise! Empires of the Mediterranean, indeed.
By the end of our two days in Venice, I am now understanding more about how the shape of ancient Western civilization has led to our own. This was a big picture learning for me. I have both a new appreciation for the Venetian empire and some new examples of civil religion run amok.
When I was first learning about the religion of Ancient Greece (and subsequently Rome) it was easy to dismiss the society as "pagan" i.e. unenlightened. But in the religion of the Venetian Empire which was Christian, I found a fascinting example: the Christian appropriation of ancient Greece's civil religion. It was as if the Venetians picked up the religion that Greece had formed and translated its symbols into Christian ones. The stories that Venice told about itself were clothed in the iconography of Christendom and served to justify their accumulation of wealth and power for over 1,000 years.
When I put together a presentation about this trip, I will use that thesis to tie it together.
The wealth of Venice is amazing. Even in its decrepit current state it is easy to imagine its former glory. Our boat tour of the grand canal took us by palace after palace, all built by the people who ran the interlocking structures of religion, government, and business. It was all the same thing. That accumulation of wealth and power was no accident, but a well-honed structure designed for stability and control. The unifying figure of the doge--elected for a lifetime by an incredibly complex process--was simultaneously the head of the church, the government, and the economy. An even more complex system of rules and protocols kept him from exploiting that concentration of power too much. In this way, the Venetians constructed a society that lasted from the 9th to the 19th centuries.
It was an amazing accomplishment. Yet, included within it, were the seeds of its own destruction, as with all empires. We who live within the succeeding empire of the Western world should take heed, lest we think our own empire can last forever.
In any case, Venice was an amazing place to experience. After checking into the hotel, we took the hotel water taxi to St. Mark's square and did some exploring on our own. I tried to find the shop where I remembered purchasing a set of crystal wine glasses over 40 years ago. There were many beautiful shops selling expensive glassware as well as lots of other luxury items, but I couldn't find the one I remembered. The square was mobbed with people, including lots of school groups again. We did a bit of shopping, and then ducked into St. Mark's cathedral. We did not have to pay to visit the main chancel, but did pay to see the reliquary, the area containing the most valued saints relics and gifts to the church from centuries of pilgrims who offered their prized objects to the doge's church--gold cups and plates, reliquaries containing parts of saints' bodies. The lateness of our start meant that we had to plan for a next day of sight seeing. Rol did a really smart thing and bought us a full day's worth of experiences for the next day: a gondola ride, a guided tour of St. Mark's and the Doges' Palace, and a guided boat ride along the Grand Canal.
The gondola ride, put us into a traffic jam of gondolas weaving in and out of narrow canal spaces between buildings. I even recorded some gondoliers' singing. Ours didn't sing, but he warned us to sit still and not move about the boat. He steered and pushed with his oar and sometimes his feet pushed off buildings on the side. Every building is on a water front on at least one side, and the most important buildings are along the Grand Canal. We met up with some folks we had seen on the cruise, and had some snacks and coffee before seeing St. Mark's again (with a guide, this time) and the Doges' Palace, now a museum. Both of these buildings and their contents told the story of the way the Venetian Empire was maintained with the aid of Christian symbolism. They were decorated with stories from the bible, but definitely built to impress. St. Mark's holds the purported body of Mark, the evangelist, stolen from Alexandria Egypt by Venetian merchants who brought it back to Venice to "protect" it from Muslim raiders in 832. It lies under the altar, where it has been protected ever since. Hence the whole church is the reliquary. It is decorated with stories to tell the Christian gospel, from the Hebrew scriptures and stories to the Gospels and the Book of Revelation.
In the Doges' Palace, we saw art collections and items to take your breath away. In one room, a whole collection of coins, coins minted by centuries of Venice's economy. But a small collection of coins seem to have come from 1st century Palestine.
One was a coin from the Roman empire, with Caesar's image on the front. I can imagine that a powerful nobleman from Venice had it in his collection, and used it to illustrate Jesus' answer to the religious authorities in Jerusalem in the Temple: "Should we pay taxes to Caesar or not?"
Jesus answered, "Whose image is on that coin?" The image on the coin says that it belongs to Caesar. The image on a human being is the image of God. So render unto Caesar that which belongs to Caesar and to God, what belongs to God. Other amazing sights: reconstructed apartments of the Emperor Franz Joseph and his wife, Elizabeth, the same "Sissi" who had constructed the resort home that we visited on Corfu; an 18th century library with bookshelves, precious volumes and a large globe; samples of all kinds of luxury goods from Venetian merchants from the 10th to the 19th centuries. The collection is so vast and so varied, that I can imagine centuries of museum curators' working to preserve the items and catalog them.
After our overwhelming walk through the Doges' Palace, we had one more amazing tour--a narrated ride along the Grand Canal, where more sights and displays demanded our attention. Writing about all the things we saw would take up more time than I have to describe. Suffice it to say that the cumulative wealth is still amazing. We strolled some more around the area of the secretive shipyards, where the Venetians protected their shipbuilding expertise by hiding it. The compound is a navy installation now.
The hotel that we'd been staying in is a converted pasta factory. It is on the Guidecca island, across from the main area of the city. The next day, we took another water taxi to the airport for our flight to London.  From there, I would be going on to Scotland while Rol returned home.
[Note: I'm finally posting this near the end of my sabbatical, April 24, on events that happened near the beginning of the month.]

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Final Day, April 2 in Koper Slovenia

[Posting note: The ship has had very slow internet connections and so I am posting several days' worth of notes all at once.]
A very smooth ride last night brought us to our final port of call, the town of Koper in Slovenia, our third country of the six making up the former Yugoslavia. This is an amazing set of circumstances: who would have thought ten years ago that we might visit these countries and not be able to visit Turkey. This itinerary was supposed to have started in Istanbul. When we booked it nearly 18 months ago, we thought to start there, and were disappointed that Viking changed the route to start in Athens. But there are so many amazing sights to see wherever we go.
Koper is another port city, the only port in Slovenia which has an Adriatic coastline of only about 30km. The port is both for passengers and freight and the Viking Sky pulled up right next to the freight port.
Since this was our last day, we confined our excursion to a brief guided walk in town. As this was Sunday morning, it was a busy day on the waterfront with many people and families out taking advantage of the weekend sunshine.
Koper was once an island and walled by the Venetians, of course. It used to be called "Goat Island" and a person in a goat costume met the passengers on the dock. Because it is the northernmost of the south Slavic countries, Slovenia also has influences from Hungary and Austria. Triest, Italy, is right around the corner and the town of Koper speaks two official languages--Slovenian and Italian.
Our guide was a bit unsure of her English, and apologized for groping for a few of her words. She was charming, though, and also a native Slovenian. Someone asked about Melania Trump, whether people were proud of her. She answered "It depends on who you ask."  Good answer! She told us that she lived in the country nearby, with her husband and a rescue dog. They are renovating a house that is more than 200 years old and want to live close to nature and simply. She said that Slovenians like the outdoors and are fortunate to live in a county where within the same day you can go skiing and scuba diving.
She led us through the main square of town, with a bell tower on the church with bells cast in the 14th c. They were striking the hour as we arrived. Not many of the town shops were open, but several cafes expecting tourists were open. Our guide took us to a shop that specialized in sea salt and we partook freely of the samples of salted chocolate.
After leaving the rest of the group, Rol and I strolled around the old town, had some refreshments and admired the waterfront activity, including the cleanliness of the water. We watched all the families with children on their roller blades and scooters and bikes, and heard Italian being spoken. This waterfront on a sunny Sunday was clearly the place to be. This waterfront had a beach of sorts, but without sand, just stones. It was too cold for people to be in the water yet, but the shore was equipped with a swimming pier, changing rooms and playground equipment, and clean!
Since this was our last day aboard ship, we decided to take it easy in the afternoon, except for a tour of the ship's bridge. It was a techie's dream place. Our cabin has been right below the bridge on the port side and every once in a while we've been able to look up and wave from our balcony at some of the crew. Rol took advantage of a final rest on the balcony today.  On to Venice tomorrow!

2nd Day in Croatia, April 1, Zadar

The weather keeps holding. It's true that there are a million shades of blue in this part of the Adriatic. Our next port in Croatia took us further north on the Dalmatian coast. Yes, the dog breed was bred and named here. They were bred to attack Turkish horses for the defense of the area. Dalmatia may come from the Ilyrian word for shepherd. The area has poor soil for cultivation, but raising sheep is good. Zadar is another small port town of Venetian heritage, but also has Roman ties that we were able to see in ruins of a forum in the middle of town.
The town boasts a brand new port for cruise ships. Apparently lots of this part of the world is banking on the tourist industry to help the economy. The waterfront also sports a large art installation consisting of a huge disk of solar cells in the flat deck next to the water, and a "water organ" that plays tones made by the movement of the waves. It is the artistic work of Nicola Basich. Some of us were able to take off our shoes and put our feet in the Adriatic water. Very cold!
This morning we boarded a bus with a guide for a special excursion, to the island of Pag, famous for its cheese making. More about that later.
This part of the Adriatic coast is an archipelago. Croatia has 1,244 island, 68 of which are inhabited. We road the bus inland, through a quite rural area with mountains paralleling the coast, and then north for about 10km then crossing a short bridge to the island of Pag. Pag has a unique micro climate made from the strong winds that occur in the winter time. The winds of up to 90 mph come down from the mainland mountains and scour the vegetation. Nothing can grow very tall, but the dry climate produces aromatic herbs like sage and the wind deposits salt on the leaves. Sheep that eat this vegetation produce a milk that is perfect for a mild cheese, and the lamb meat is also a delicacy.
The island of Pag has 6,000 people and 30,000 sheep. It also has salt flats and a growing tourist trade.
An earthquake destroyed the town of "old Pag" in the 15th century, and a famous city planner "George of Dalmatia" (Juraj Dalmatinac) designed "new Pag" in the style of a Roman city with a nice easy grid plan.
Our bus driver was a wealth of information who talked the whole hour of our bus ride to Pag. She was obviously very proud of her country and noted some world-famous Croatians whenever she could (e.g. Nicola Tesla) She told us much about the origins of the Croatian people. Some think that they originated in Iran and moved with their herds of sheep to the Dalmatian coast before Romans came. Now Croatia is beginning to get a reputation as a "party destination" for tourism. Many young people with money are coming from all over the world to rent flotillas of yachts for ocean parties lasting weeks at a time. Driving onto Pag we saw the bleak landscape hat our tour guide had told us about--like a moonscape on the east side, with the vegetation changing as soon as we crossed the mid-island rise.
During a brief stroll around "new Pag" we noticed that it was a destination for a Saturday morning bicycling group, who stopped for coffee on the waterfront.
Our next destination was a famous cheese factory, a modern family-owned business, the Gligora family. The daughter-in-law of the owner met our bus and had us don hair nets, coats, and shoe covers before taking us into the factory. They run milk collection 6 months out of the year, usually 6 days a week. All of their milk is produced locally and 50% of it goes to producing their signature, small batch brand--Paski Sir--sold in Europe and internationally. The guide was obviously very proud of the high quality of their cheese and told us that it had one awards internationally, even in Wisconsin!
The tour of the factory ended in a beautiful tasting room, with wine, bread, olive oil, prosciutto, and several kinds of their cheese, beautifully displayed on plates for each of us. A lovely repast!
Several of our fellow guests in this group had some mobility problems, but Viking did a great job in caring for their needs in getting on and off the bus, and up and down an elevator.
On the ride back to Zadar, our driver took us by the new basketball stadium in town. Basketball is very popular, drawing as many fans as soccer in this town. A famous son of the city played in the US in Utah. He returned to Zadar as a converted Mormon and popularized basketball starting a Mormon community.
Back in town at Zadar we barely had time to visit the Romanesque round church, see the ruins of the old Roman forum and listen for a while to the sounds of the sea organ before returning to the ship.

Another day in the Middle Ages, March 31 in Dubrovnik, Croatia

Entering the harbor in Dubrovnik, Croatia, this morning was a beautiful view of a modern cross-harbor bridge, reminding me of the bridges we saw in The Netherlands. One end is supported by a fan of cables that look like a wing. The weather from the beginning has been absolutely stunning and this day was right in the pattern.
Another day, another medieval city. Our off-ship excursion was a brief one today, a bus ride to the old town, another UNESCO World Heritage Site, with spectacular walls and lots of opportunities for pictures and a thousand years of history that make for incredible stories. The cruise ship port is new, and a bit removed from the old port and old walled city. Apparently real estate prices have soared in the past five years. Croatia has joined the EU, but still hasn’t officially adopted the euro as its currency. The ship cruise director told us to expect to have to pay in kuna, but we found otherwise. Most of the merchants were accepting euros.
I’ve been staring at the maps of the area, and now have a much better sense of the geography involved, the religious history and the ethnic differences between the six new countries. Croatia is more than 90% Roman Catholic, unlike its neighbors. The Dominicans and the Jesuits both have monasteries and long history here. Dubrovnik also has a cathedral.

A brief bus ride to a hillside vantage point allowed us to take pictures from above the old walled city--more Venetian walls--before we entered the city through the old main gate. Patron saint Blaise images adorn the main entry. He is recognizeable because he holds an image of the walled city in his hands. Inside the walled city we strolled the widest avenue, past gargoyles and lovely shops.
I’m glad that our tour guide again today was not afraid to tell us about the recent history of war stemming from the breakup of Yugoslavia. I’ve wanted to know more about that, rather than have that be just a fog of troubling ideas about the Balkans. Our guide told us that she was a little girl during the war. She and her mother and sister fled to the countryside. Men were asked to stay and defend the city against the Serbs, which they did successfully. Holes in the walls from gunshots are being left unrepaired so that people can see the destruction. Now our guide is a young woman who also teaches dance to children at her own school, after guiding in the morning. She was clearly entrepreneurial person.
Aside from the buildings from the middle ages, the new tour attractions are the sites associated with Game of Thrones. We strolled past the large staircase where some of the characters lost their heads and we bought souvenirs at a shop along the "walk of shame" something that seems to be known by everyone. The tour companies are cashing in on that connection, some giving lessons in swordplay.
Despite the age of the buildings, the city has a modern feel and is very lively, with shops and cafes everywhere. This is the beginning of the summer season, and we could tell that the tourist attractions are gearing up for the trade. Everywhere we have been impressed by the friendliness of the people toward Americans and the cleanliness of the shoreline.

March 30 in Kotor, Montenegro

Today is the day we finally left Greece, in a long overnight sail from the island of Corfu to Kotor, Montenegro. We completely passed by Albania, even though we were told that we saw some of the Albanian mountains from Corfu.
The medieval town of Kotor is isolated at the end of two consecutive bays. I got up early to see the ship pass through the first narrow passage, then I slept for about 20 minutes and saw us pass through the second narrow passage, passing by two small islands that we would see later in the evening. Both islands had churches. The church of St. George was on one and Our Lady of the Rocks the other. This latter is a man-made island, where some sailors were said to have found an icon of the Virgin on a rock protruding from the bay. In subsequent years, townspeople along the bay dumped more and more rocks to make enough land for a small church. Even now there is an annual festival for people to dump more rocks on the island. The blue-domed church dedicated to the Virgin is a marker for ships entering the bay.
The geography is fascinating. Some people call it a fiord, like in Norway, but these deep canyons were not made by glaciers but by river beds. A rising sea flooded them, and even now the water is just brackish, not good for fishing but good for raising mussels. Mussel farming is a local industry and mussels are a local delicacy.
The small medieval town is a UNESCO world heritage site, contained within walls that not only encircle the city, but go up steeply into the surrounding mountains. We left the ship (the huge Viking Sky dominates the water front) and walked to the entrance of the old city with our guide. I was glad that she was eager to talk about the countries from the former Yugoslavia and learn a bit about its recent political history. When Yugoslavia was breaking apart in the 1990’s I was too preoccupied with our young family to pay very much attention. It seemed a part of the world that was mysterious and hopelessly complicated for me to spend too much time trying to figure out. For the past several days I’ve been staring at maps of the Adriatic and its eastern countries and I find myself wanting to know more. So now I have the motivation.
Montenegro is the newest of the independent states, just having broken from Serbia in 2006. They have applied to be part of the EU, but have not received final approval. While we were walking around someone from out group mentioned that the US Senate had just voted for Montenegro to join NATO. Even though Montenegro is not yet in the Eurozone yet, they use the EU currency as the legacy of having used the German Mark to help fight a nasty hyperinflation in the 90’s. When Germany switched to the euro, so did Montenegro. The six countries from the former Yugoslavia are now Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia/Hertzegovina, and Macedonia. Serbia still contains the semi-independent provinces of Kosovo and Vojvodina, according to our guide, but the situation is still complicated. Kosovo has declared its independence, but not all countries recognize it. The US does and has built a military base there.
Our guide was a very young and eager to express her opinion that the people of the Balkans should not be fighting any more. She wants everyone to get along and hopes that young people will not be drawn into the fights of previous generations. I would hope this along with her. Montenegro is too small a country with too few resources to have wars with its neighbors. Tourism is its main industry. Maybe the lure of the big cruise ships will help unite the economies of these Adriatic states.
We followed our guide through the main square to a Roman church where we caught our first glance of Roma (gypsy) person, begging on the steps to the church. The guide seemed distressed that she was there and then relieved when a policeman showed up to shoo her away. Inside the church dedicated to St. Tryphon, a 2nd century Christian martyr originally from Turkey whose head is supposed to be located inside, we noticed people other than tourists visiting to pray. Our guide told us that 70% of Montenegro is Eastern Orthodox and 30% Catholic, but in this town the percentages are reversed. St. Tryphon is a saint shared by both traditions and on his saint day, the town can come together for his procession. Our guide also told us that the Orthodox church is split itself between Montenegran Orthodox and Serbian Orthodox—more complexity. She told us that the Orthodox church is corrupt and losing its hold on people.
The town of Kotor has been rocked by earthquakes, as many towns along the Adriatic have been. A particularly bad one in 1667 destroyed much of the old town, and left the two towers of the cathedral with uneven heights. Another earthquake in 1979 was similarly devastating. Both of those earthquakes happened on Easter Sunday, in a year when Easter was the same date in both the Catholic and Orthodox calendars. This year 2017 is another year when the Easter date is shared, and some superstitious folks are nervous.
Another interesting building in the old town is a former merchants’ palace, now turned into a maritime museum, celebrating Kotor’s heritage as a maritime trading center. Kotor was a trading town, part of the Venetian empire. We are quickly learning that this part of the Mediterranean is a fighting ground between the Islamic Ottomans, the Orthodox Byzantines, and the Catholic Venetians. and we need to understand that conflicted part of the middle ages in order to understand the buildings and countries as they are today. All have conquered and fought over the Adriatic coastline, and all have left their influence. The city walls in Kotor were built by the Venetians to fend off intruders. Artifacts in the museum include collections of swords and firearms. Some of the swords were captured Turkish swords. Kotor used to be known for its arms manufacturing, but not any more. Our guide told us that firearms are now strictly controlled. Maybe all the fighting has soured the population on guns. We noticed that Montenegrans are tall people. Our guide was very tall and told us that she was a notive. Rol knows of some NBA players from this country.
With some time to spare, Rol and I wandered the narrow, and NOT grid-like, streets. We could have easily gotten lost but for the pictograph map given us by the guide. I traced our route through the city so that we could find our way back. Some told us that even native Kotor people get lost in the old city. One of the walks we considered, but quickly determined that we weren’t going to do was the climb the walls of the city, up to the chapel of St. John high up the cliff. It might have given us some great views if could have tackled the 1,000 or more steps. Better to go back to the ship, and rest up for our excursion later that evening.

I mentioned the church on the rocks at the entrance to the harbor. That evening we took a boat out to the church to listen to a concert of music from two guitarists, locally famous. It was a beautiful short boat ride and the host met us with a glass of champagne to put us in the mood. The guitar duo played their own compositions. We could hear influences of eastern and western music. Rol bought their CD and subsequent presentations from this trip will no doubt include that music.