New Zealand: 13. What was your favourite place in NZ?

Favourite place in NZ?

Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu

The following morning dawned bright, warm and sunny, and we were hopeful that we’d be able to get up on the glacier this time. We walked round the corner to the Helicopter Line, where once again we were allocated to the groups, given our wristbands, reminded of the safety procedures (Never approach a helicopter from the rear; don’t try and open the door yourselves, our crew will help you out when it’s safe…) This time we made it across the highway and through the short stretch of bush to the actual landing site. We even saw a helicopter coming in to land at the far end of the open ground. And then the message came over the phone: Cloud has come down, it’s too dangerous to fly, flying cancelled until further notice.

Apparently this is common, even normal. Fewer than 50% of people who book a helicopter flight up onto the Franz Josef glacier actually make it up there. And there would be another opportunity for a helicopter ride later in the tour: just not onto the glacier.

So it was back to the coach, and on the road again. It’s 144 km from Franz Josef down to Haast, described by Denis as the most remote settlement in New Zealand. And the west coast of South Island is the wettest part of the country, with up to 7 m (that’s seven metres) of rain annually. It felt like quite a lot of it fell during that morning1, during which we stopped to have a quick run through a bit of rain forest to see one of the waterfalls.

running through New Zealand rain forest

Rainforests don’t have to be tropical: there are temperate rainforests too, of which those in this part of New Zealand are typical. They are like nothing I’ve ever seen or experienced before.

From Haast the SH6 takes you inland up the Haast Valley, and over the alps again, then south among some of the glacial lakes of South Island. Lake Wanaka on our right, then Lake Hawea on our left, and so down at last to Queenstown, on the shores of Lake Wakatipu. It’s 248 km from Haast to Queenstown: this was a long day on the road.

So: what was my favourite place in New Zealand? There are so many candidates, so many wonderful sights and scenes. But I think I’d have to say, Queenstown. Not because it’s the birthplace of (commercial) bungee jumping, or a favourite centre for lots of other extreme sports that you have to be mad to pursue. Just because it is an almost unbelievably beautiful setting, a charming small city with so much going on, and set in the midst of scenery that looks like it’s straight out of the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Which is because so much of it was used by Peter Jackson when he made the film.

How can you not love a place with sunsets like this?

sunset on Lake Wakatipu

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  1. Though actually we were very fortunate throughout our time in South Island, that it didn’t rain as much as it might have done. ↩︎

New Zealand: 12. Over the Alps and down to the sea

The Tranzalpine is one of the world’s great train journeys, and one of New Zealand’s most exciting, too: from Christchurch on South Island’s east coast, across the Canterbury region, up and over the Southern Alps, and down to Greymouth on the west coast. It was also one of our earliest morning starts: we had to leave the hotel at 0715 to get to the station in time to catch the early train.

The whole journey from Christchurch to Greymouth takes almost 5 hours, but we left the train at Arthur’s Pass to rejoin our coach (which had made the distance in less time) for the westward descent. We had still been able to enjoy the spectacular views from the train as it climbed into the mountains. We even saw snow – though not much of it – on the highest peaks.
Leaving the Tranzalpine at Arthur's Pass

The descent by road was one of the steepest gradients I’ve ever been driven down, and I was happy not to be the driver, especially of a coach full of 51 people and their luggage. Our first stop was at Hokitika, now a small coastal town, but in the 1860s it was a bustling gold rush town, filled with prospectors from all over the world who had come to the west coast to make their fortunes. Eleanor Catton’s Man Booker Prize-winning novel The Luminaries is a fascinating mystery that also gives a picture of the town and the period.

Hokitika today is a centre for the traditional greenstone industry, but its major industry now is tourism. We had the best lunch here of any of our NZ travels, at the Aurora Restaurant where we shared a grilled chicken open sandwich – freshly prepared! unlike many of the plastic-wrapped lunchtime sandwiches we had eaten on other days – and some Bundaberg ginger beer.

After lunch our journey took us onward down the west coast highway to Franz Josef. Here we made our first unsuccessful attempt to get a helicopter ride to take us up onto the Franz Josef Glacier. First you have to be weighed so they can select a passenger manifest of the right total weight, and distribution in the helicopter. Then we even got as far as being allocated to groups, given wrist bands and taken through the safety instructions (main point: Always approach the helicopter from the front; never go anywhere near the tail end. Anyone who’s ever watched ER won’t need telling…) We were led out of the office and halfway across the road to the landing site, before the message came through that flights were cancelled because of poor visibility.

There’s not much else to see at Franz Josef, and not too many eating places (though a few more than Denis let on about…) so the whole party ate at The Landing.

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On reading the New Testament in Lent

As part of my Lenten discipline this year, I decided to read the New Testament again. Lots of reasons: it was reading the New Testament, in 1970, that first made the innate faith of my childhood and teenage really come alive for me; it’s a long time since I read it from cover to cover in a short space of time; I feel put to shame by the common practice of our Muslim neighbours, who read their holy book during Ramadan…

259 chapters in the New Testament. 40 days of Lent. That means you can do it by reading 7 chapters a day, with a day or two to spare in case you’ve fallen behind. (And likewise Sundays, as a ‘day off’ to either catch up, or because you want to spend more time in church…)

It’s proving interesting. So far I’m still working through Gospels, and the familiar tales are so familiar that I sometimes feel I’ve been reading on auto-pilot, hardly even taking them in. Then sometimes you stumble over something and stop: something you’ve never noticed before, or maybe knew a long time ago and have forgotten, or that speaks to you as if for the first time.

Today I was reading Mark chapter 10 and suddenly asked myself, Why were the religious teachers asking Jesus about divorce? Was it a theological and ethical hot potato of the time, like same-sex marriage is for us today1? Did they genuinely want to know where he stood on a current divisive issue? Had they heard his teaching – such as Matthew records in the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ – forbidding divorce? Whatever the reason, they would be asking the question to try and hear something they could use against Jesus.

Then, in the story of blind Bartimaeus receiving his sight. When Jesus asks him, What do you want me to do for you? he answers Rabbouni, let me see again. Only, the NRSV2 says My teacher, let me see again; and relegates to the margin the little note Aramaic: Rabbouni. It’s so unusual for Aramaic words to be preserved in the original Koine Greek of the New Testament, that you’d think it would be worth leaving it in the text, rather than the margin. The only other time this Aramaic word appears in the NT is in John 20, when Mary Magdalene, grieving and weeping at the empty tomb, sees the risen Jesus, fails to recognise him, mistakes him for the gardener, and he calls her by name: Mary. She answers Rabbouni, which (John explains) means My teacher. It’s extraordinary to me that this blind beggar, sitting by the roadside, who for all we know has never encountered Jesus before, uses the same form of address to Jesus as one of Jesus’ closest friends, who has spent a lot of time around Jesus, listening to him, learning from him. What does it mean, that Bartimaeus calls Jesus Rabbouni, my teacher? I don’t know. But isn’t it a great question!

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  1. It seems it was. There were some rabbis who taught that divorce was definitely a last-resort strategy; while others were saying a man (of course) was within his rights to divorce his wife for quite trivial misdemeanours that displeased him. ↩︎

  2. New Revised Standard Version ↩︎

Exceeding righteousness

Exceeding Righteousness

Sermon first preached, and posted on my blog, 16 February 2014

Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount has quite a good press really. Lots of people who are very far from being practising Christians regard it as being evidence for the belief that Jesus was a great moral teacher. Sadly, that doesn’t always (often?) lead them to follow these teachings. It’s easy to see that if more people did actually live by them, most of the world’s problems would simply go away. But I don’t know whether Christians have been all that much better at following these teachings. In fact I seem to remember that the Scofield Reference Bible (a very influential study bible among evangelicals even today) has a note explaining that since the Sermon on the Mount is impossible to actually put into practice, it must be Jesus’ teaching about how people will live after the Second Coming has taken place and he has established his kingdom. If this is actually what it says (and I haven’t just imagined it) it’s a disastrous example of how Christians misread and misunderstand even the most important of scriptures.

It’s true that we struggle with the Sermon on the Mount — but so we should, and we’re going to struggle with it a bit more this morning.

It seems to me that the passage we have for this morning’s Gospel (Matthew 5.21-37) can be read as a kind of exposition or unpacking of what Jesus tells his disciples in v.20: For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Now, his disciples will have felt crushed at this point. Oh! whoa! what chance have we got then? Because the scribes and the Pharisees were the. most. righteous. people. ever. They were the ones everyone looked up to, regarded as an example of godly living, were sure they could never aspire to. Well, the scribes and the Pharisees thought that as well, and had succeeded in getting everyone else to think it. And that, probably, was the problem.

Because what follows is Jesus explaining the Law and its teachings in such a way (remember, he’s said that he hasn’t come to abolish the Law; not a stroke of a letter will pass from the Law until all is accomplished) that he completely undermines much (most?) of what the religious teachers stood for, and shows that their so-called righteousness is really nothing of the kind, it’s not what God has in mind at all. This is the thing about so much of what religious people mean by righteousness: it’s based on a very legalistic kind of religion, which puts external conformity way ahead of the heart of the matter.

Here’s what I mean. Legalistic religion is all about knowing, and telling other people, how to be righteous. You must do this; you must not do that. And perhaps even more importantly: you don’t need to do that; doing this will suffice for you to make the grade. So, if the Law says Thou shalt not kill, it will be sufficient if you haven’t actually terminated someone’s life. If it says Thou shalt not bear false witness, it will be OK to lie anywhere else, as long as you don’t lie in court.

But Jesus isn’t having any of this dishonesty, this cheating with God — which is what it actually is. The Sermon on the Mount undermines these pretences by going to the heart of what God really desires. Jesus wants to talk not just about what the Law is, what it says, but what it’s for. And I would say the whole purpose, aim of the Law, is to enable human flourishing. It is all about shalom, the total peace and well-being and common-wealth that is God’s will for humanity, in fact for the whole creation. So, it’s not enough not to have murdered anyone. We also need to deal with the root cause in the human heart: which is anger, despising your neighbour, thinking that they are of so little worth that you can call them fool, or spit on them, or abuse them, or discriminate against them, or mistreat them in some way. It’s not enough not to have actually committed adultery: we must deal with the lust in our hearts which looks at another person not as a person at all, but as an object for our physical pleasure or gratification. It’s not enough to observe all the proper legal forms when you want to divorce your wife (and in those days men could do that, on pretty trivial pretexts): you shouldn’t even be there in the first place. Don’t even think about it, I think Jesus is saying — remember what marriage is, what it’s for. It’s not enough not to swear falsely: you shouldn’t need to be swearing at all, your speech should be so true, so transparently honest, that it doesn’t need any So help me Gods, or whatever. So all the time, when Jesus is saying, You’ve heard that it was said … but I say to you … he’s not undermining or revising the Law. He is saying: The teachers of the Law have misrepresented what it means; and what I’m telling you, is what it’s really for.

So. How may we relate any of this to the moral issues that concern us in our day? With the Church we love tearing itself to pieces in arguments about gay marriage, and women bishops, and looking more and more stupid and irrelevant to people outside — wouldn’t it be nice if Jesus had said something about these things? Sadly he didn’t. So I don’t know what the answer to that question is: How may we relate any of this to the moral issues that concern us in our day? I don’t know, and I’m getting too tired of the argument, and the people who are doing it. Because so many of them seem to want to portray themselves as the righteous ones, and their opponents as the opposite. It reminds me of a novella that I had to study at university, Michael Kohlhaas, by Heinrich von Kleist. I’ve forgotten nearly everything about it, except for the description of this central character, in the very first sentence: On the banks of the River Havel there lived, about the middle of the 16th century, a horse-dealer by the name of Michael Kohlhaas, who was at the same time one of the most righteous, and one of the most entsetzlich [= terrible, dreadful, horrific, inhuman] men of his time. His passion for justice, righteousness, was so overwhelmingly huge, that it led him to commit the most terrible atrocities, causing death, destruction and mayhem to the whole country.

It’s not a bad description of people who adhere to any extreme form of religion or morality, whether it’s bombing abortion clinics and killing people who work there in the name of the right to life; or killing women for sexual transgressions, even if the transgression in question is having been raped. Of course, the squabbles about gay marriage and women bishops aren’t exactly in the same league, but there’s a tang of the same tendency. We are right, and we know we are right, and we don’t care how much damage our rightness causes to those who disagree with us.

Let’s step back and say, It’s time to stop looking at what we think the rules are and what they say, and think about what they are for. If they contribute to shalom, the flourishing of human beings and creation, then OK. If they prevent that flourishing, perhaps it’s time to let go of our interpretation of the rules, and change it, or the rules. I haven’t been keen on the idea of gay marriage. In fact when I was first ordained I would have taken the evangelical line that the Bible says homosexuality is wrong, and that’s it. As if we could say to a gay person: You may think you are attracted to someone of the same sex, and your life will be enriched by being with them, but you’re mistaken. What you need is to marry a nice girl (or boy) instead. But what I’ve been hearing for years from the gay people I listen to (and how brave are they, to speak about it at all!) is that their sexual orientation is a deep part of their identity, it’s how they experience that God has created them — not a wilful choice, not any kind of choice. And a permanent, faithful, stable union with a partner — what we call marriage if it is between a man and a woman — will save them from loneliness and desperate promiscuity. In other words, help them to flourish. Why shouldn’t they have the same opportunities to flourish, as men and women who want to share their lives?

I’d say the case for women bishops is even clearer. Not that I welcomed the thought of women bishops either, at first — but then I’m not all that keen on male bishops (don’t tell Bishop John). The supposed arguments against, from scripture and tradition, are frankly unconvincing, while the effect of not having women in leadership positions serves to perpetuate the subjection of women to the rank of second-class human beings, which has so often been the way not just in the church (actually, I think the Church can point to some shining exceptions) but in so many societies to this day. Giving proper scope for the wonderful gifts of women in ministry, releasing those gifts in the church, not only helps those women to flourish, but helps the whole church to flourish.

You might disagree with how I’ve applied what I think Jesus’ approach to the Law in the Sermon on the Mount is. I’d have to accept that, because it’s part of what I described as our continuing struggle with understanding, and living out, these teachings. But what I would encourage us all to do is keep on with that questioning and struggling. The heart of the Sermon on the Mount is the idea that we are called to live as children of God, our heavenly Father, and that relationship undermines, or trumps, all other human loyalties or obediences.

Let us pray.

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New Zealand: 11. A first look at Christchurch

Leaving Nelson on Monday morning (bags out at 0700, depart at 0800) we began one of our longest days on the road, travelling down to Christchurch. Christchurch is almost directly south of Nelson, but since the 2016 Kaikoura Earthquake (the second largest earthquake in New Zealand since European settlement began) it’s impossible to take the SH1 highway down the east coast. Instead we had to set off south-west on SH6, then south on SH65 through Victoria Forest Park, then south-east on SH7 before rejoining SH1 at Waipara. It’s a total distance of over 420 km, which Google Maps reckons takes 5 hours 13 minutes, but I guess that would be by car rather than in a 53-seater coach. Much of this route is not designed for the heavy traffic that has been forced to take this diversion since the earthquake, so there were many twists and turns and roadworks along the way.

Although we had various photo stops to look at the view, I didn’t take many photos. Here are some trees, mountains and clouds,

Somewhere on the road to Christchurch

and here is one of the many ‘braided rivers’ that are so characteristic of New Zealand’s landscape.

Braided river

It’s the kind of place I imagined seeing the refugees from Rohan crossing. Instead, there’s just a big orange digger out there in the distance.

When we reached Christchurch, everyone was a bit tired and crotchety. But Alison and I were very keen to try and get into the city centre and have a look at the ‘cardboard cathedral’ which we had heard about when Bishop Victoria spoke to the Oxford Diocesan Clergy Conference in 2014. We knew that we were scheduled to return to Christchurch later in the tour, but we weren’t entirely confident about how much the itinerary at that point might allow us to see. So we decided to walk into the city centre – which turned out to be 4.9 km, and took about an hour. It wasn’t helped by the fact that, as we neared the city centre, there were more and more road closures and diversions where work was still going on to demolish, repair and rebuild in the aftermath of the 2011 Christchurch earthquake. But we found our way to Cathedral Square, where what is left of the original Cathedral stands temporarily derelict.

Christchurch Cathedral in ruins

Then we continued to the site of the transitional cathedral AKA cardboard cathedral. We had hoped it would still be open – the guidebook we had looked at said it was open till 7 p.m. in the summer. The guidebook was wrong! It closed at 5 p.m., and the custodian had just set the alarms and locked up.

Christchurch Transitional Cathedral

Ever since 2011 there have been heated discussions about what to do with the old Cathedral. We got the impression from Bishop Victoria that she might have been of the party which wanted to demolish it completely and build something new. But the heritage faction, who wanted to rebuild the old Cathedral exactly as it was (it is, after all, 130 years old!) appears to have won the day. Perhaps if the original Cathedral had been more thoroughly destroyed they might have been able to do something like in Coventry? – building a modern cathedral alongside the ruins of the old, as a reminder of… well, in this case, the forces of Nature, perhaps?

The custodian gave us a lift part of the way back to the hotel, for which we were very grateful after the long day of travelling.

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New Zealand: 10. A second day in Marlborough and Nelson

Almost as soon as we set foot on South Island, waiters and other people, when they heard we’d just come from the North, began asking us, “So, which do you like best? North Island or South Island?” The answer we came to give, more and more (so that we might appear to have given it some serious and measured thought) was something along the lines of, “North Island for the history, and the Maori culture; South Island for the scenery.” But in truth, now that we’re home, I would probably say much more unequivocally, South Island.

(Oh, I don’t know though. What about Auckland? and the the Bay of Islands? and Napier? So maybe the jury is still out, after all.)

But South Island! Which is often called (by South Islanders!) “the mainland”. It is, quite simply, stunning. Almost beyond belief.

On the first morning we woke up in Nelson, the coach took us north along the coast of Tasman Bay, to the town of Kaiteriteri. This is the place of embarkation for the boat cruise up into Abel Tasman National Park. Suzanne had warned us that the boat operators were fairly laid-back and disorganised about which boat ticket-holders were supposed to embark on, and this turned out to be the case. I think we finally boarded from the third queue we had joined. Having watched the film Dunkirk on the flight to Singapore, I was used to the idea of lining up on a sandy beach to climb a gangplank onto a small vessel. But was relieved that we were not being strafed by Stukas while we were waiting.

Some of our party opted to be put ashore at Apple Tree Bay and walk 7 km through the park to be picked up again by the boat at Anchorage. But it was such a hot sunny day that Alison felt the heat would prove too much, so we decided to stay aboard and enjoy the ride. There was a sense in which both choices were wrong. Yes, we didn’t get sun- or heat-stroke aboard the boat; but the view of most of the coast was just rocks and trees. While for those who took the walk, most of their way was in the shade of the trees; but they didn’t get too great a view either.

But on the other hand, though rocks and trees may start to look a bit samey, you also get spectacular views of little islands, huge skies and distant mountains:

Abel Tasman Bay

The most-photographed rock in the National Park (possibly in the whole of New Zealand) is Split Apple Rock

Split Apple Rock

It’s a huge round piece of granite, which looks like an apple that’s been sliced in half. Natural forces are awesome1, aren’t they?

We returned to Nelson in the early afternoon with the rest of the day free to explore on our own. Nelson is an attractive little city, famous for being the place where the first game of rugby in New Zealand was played, in 1870, and for being the Centre of New Zealand (allegedly, or possibly. Or maybe not.) As well as being the place where the One Ring to rule them all was really made. For the film at least.

A word of wisdom about walking to the Centre of New Zealand. It is quite a steep climb to get there, and we were climbing it on a very hot sunny afternoon (and had left our water behind because we thought it was only 50 metres away like the sign said2), and were not helped by cheerful kiwis walking the other way and telling us “It’s not that far now!” ‘Not that far’ when you’re walking steeply uphill turns out to be very different from how the same distance feels to the people coming back down.

Part of the view of Nelson from the Centre of New Zealand

Part of the view of Nelson from the Centre of New Zealand

It was in Nelson that we were able to get to our only Sunday service of our stay in New Zealand, which was Evensong at the Cathedral.

Nelson Cathedral

The Cathedral has some PROs: We could find the entrance; and they were actually having an evening service. And some CONs: It has a beautiful labyrinth on the floor, but you couldn’t walk it because it was covered up by a ghastly display of Christmas Trees, which had proved so popular that it had been extended right through January. Evensong was conducted by the Dean, who didn’t seem overly familiar with the Book of Common Prayer: we didn’t have either a psalm or the Collect of the day, because they weren’t printed in the congregational order of service. But he was obviously enjoying himself greatly, and really appreciated our singing.

Dinner in the hotel restaurant, because they had a special offer for guests who ‘ate in’ on Sunday evening. This wasn’t a bad idea for them, in a city where there were so many other great eating places. But the hotel food was pretty good, too.

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  1. We enjoyed the New Zealand use of this awesome word. Quite often used by waiters taking your order: where in this country they might record your order with the words “Great choice!”, we found in New Zealand that “Awesome!” was much more common. Such fun. ↩︎
  2. It was 50 metres from the sign on the corner of the street, to the entrance to the park. ↩︎

New Zealand: 9. Crossing to South Island

North Island to South Island

It was up before 0600 the next morning to leave the hotel at 0730 to catch the ferry to South Island. In the near perfect summer weather we were having, it was a beautiful crossing, leaving the port of Wellington and sailing the 92 km over the Cook Strait and along the Marlborough Sound to Picton.

Leaving Wellington Harbour

Leaving Wellington Harbour

And this is why it’s called Aotearoa: the land of the long white cloud:

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From Picton our coach took us first into the Marlborough wine producing region, to visit the Wither Hills Winery. Wine-tasting! We were surprised throughout our time in New Zealand, that the wine in the restaurants seemed quite expensive. On reflection there was a much higher mark-up than we’re used to at home, compared with the prices in the supermarkets and liquor stores which were substantially less.

Wine-tasting at the Wither Hills Winery

And then back to the city of Nelson, where we were to stay for our first two nights in South Island. Nelson is a sweet little city with its cathedral, and straight main street where most of the shops and restaurants are situated. It turns out that the ring used as the ‘One Ring’ in the film Lord of the Rings was made by a local jeweller in Nelson. Wow!

On a balmy summer evening there were lots of great eating places along Trafalgar Street, with people sitting at pavement tables. We ate pizza at Bacco, with a nice bottle of Montepulciano from the local Marlborough region.