Sunday, 27 June 2010

Smoking in Finland

I have come to the conclusion that Finns have a great affinity with smoke.  I suppose it must be to do with the vast amount of wood that there is in the country with over two thirds of the land covered by forests. They are beautiful forests too with a mixture of various pines, larches and the ubiquitous silver birch.  Along with the forests and scattered liberally across the landscape, are more than 100,000 lakes. The land is not high but is undulating, sloping to the southwest where the lakes become inlets of the Baltic sea and the forest covered hills become peninsulas and islands that drift into the Gulf of Bothnia. The archipelago around Turku is made up of hundreds and hundreds of rocky islets each with a summer cottage.

We have been privileged to stay at Soili and Matti's summer cottage in the hinterland on one of the many lakes and in a few weeks we will have a couple of nights in a summer cottage in the islands off Turku.  Along with this is the wonderful Finnish hospitality which features a lot of smoke.  It began last week in Rantasalmi where we were participating in a week long Fatherheart School. The centre we stayed in is famous for its smoke sauna. Sauna is something of a national institution in Finland. Everyone seems to have  one in their home. We even had a short boat trip around the lake at Savonlinna and the boat had one too. Why any one would want to have a sauna on a small pleasure boat that sails on hourly trips around the lake beats me. I can imagine all these people jumping in the lake after the sauna only to find the boat steaming away into the distance.

Sauna is taken very seriously in Finland. There is a ritual element to the whole process. The extremes of temperature in the sauna and the total contrast of jumping naked into a freezing lake seems to have in some way shaped the Finnish psyche. Persuading visitors to participate in these rituals amounts to a national pastime. At Rantasalmi they boasted one of the finest smoke saunas in the land.  The hut used is very old and blackened inside and out. The fire takes about 6 hours to build the temperatures to a scorching 90c. When finally it is ready the hut is entered and the participants sit in a dark attic like area amid the gloom. It is supposed to be the ultimate sauna experience. Well it was certainly memorable. Mercifully we were spared the bunch of birch sticks that often accompany the event and are used for stimulating the circulation, which is Finnish code for beating your visitors black and blue!!

Following the smoke sauna the evening progressed to the smoke hut. This was a round hut with a wood fire in the centre and a central roof hole to let the smoke out. We all crammed into this hut, fully clothed by this time, enjoyed the rest of the evening eating sausages and pancakes cooked over the fire, and listening to Finnish folk songs. We emerged around midnight, it was still daylight, we smelt like a bonfire and our eyes smarted from the smoke. There seemed to be as much smoke wafting around outside the hut as there was inside but this smoke didn't drift it was full of evil intention. I'm not getting melodramatic here but the clouds of dark swirling malevolence turned out to be multitudes of mosquitoes searching for their supper. Their targets were exposed flesh. I was so glad the mandatory lake plunge after the sauna was over as it could have been an assault on my senses of a totally different type.

The other aspect of smoke and the Finns that I really appreciate was what they do to salmon with smoke. Oh it was wonderful! At our friend's summer cottage by a stunning lake surrounded by forests, we feasted on smoked salmon of various types. There was the usual raw smoked salmon for breakfast with scrambled egg but there was also the most delicious whole, wood smoked, salmon that had been done the day before perfectly accompanied by a creamy horseradish sauce, new potatoes and salad. What a feast! 

One last sauna, no smoke this time, followed by an icy plunge, which was actually very invigorating and it was time to go back to Norway.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Out of Africa

Well that is a fairly predictable title for this post as we are now out of Africa and back in the UK after having been there for four weeks.

We had two and a half weeks in Uganda and ten days on Kenya. This was Linda's debut to Africa so each experience was new and surprizing.  Africa is challenging at every level. It is a riot of colour, rich in earthy tones and hues of green. After rain it is awash with mud and when the sun comes out, within hours it is chokingly dusty. We got stuck in the mud at times and walked to a church in a slum in Nairobi and got so covered in mud that on arrival we had our feet washed which took us to a whole new level of being humbled by people's kindness. The dust filled our lungs and added to the cocktail of bronchitis and in Linda's case a growing association with asthma.

Africa is challenging in that everything takes extra effort. Getting into bed at night inside mosquito nets requires a lot more thought and planning. As soon as I got into the net I realised I needed this, that or the other. Then the power was on, then off, then on again, the internet was down half the time, slower than dial up and so on. However everyone had cell phones, everyone, everywhere. We stood in one church in a muddy village, muddy walls, muddy floors, muddy children. On the wall a single muddy notice read, "Turn off your cell phone during  the services."

Ugandans have faced an horrific past within my life time. No one was untouched by the Idi Amin or Obote years, hundreds of thousands died, every family was affected. In recent years thousands of children had been abducted by the Lord's Resistance Army in the north and turned into child soldiers. One fourteen year old boy we had contact with was taken when he was aged 8. Each of the 80 scars on his arms represented a person he had killed, the first two being his parents. I have immense admiration for the many NGO's working with these deeply traumatised children who daily emerge from the bush seeking their former homes.

Teaching a week on the Love of God the Father was deeply moving. The people on the School all said that this was the only hope for Africa. It was a priviledge to be able to connect with these people.

Africa is a place of great contradictions. We met some of the kindest, open hearted people and at the same time visited a children's rehab centre which was worse than a dickensian work house. The plight of the abandoned children aged between 3 and 17 was appalling. I must confess I struggled all day chocking back my tears as I saw children, the same age as my grandchildren, malnurished, barely clothed, covered in scabies, abandoned by their parents or relatives. One lad had been blinded by acid by his grandmother in order to make him a more effective beggar.

The Ugandans and Kenyans on the Fatherheart Schools were outstanding people whose love for God and for their countries was exemplary. They are working so hard to bring change and hope to the lives of their countrymen. Time and time again they said, "The love of the Father is the only hope for Africa." I looked into their eyes and I could see hope, I could see passion and resolve and utter dependance on God for his help. There is hope for Africa and soon something will come out of Africa through these people that will bring hope to the whole world.

Sunday, 28 March 2010

American Pie

For the last month we have been enjoying a huge slice of American pie. Two days in Oceanside close to San Diego, a week near Nashville, Tennessee, two weeks in Virginia and a week in North Carolina. What a joy it has been!  So much good ol' southern hospitality, so much genuine warmth and so much fun.  We have explored Civil War battlefields; Colonial Williamsburg and Jamestown, the first place settled in 1607. We have seen the USS Reagan in San Diego harbour, the worlds biggest aircraft carrier; been to CBN, the huge centre of Pat Robinson's Christian Broadcasting Network; walked in snow in Tennessee; shopped for designer shirts in a thrift store (what bargains I found); watched woodpeckers in the Smokey Mountains near Pigeon Forge. The list goes on and on.

We have met many people who are passionate about their country. It has been such a joy to stay in homes of people who have just poured out their hearts in caring and affection. We love the America we have visited and the people we have met.  America is a country that in many ways is hard to comprehend. So many contradictions and surprises. I think in the world perhaps Americans are some of the most misunderstood of peoples. It is only when you sit at their tables, drinking ice tea, sampling grits and cherry pie (not on the same plate) that we can begin to know them. Their world is sometimes very small with many living all their lives within just a few miles from where they were born. Some have barely been out of their State let alone their country.  They struggle to grasp why so many in the world resent American activity worldwide. Also their country is so big. It staggers me how far flung the nation is.

Americans can also be surprisingly ignorant about the rest of the world. In one restaurant our server, working hard for his hoped for tip of 15 - 20%, when discovering we came from New Zealand, asked us what language we spoke there. I think he thought our accent was due to our lack of familiarity with English. Another lady just starred at me with her mouth open as I spoke, stunned by my diction. The she said "I didn't un'erstand a word of that honey, but it sounded real nice."  I was asked if New Zealand had roads!

The people we have been with are politically conservative and very worried about their President. There is a lot of fear expressed about change and the state of the world generally. The recession is hitting very hard in the south.  They seem to feel that the world is a very unsafe place.  Yet for all that they are full of faith and optimism about what God is doing in the world today. They see his hand in everything, more so than most other nationalities we meet. They look to him to meet their daily needs and are unashamed of being Christians in today's world. Every restaurant we ate in, groups paused to pray and give thank to God for their food, holding hands like the Waltons around the table.

We have worshipped and preached in a number of churches, a white middle class church, a black southern church, a sophisticated Californian church, and a wild revivalist church. Each one was real and vibrant and full of generous and warm hearted people. We have had so much fun.

Of course after a month I am now an expert on American culture, so am able to make these observations. No doubt some will disagree.  But I am happy to have been here, looking forward to coming back and grateful for so much of this land, not to mention their amazing ability to make fabulous cherry pie.

Friday, 22 January 2010

Thoughts arising from an affogato.

For some time I have fancied myself as an expert on the delights of affogatos, well, affogati to be technically correct. An affogato is delightful Italian beverage made by taking a scoop of very rich, preferably homemade, vanilla ice cream placing it in a white coffee cup and then slowly pouring a perfectly prepared espresso, with a creamy froth, all over the ice cream. The Italian word affogato literally means drowned. The end result is a delectable taste experience that personally gives me a huge amount of pleasure.

Here in Taupo a cafe has opened up called Kaffee Eis that features, along with a very good selection of antipodean coffee offerings such as flat whites, short blacks and long blacks, classic Italian drinks such as cappuccino and of course affogato. The added bonus is the ice cream counter which specialises in a selection of really good homemade ice cream.  Well the combination has proved a winner. They do a roaring trade not least from the Galpins when we are in Taupo.  We have been disciplined about it and only go on Friday afternoons to the cafe. Our little treat at the end of the week. We go through the ritual of selecting our ice cream and being a purist I always go for vanilla. Linda however has more cosmopolitan tastes and will go for panna cotta, straciattela or when needs demand it, chocolate.

We are evangelistic about it. Many friends here have been wooed into the pleasurable experience.

Travelling as we do with Fatherheart Ministries means that our visits to Kaffee Eis and savouring its pleasures are now not so frequent. However I have managed to include a reference to my enjoyment of affogati in a teaching that I have been developing on the happiness of God. I have been excited to see what the Bible says brings pleasure to him beginning with his joy in creation and the heart warming declaration that his creation is good and mankind the crown of his creation as very good;  the Father's pleasure in his beloved Son and in particular how he cannot keep silent when Jesus begins his ministry; how at this baptism the Father declares him to be his beloved son. Then again on the mountain of transfiguration, the Father, revealing the glory of his Son again describes him as his beloved Son in whom he delights Matt 17:5.  Finally the astonishing realisation that God our Father also delights in us as his sons and daughters and that he lavishes his love upon us.  This clearly brings him great pleasure and joy. It is amazing that  Jesus says in Jn 17:26 "the love with which you have loved me may be in them and I in them.”

I can hardly imagine enjoying something that is most enjoyable with unbounded energy and passion forever!

This is not our experience in this world because nothing has a personal worth great enough to meet our deepest longings.  Also we lack the strength and capacity to enjoy the best things to the maximum basically we get bored! And of course all our joys here come to an end, - nothing lasts. I realised this afresh today because it is Friday, we are in Taupo, and Kaffee Eis is calling. With great anticipation we went to our pleasure palace of affogato delights. We waited in line, placed our order and watched to our horror as the ice cream was put in a tacky plastic cup, the coffee lacked its distinctive froth and was far too runny. In fact it more than drowned the ice cream, it turned it into a runny coffee milk shake. All my anticipation dissipated in a few moments. My pleasure was so fleeting and misplaced. We sat by the lake. Mused about the brevity of sensual and human pleasure. Then reflected on the Father's pleasure.

All this changes when the Father’s pleasure in his Son becomes our pleasure too. Jesus 'personal worth is inexhaustible to meet our deepest longings. He never ceases to delight in us and fill us with the same joy that he had.  Thankfully he will never become boring, disappointing or frustrating and our ability to enjoy him will not be limited by our human weakness and frailty.  The real joy is the knowledge that this will never end because neither Father nor Son will ever end. The Father’s delight in his Son will be in us and it will be ours. As a result our pleasure and love being in them will never end.

The Father had such incredible open hearted intimacy with his Son. All this overflows onto us too who through Jesus have become the sons and daughters of God. No angel has received such honour and affection as the Son has received and shares with us. This is the glorious inheritance that we share as joint heirs with Jesus.  It is no wonder that our Father is such a happy Father, this is his glory, this is real pleasure.

As for an affogato....I'm over it.  Well, mostly.