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Thursday, 29 October 2015

Dying Embers

Spent the last half hour trying to revive a dying fire. It’s a lot of work and still touch and go whether or not it will catch. The wood is smouldering. Some bits of coal look hopefully red. But it’s not hot enough even to set the paper alight. I don’t see many signs of life.

It reminds me of Paul writing to Timothy, advising him to fan into flame his faith in God. It’s easy to get distracted. To grow cool. To be content with the glowing embers rather than craving the crackling flames. Then, when the winds of the world blow cold on us and we long for the warmth of God’s love, we find ourselves distanced from him. He hasn’t moved, but we have allowed the fire of our love to grow dim.

In Jesus’ letters to the churches in Revelation which John records, he advises that we remember our first love (for him) and get back to that state of passion and excitement. We can allow ourselves to settle for embers when we should be fanning them into flames. 

If we want God to set the world on fire (in a good way!), we need to be giving him everything we have so he can work through us. 

Not sure this fire is going to get going before I decide to just go to bed. I am sure that with God’s help my love for him is going to carry on burning strong.

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

The Great Russian Adventure - 3


When in a foreign land, it is a blessing to be guided in the choosing of restaurants. Georgian cuisine is popular in Moscow and St Petersburg, we discovered, and our first dinner in Moscow was in a superb restaurant called Argo. We started the meal with a drink with a liquorice flavour called TAR XUN. We enjoyed chicken in a sauce called CA SI VE. Meat, SHASHLIK, cooked on skewers and served with tiny dishes of sauces for dipping, and bread baked with cheese and an egg – looking like a fried egg – in the middle, for tearing and sharing. Finished with Baklava. Spelled with a P.

In other Georgian restaurants we enjoyed meats cooked in walnut sauces, unusual and delicious.

We were treated to traditional Russian breakfasts cooked skilfully by Ksenia: fried eggs with ham, black bread, cheese and meat and tea. Other mornings we had BLINI, traditional pancakes. In Tver, we enjoyed caviar on bread spread thickly with butter first. We did notice there is a fondness in Russia for sour cream and other dairy products.

One evening we visited a popular workers’ cafeteria. We each took a number and when it was our turn, we chose from a spread of unusual (to us) dishes. Salads are layered and served up like lasagne, usually without a lettuce leaf in sight. Liver and other offal are enjoyed (one menu even offered entrails!), and seaweed salad. 

We started a meal in one restaurant with exotic little patties made of spinach, beetroot or green beans and served with sour cream. Eggplant (aubergine), rolled up and sliced thin and then grilled. Washed down with Georgian vodka.

Not everything was delicious. We made one big mistake in Gorky Park, when, on our own, we ordered what we thought sounded nice, but spent the next hour or two regretting our choices. Lamb pancakes. Chicken in a sort of thick white soup with a bit of what looked like curry powder floating listlessly by. 

Our final meal in Moscow was at Cafe Pushkin and was memorable. I tried Kvass, the Russian drink made from fermented black bread. The less said about it the better. Then I had borscht which, given my lifelong aversion to beets, I didn’t expect to like. It was delicious, one of the best soups I’ve ever had. Then on to duck which was sliced, served with some cherries, sauce, ravioli stuffed with pate, and a cherry risotto. It was a work of art on a plate. I finished with pistachio crème brulee which again was gorgeously served, flamed at the table by the waiter.

We all have different tastes. What is delicious to one person is awful to another. In the year the Berlin Wall came down, an aunt and uncle of mine took a trip through Russia and Germany (bringing us pieces of concrete from the broken wall). They arrived here starving, declaring that the Russian food was terrible.

I didn’t expect Russian food to be a highlight of the trip, but in fact it was wonderful.  As were our friends, guiding us through the menus.

Gathering round a table of food is such a universal way of sharing lives with other people. Jesus did it so much he was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard. Perhaps people would say that about us.

Monday, 26 October 2015

Russian Candlesticks

We bought two beautiful candlesticks in St Petersburg. They are the ubiquitous colours on lacquer ware there, very striking and iconic. I assumed they were a pair.

It’s only now as I sit and look at them across the table, with half-consumed candles in them speaking of a fun dinner party the other night, that I realize they have different patterns painted on them. One bulbous part looks fatter on one than the other. One even looks slightly taller than the other. 

They weren’t sold as a pair. They simply clustered on a glass display shelf with a dozen others and we quickly chose them without considering their detail would be different because they share the same colour scheme – red, gold, green and black. But now...one seems to major on strawberries and the other on cherries.

Does it matter?

Not a bit. And it makes me think of the church, where believers wear ‘Jesus colours’ in our cores but our expression of those colours may differ slightly. God has made each one of us unique. We share a commonality in our love for Jesus, and as we are filled with the same Holy Spirit we each display the same ‘colour scheme’. But my gifts are different from your gifts, and my personality is unique. So I may look more like strawberries where you look more like cherries. 

Part of the delight of creation.  God is the grand designer whose eye for the tiniest detail is exquisite, and his joy in the grandest expression of life is contagious.

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Be Still and Know

Be still and know that I am God.

What a glorious command. It makes me breathe deep and relax.

Yesterday again I was walking along a river, where the day before I had been drawn to consider the waters rushing and tumbling over the rocks, their droplets catching the sun’s rays and twinkling like diamonds. It had caused me to reflect that there is beauty in brokenness.

Yesterday instead I was drawn to the reflections of the trees, arrayed in their autumnal finery, clearly visible in the still waters. Those reflections could not be seen once the waters got flowing fast, but where they pooled and paused on their way to the sea, the oranges and reds of the trees were stunning.

Be still and know that I am God. It is when we are still that we can best reflect God. When we have been still with God, others can see him in us. We may not be aware of it, but others are. We are reflecting the beauty of our creator rather than the turmoil of our own lives.

I also noticed that in a quiet tributary where the kayakers were practicing their slalom maneuvers, the reflections could be seen, and that out of that quiet space, the waters gathered pace to re-enter the river and cascade over the rocks, sparkling in the sunlight like gemstones.

The quiet times in God’s presence prepare us for the frenetic times in life when all we can do is rush and tumble, but in those moments of rush and tumble, because of our earlier preparation, his glory can still be seen.

Oh I do like to walk by the river. Be still today, and know that he is God.

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

The Great Russian Adventure - 2

Broad boulevards, filled with expensive cars. Range Rovers, BMWs, Mercedes. I mean, filled. Traffic jams characterise Moscow’s broad boulevards. There may be poverty, but it isn’t out there on the streets of the big city. 

Has poverty been driven underground? Not that we saw. Ksenia gave us a guided tour of the most beautiful of the metro stations, and then set us loose to navigate the system on our own. With some forward planning, we were able to move where we wanted to in a short space of time: as the rear lights of one train disappeared down a tunnel, the approaching lights of the next could just about be seen. So many trains, most of them crowded even out of rush hour. We found it inexpensive, especially with the exchange rate in our favour, and bustling with people. People who were probably a touch irritated by the tourists impeding the flow by pausing to photograph and gawp at the artwork in some of the more magnificent stations.

Some stations are dedicated to the various republics which made up the Soviet Union. One memorable station in particular depicts the people of the Ukraine, bringing in the harvests from fertile fields. We saw armed soldiers in other stations, too, but that station had a cohort of four soldiers patrolling the platforms, reminding us of the tension and struggle in that area right now.

It is interesting that Stalin, ruthless as he was as a leader, had the vision for constructing this transport system in the 30s, at the same time he was wiping out millions of his fellow countrymen and women. Why did he think it important? 

He recognised the spiritual hunger common to all for something beautiful, something to celebrate and pledge allegiance to. He ordered the building of this system of trains, also grasping an opportunity to propagandise the suffering population by depicting scenes of heroism in the fields of corn and on the battlefields. Propaganda yes, but displayed amongst chandeliers and marble columns, carved on statues and exploding in colourful mosaics, painted on the ceilings, depicted on the walls and floors. Echoes of the lavish decoration in Orthodox churches, many of which were demolished by his orders, too. Yes, give the people beauty, but make sure it celebrates the glories of the Soviet experiment. God, he thought, is dead.

As the communists razed the Church of Christ the Saviour to the ground and replaced it with a swimming pool, they recognised that people need beauty to celebrate and give glory to.
Psalm 150 urges us to praise God in his sanctuary. In their desire to obliterate the people’s connection to God, the Soviet Union’s leaders lavished money they didn’t have (as much of the population was starving) on temples to the communist struggle and (hoped-for) achievements. 

The stations stand as a reminder that the human spirit is about much more than practicalities and economic success. The human spirit longs for God, creator of heaven and earth and of all that is in it. Puny man may try to erase that longing or replace it with a longing for something else, but such effort is futile because worshipping God is in our DNA.

Interesting that when perestroika happened in the 1990’s, the people pressed to have the Church of Christ the Saviour rebuilt. So the government dug out the swimming pool and rebuilt the church exactly as it had been. Inside is a riot of gilded columns and statues, and paintings telling the gospel stories. 

When we went inside, we found that it isn’t simply a gallery of art and beauty. It is a living church, where many individuals bow before icons and in chapels, lighting candles and praying to God. 

Psalm 2 describes this clearly. ‘The kings of the earth rise up and the rulers band together against the Lord and against his anointed, saying “Let us break their chains and throw off their shackles.” The One enthroned in heaven laughs.

It hasn’t been a very funny period for the suffering masses of Russia, but their soul remained strong and vibrant.

Perhaps ‘religion’ is the opium of the masses, but faith in the living God sets us free. All of us.