Archive for the ‘Europe’ Category

Horse in a Church

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The view on the Ponte Vecchio

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

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

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

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

A Precarious Life

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

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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Apostle Paul put it this way:

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

Romans 3:21-24 “The Message”

Keep Looking Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep Looking Up!

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

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