My (current) top 20 cities … or today would be a good day to be anywhere but here

It seems to be the time of year for making lists, so today I’ve had a go at one a few people have asked me about: my top cities. I didn’t manage a trip these summer holidays, so as I head back to work this week, here are all of the places I would have loved to sneak in a visit to.

A few disclaimers: if you ask me tomorrow, this list may well have changed; these are cities to visit rather than necessarily live in; the list is drawn from cities I have actually been to, so there are some world class cities missing (and South America is notably absent … I must rectify that asap!) Feel free to tell me what I need to add; and I have excluded cities from my home country, even though Sydney undoubtedly deserves to be on any such list.

20. Stockholm

Almost missing out due to high prices and lack of sunlight hours, Sweden’s capital has just scraped on to my list due to its colourful buildings, beautiful waterways, and royal and intellectual history. Next time I’d try to go in summer rather than winter for some longer days, although Scandinavia in the cold is beautifully pristine.

19.  Phnom Penh

Beating out Bangkok which feels a bit too showy, Cambodia’s capital offers sobering history, cultural resilience, incredibly friendly people, and all kinds of opportunities to learn from people seeking to rebuild and restore. While Siem Reap holds the famous temples, this is the Khmer city whose streets I would love to wander.

18. Montreal

It was a toss up here with Vancouver, but the French factor tipped the scales for me. A stunning cathedral, an impressive penguin habitat in the biodome, a solid history museum, and French-Canadian culture of all kinds make this city a delight. And of course a winter visit adds to the beautiful vibe: snow just makes everything prettier.

17. Berlin

After being disappointed with Frankfurt and Munich, Germany’s capital restored the country’s travel value in my eyes. So many layers of history, a people who honour and acknowledge the past well but still look to and celebrate the future, an incredible array of museums and streets made for walking and people watching combine to make this one of my favourites.

16. Krakow

Old world Poland’s walled city with its bustling square and serene castle, alongside a funky modern city which pays respect to its tragic 20th century history, Krakow was an unexpected treasure and one I’d highly recommend.

15. Cairo

The only African entry on my list (although if the list were places rather than cities that might be quite different!), Egypt’s capital is worth the price of admission for the pyramids alone. But more than that, it is a melting pot of ancient and modern history, home to delicious cuisine including possibly my favourite meal ever, and the location of one of the world’s greatest museum collections put together like a haphazard choose-your-own-adventure maze.

14. Barcelona

A more recent addition to my list, Sagrada Familia on its own makes the Catalonian capital worth a visit. Antonin Gaudi’s imprint all over the city is an invitation to wonder, from crazy buildings, to an incredible park, to the design of the pavements. Add to that pintxos, cava, and people who welcome you into their crazy traditions and celebrations, and this is a city of history, architecture, and party.

13. Tokyo

One of my first big international cities to explore, Japan’s capital is unlike anywhere else, with ancient religion alongside modern tech obsessions and everything in between. I have been obsessed with finding good okonomiyaki ever since.

12. Budapest

Most people seem to pick Prague, but while I truly loved the Czech city, it was nearby Hungary’s similar but less crowded capital that stole my heart. The fairytale castle. The striking parliament building. The solemn Jewish museums and synagogues. The hauntingly beautiful Shoes on the Danube memorial. The cakes. The bookshops. The bridges. I could go on …

11. Lisbon

One of the world’s hilliest cities, Portugal’s capital will give you a workout and an overload of historic beauty. Castle ruins overlooking colourful tiled buildings. Various delightful modes of transport including elevators and funiculars. A golden bridge to rival San Francisco’s and a Christ statue to rival Rio’s. And. The. Most. Amazing. Custard. Tarts.

10. Hanoi

It’s hard to choose between Vietnam’s two big cities, and Ho Chi Minh is definitely worth a visit. But for me, Hanoi’s more old world charm, slower pace, and natural spaces tipped the balance in its favour. The art and history museums provided insight and a different perspective into a culture quite different to my own.

9. Florence

Again, many might prefer Venice or Milan, but of these three stunning Italian cities, for me there is no question. I love the river Arno and the Ponte Vecchio is beautiful despite being overhyped. I could spend days in the Uffizi Gallery and another one admiring Michelangelo’s masterpiece in the Galleria dell’Accademia. Watching the sunset over the Duomo from high across the river after hearing Gregorian chants in an ancient church is but one of a multitude of standout memories I have from this incredible city.

8. Washington DC

I could probably make the US its own top cities list, and Chicago and San Francisco would rate very highly on it. But other than that one you just know is still to come, it is the combination of history, politics, culture, and nearly everything being free to visit that puts DC this high on my catalogue of must-visits. Having family live there for a few years means I’ve had the privilege of multiple visits, and there is always something new to discover. While American patriotism does not always resonate for us Aussies, it is fascinating to observe – from Arlington to the Capitol to the White House. And (apologies for bragging), meeting Bo Obama and hearing Barack speak were certainly icing on the cake.

7. London

This is one of a number of predictable entries near the top end of my list, but while finding lesser known gems is always amazing, there is a reason some places are perennially popular. The Clock. The Abbey. The Church. The Eye. The Tower. The Bridge. The Palace. The Theatre. The Hall. The Library. The Museum. I don’t even need to give their names for them to evoke the stories of history, culture, architecture. Sure, its probably got a lot to do with being from a former colony, and certainly the food isn’t much to write home about, but let’s be honest: any time I was given the opportunity to visit again, I’d jump at it.

6. Beijing

Shanghai was certainly up for consideration on this list, but of the two, it’s China’s capital that wins out for me. The Summer Palace. The Forbidden Palace. Tiananmen Square. The Great Hall of the People. The National Museum.  Plus perhaps one of the more surreal attractions I’ve visited, Mao’s mausoleum. The friendliness and stealthy photo snapping skills of the locals. The pride in both history and modern achievements. And of course who could forget the Great Wall.

5. Rome

From here on, ranking gets really difficult and contentious (as in, I’m even arguing with myself). No doubt this could be many people’s number one. The Eternal City. The Caput Mundi. Byron called it the city of the soul and Browning said everyone sooner or later comes by it. It wasn’t built in a day and all roads lead to it. It contains within it a whole other city/state. It touches on history that has shaped my culture and history that reflects my faith. I could wander its streets for days. I have. I hope to again.

4. Paris

The city of light; the city of love. The city of romance and beauty and charm. The city of the Eiffel Tower and Notre Dame; the city of Montmartre and the Seine; the city of the Louvre and the Arc de Triomphe. The Musée d’Orsay and the Musée de l’Orangerie. Walking down the Champs-Élysées; eating crepes, macarons, eclairs, croissants. In my experience the stereotype is based in reality and the people are not always the friendliest, but they don’t need to be – they know we will all be back regardless of how they treat us.

3. Istanbul

The only city located on two continents. Where East meets West. No, its not Constantinople, at least not any more. The Ottoman Empire’s ancient capital and Turkey’s modern hub, it is currently one of the world’s five most populous cities (and the only one of those on my list). And they are people who embrace life, with the sights, sounds, and smells of this bustling city imprinted in my memory. From the Blue Mosque to the Spice Bazaar, and the underground Basilica cistern to the Hagia Sophia, there is a wealth of sites to discover. And the baklava is to die for.

2. New York

Predictable? Sure. Overrated? I don’t think so. I try not to be one to just go with what everyone else says, but in this case, I think they’re right. The Big Apple. The city that never sleeps. So nice they named it twice. I’ve had five visits and I’d go back in a heartbeat. I’d pretend to be a local and stay uptown near Central Park, catch the subway, walk the High Line. I’d embrace being a tourist and ice skate at Rockefeller Center, line up for the Empire State Building, and do the UN tour (again). I’d spend hours exploring the Met and the Library and the Natural History Museum. I’d get tickets for multiple Broadway shows and rectify one of the greatest blunders of my travels when we could have bought cheap tickets to a brand new sung and rapped musical about American history that had recently opened with its original cast in 2015* but chose to see Les Miserables again instead. I’d eat Korean and Italian and Thai and Indian and any other cuisine I stumbled upon. And I’d wander the streets looking up at all the familiar famous buildings, searching for hidden gardens, monuments, and waterfalls, and watching the world go by.

*Yes, it was Hamilton with Lin-Manuel Miranda.

1. Jerusalem

I know this will not top everyone’s list, but its been my number one for a long time. I love history, I love the Bible, I love the Hebrew language, I love the Palestinian people, I love the coming together of cultures and perspectives and stories. I love staying inside the Old City and walking the streets early in the morning before anyone is around, and again later in the day when the place is buzzing with activity. I love seeing the newest archaeological discoveries, watching the layers of history peeled back and some of the secrets of ancient cultures revealed. I wrestle with the politics and I grieve with many of the people, and I long to see new ways forward to find peace and justice. I’ve loved taking people to see and experience this incredibly unique city and I’m keen to do so again. Who wants to come?

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Blue Christmas: Lament and Hope

We held a Blue Christmas service at my church last night. This is a tradition I have found helpful over the last few years, attending a couple of similar services, although this was the first time I have been involved in leading one. Blue Christmas is about naming the fact that for many people, the joy, celebration, and expectation of this time of year is often tinged with sadness. It is an opportunity to take time to sit in the darkness, to bring before God our sadnesses and sorrows, to recognise that there are often no easy answers or quick fixes, but to seek hope in the midst of wherever we find ourselves.

I’ve learned from the psalmists that we need time and space to be honest and vulnerable before God and his people. The lament psalms give us permission to be brutally honest; to name our sadness, doubt, confusion, or even anger in prayer.

We met last night, on what for most of the world is the longest night of the year, the night of greatest darkness, which comes just a few days before we remember the dawning of hope in the birth of Jesus. Of course, living in the southern hemisphere, it is not physically for us the longest night but one of the shortest, but that doesn’t mean many of us don’t feel like we are experiencing dark or long nights, and so we joined with sisters and brothers throughout history and around the world seeking the Light of the world in the middle of the darkness.

For many centuries, Christians have been lighting candles to represent giving their prayers and themselves to God. This isn’t necessarily part of my own church tradition, but we built our time together around the lighting of candles: the central (white) Christ candle, representing Jesus, the Light of the world, surrounded by four blue candles representing the different circumstances some of us find ourselves in.

There are many different ways of doing this, but we linked the four candles to the Advent themes of hope, peace, joy, and love.

The first candle represented those experiencing grief, who have lost someone they loved. We took time to remember them, expressing our aching hearts to God, and the way death makes us feel angry and cheated. We looked to Him to sit with us in our grief and make known His love. We then heard the words of Isaiah 40 speaking comfort.

The second candle represented those experiencing sickness, sadness, loneliness, anxiety, despair. We took time to acknowledge the burdens we carry, expressing our sadness and confusion to God, and the way suffering can make us feel alone and misunderstood. We looked to Him to sit with us in our pain and make known His joy. We then heard the words of Jeremiah 31 speaking restoration.

The third candle represented those experiencing broken relationships, conflict, tension, separation in their families. We took time to acknowledge the messiness we live in, expressing our longing for reconciliation, resolution, and forgiveness to God, and the way brokenness can make us feel incomplete. We looked to Him to sit with us in our discord and make known His peace. We then heard the words of Psalm 23 speaking tenderness.

The fourth candle represented those experiencing unmet expectations, shattered dreams, dashed hopes. We took time to acknowledge the deep longings and unanswered prayers, expressing our emptiness to God, and the way our lacks can make us feel troubled  and bitter. We looked to Him to sit with us in our yearning and make known His hope. We then heard the words of Lamentations 3 speaking solace.

We finished with perhaps my favourite Christmas carol, crying out for Jesus to come to us right where we are, in the middle of whatever darkness we are facing, just as He came and met the hopes and longings of His people on that first Christmas night:

Come Thou long expected Jesus

Born to set Thy people free

From our fears and sins release us

Let us find our rest in Thee

Israel’s strength and consolation

Hope of all the earth Thou art

Dear desire of every nation

Joy of every longing heart

Then each person lit a small individual candle to represent seeking the Light of Jesus in their own circumstances, and took home a blue Christmas decoration as a small reminder of what we had shared with God and His people that night. We gave people the opportunity to pray for and with one another, or just to sit in the silence and stillness for as long as they needed. I think we all found it helpful to have the space to do that, especially at this time of year.

I think that nearly all of us are carrying stories of brokenness, grief, doubt, sadness, and darkness. This is difficult at any time of year, but particularly so if we are surrounded by celebrations, busyness, and expectations, as we often are at Christmas. Maybe you can find a Blue Christmas service near you this year to share in a time of lament and hope with God’s people. Maybe you can create one for others. Or maybe you can just create your own space to name the sadnesses and darknesses you are carrying and allow yourself the freedom to sit in them for a time, expressing them to God and looking for Him to meet you in the middle of them.

 

Today would be a good day to be at Ephesus

I’ve been marking final essays for my New Testament class this semester. So I’ve been thinking about the historical and social contexts of the first churches and the letters written to them that continue to speak into the lives of millions of Christian churches today. Its helpful to imagine walking in their shoes as they figured out how to daily live out this transformative encounter they had had with the risen Jesus. So if I could take a quick jaunt to anywhere today, it’d be great to visit one of the best preserved NT cities: Ephesus, a place where people long ago and yet not so different from me sought to walk in the same footsteps in which I daily choose to walk.

What did I love about and learn from Ephesus?

Ephesus today lies on Turkey’s western coast. It was then was the capital of the Roman province of Asia, an impressive city home to two amphitheatres, one of the world’s largest libraries, and the famous Temple of Artemis.

The apostle Paul spent two or three years here, living out the gospel among the people of this place. He preached in the large theatre and caused a riot that likely landed him in prison.

The church in Ephesus was largely made up of non-Jews, and Paul writes to encourage them by articulating who they are and how they fit into God’s plan for the world.

The letter speaks of the ‘mystery’ that has been revealed: that God’s plan is to bring all things, seen and unseen, under Christ. That’s a huge challenge when what you can see is the might and power of the Roman empire!

This revealed mystery is demonstrated in a completely unexpected and seemingly insignificant way: through a new kind of community, this group called church, where people from different backgrounds, ethnicities, socio-economic circumstances, and statuses seek to live together as family.

Seeing the houses, shops, and public facilities of ancient Ephesus helps me imagine what this might have looked like. I can envision some of its its practicalities and some of its challenges.

These were real people living in a real place, seeking to embody a new way of doing life and being family together in the midst of a city that didn’t quite get what they were trying to be.

Its a similar challenge many face today. I know I do as I seek to do life with my local church community and we try to be a new kind of family to one another.

Its messy and complicated and not always easy. We certainly don’t always get it right as we sit in the tensions between our culture and the gospel.

We hope in and live out of a new story that others may not think makes sense or looks true, and yet we see the transformation it is bringing little by little in our lives and our neighbourhoods.

And we continue to walk in the footsteps not only of the millions who have come before us, but of the risen King we worship and who is making all things new.