Friday, December 23, 2016

Merry Christmas Everyone!!

We would like to wish our family and friends "back home" in Canada and the U.S., and our friends here in Australia, a very Merry Christmas.  May you enjoy some quiet time with your friends and family, and feel the Lord's Spirit as you contemplate the birth and life of our Saviour, Jesus Christ.  This is a special time of the year, when all of our hearts are softened and when our thoughts turn to those we love and to the ways in which we can be better people.

To start this blog, we'd like to share an article that we wrote in the December self-reliance newsletter for the Melbourne area.  It is a bit long, but worth reading (we think).  You will find other information and photos after this Christmas message.

Jesus' Pattern for Self-Reliance

During this Christmas season, it would be good to contemplate the life of our Saviour, and see what we can learn about him – his acts, his character, his love for all people, and ultimately, his Atoning Sacrifice.

If we truly understand the doctrines of self-reliance, we will know that as we become more self-reliant, we first provide for ourselves and our family, then we strengthen our ability to serve others, and eventually we become more like Christ. In fact, Jesus is the perfect example of a self-reliant person and thus examining his life will be of great value on our path to self-reliance.

Elder David A. Bednar has taught on several occasions about the character of Christ and about how his character was a necessary precursor to the Atonement. He quoted Neil A. Maxwell that "There would have been no Atonement except for the character of Christ". This makes our study of His character paramount. There are several aspects of Christ's character that we would like to highlight here.

Firstly, Christ stayed extremely close to his Heavenly Father throughout his life, always striving to hear the Spirit and to do God's will. He was so successful in this effort that he told his disciples "…he that hath seen me hath seen the Father…" (John 14:9). We know that in part this ability to know the Father's will came from keeping the commandments (always) and a lot of prayer. As we apply the principles of faith in Christ, scripture study and prayer in our life, we can also feel and follow the Spirit, and be close to God and Christ. Thus, these principles become the foundation of our spiritual self-reliance.

Secondly, an aspect of Christ's character on which Elder Bednar focuses is Christ's ability to always "look outwards". He said: "Perhaps the greatest indicator of character is the capacity to recognize and appropriately respond to other people who are experiencing the very challenge or adversity that is most immediately and forcefully pressing upon us. Character is revealed, for example, in the power to discern the suffering of other people when we ourselves are suffering; in the ability to detect the hunger of others when we are hungry; and in the power to reach out and extend compassion for the spiritual agony of others when we are in the midst of our own spiritual distress. Thus, character is demonstrated by looking and reaching outward when the natural and instinctive response is to be self-absorbed and turn inward. If such a capacity is indeed the ultimate criterion of moral character, then the Saviour of the world is the perfect example of such a consistent and charitable character". (Italics and colour emphasis added)

Elder Bednar goes on to discuss examples of Christ's character from the New Testament and the Book of Mormon, which are multitudinous and show how he constantly and consistently helped others to become better, both spiritually and temporally. As we study and ponder these examples, we will come to understand what we must do to become more like Christ and thus more self-reliant.

To start, we can reach out to others as Christ reached out to them. We can set aside the natural man, and our "natural responses", and instead look around us to see how others are feeling or even suffering, and then act to relieve that suffering.

Then, we can invite those people to learn spiritual and temporal doctrines and principles that will help them to be more self-reliant. We have seen many church leaders attending self-reliance classes – not only are they learning good principles for their own lives, but they are supporting other class members by sharing their thoughts and experiences. Some of the people attending the classes are not church members or are new members, some are returning to church activity, and some are there to improve their standard of living (spiritually or temporally).  All benefit by learning together.

As we participate in self-reliance classes, we grow stronger in our faith, in our understanding, and in our love for others. Thus, self-reliance is both our pathway to becoming like Christ and an expression of our discipleship and our commitment to the gospel.

We invite every one of us to study Christ's life in the New Testament, with an eye to recognizing his character and his constant example of charity and "looking outward". As our understanding of Christ's life grows, so too will our understanding of his perfect pattern for self-reliance.

Christmas Activities

We attended "Carols in the Cathedral" a week ago Saturday, at St. Paul's Cathedral in downtown Melbourne.  It was a wonderful program of readings, solos, children's choir, and a combined tenor/adult choir, all accompanies a brass and percussion consort, and with a wonderful organ postlude.  We "discovered" (for ourselves, at least) Dimitry Bortniansky (1751-1825), a Ukrainian composer, singer and music director.  Bortniansky at one point was staff composer and director of the Russian Imperial Court Choir, as well as a piano and harpsichord teacher to the Royal family.  His choral pieces have those wonderful, deep Russian bass parts which are so thrilling to listen to.

The inside of St. Paul's Cathedral is very beautiful - here is an HDR photo that attempts to capture some of the richness of the colours:

A choir in which we sing participated in the Mount Martha Annual Carol Concert last night.  It was a fun evening - we sang "Mary Did You Know" (words and music by Mark Lowry and Buddy Greene), "What Shall We Give?" (Catalonian carol; english text by David Warner), and "The First Noel / Pachelbel's Canon" (A traditional english carol combined with the Canon in D by Johann Pachelbel; arranged by Michael Clawson).

This was an outdoor concert.  Now, in case you are imagining choir members bundled up in heavy coats, mitts, scarves and toques, let me remind you that this is Australia!!  First, the crowd (around 500 or 600) attending the concert had just walked up from the adjacent beach and were still in their bathing suits and shorts, sitting in family groups on their beach towels.  For the first part of the concert, we were actually worried we would get a sunburn, but as the evening wore on, the sun got less intense.  Here is part of the concert crowd, along with the "bandstand" (much more casual than the concert at St. Paul's Cathedral):

The kids here must be tougher than in Canada - they don't need snow to slide down a hill.  And they must be accustomed to it, as they all came prepared with their pieces of cardboard.  The photo below shows a few (of the hundreds of) kids sledding.  Keep in mind, it is about +35 deg C out when the photo was shot!  We have several videos, which are much more interesting, but can't seem to get them to load to the blog properly :>(

Another event for the night was Santa Claus arriving in a local fire truck - that made quite a "splash" with the kids.  Santa was dressed traditionally (the poor guy; it was still about 30 deg C out).  He handed out sweets and all sorts of glow sticks.  The latter caused a mobbing; he must have wondered about "volunteering" for the job :>)

We wanted to post the lyrics for another Australian Christmas carol.  This one is called "Christmas Bush for His Adorning" and the words are by John Wheeler (the same person who wrote "Christmas Day", in our last post):

Christmas Bush for His Adorning

All the bells are gaily ringing.
Birds in every tree are singing;
Let us in the golden weather,
Gather Christmas Bush together.

Christ is born! The angels thunder
Through the Heavens their tale of wonder,
While we pluck for his adorning
Christmas Bush this hallowed morning.

Christ has conquered Evil’s power,
Hear the bells rock every tower;
Birds and beasts lift up their voices,
Freed at last the world rejoices.

Onward with triumphant chorus,
Following the road before us,
Singing through the golden weather,
Gathering Christmas Bush together.

Clearly, these people have never pushed through waist deep snow!  Their Christmas songs reflect the land in which they live and the weather at that time of the year.  Here is a photo of the Christmas bush referenced in the song, along with one of our favourite birds, the Galah:

Birds and Animals

Our blog entry wouldn't be complete without some photos of birds and animals that we have encountered recently.  We'll start with the platypus, an unusual water mammal that is hard to find near Melbourne.  We were lucky one day, walking across a pedestrian suspension bridge over the Yarra River, we spotted this fellow:

He looks rather scary in the above photo, and he does have poisonous claws on his back legs, so we're not going to argue with him too much!

While walking in one of our more isolated areas recently, we came across a pair of black swans with 6 cygnets.  They were pretty shy and kept trying to hide from us, but with some patience, we managed to find a natural bird blind from which we could take this photo:

Another day, while we were out walking, an Eastern Robin (not like our North American types, but smaller and with a yellow breast) flew up onto a branch.  We were so focussed on getting a photo of the robin that we almost missed the Wallaby crouching in the background!  While kangaroos are fairly common around Melbourne (you can see them in the parks early or late in the day, much like deer back in Calgary or other cities in Canada), the Wallaby is much less common, so we were happy to get this photo:

We want to finish off with a photo of a tree, but a very unusual one, called a Jacaranda.  This tree has been mostly invisible up until now, as it has been bare of flowers or leaves.  But about mid-December, it first develops all these gorgeous, purple flowers, and then later some lacy leaves.  Some of our friends from Africa will probably be familiar with this tree - we understand it is seen at least in South Africa.  Here it is, in all its glory:

OK, two more photos of the two of us, off on one of our birding walks.  Don't get the impression from this photo that all we do is wander around the Australian bush!  We also work very hard on our self-reliance calling!!  One thing we have learned, though, is that you have to be prepared for anything - sun, rain, heat, humidity, and bugs (more flies than mosquitoes).

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Summer and Christmas - What??

We've been busy for the past several weeks, getting ready for Christmas in the Melbourne Mission.  Sister Sobkowicz has been cooking and packaging 190 batches of butter crunch, to be included in a Christmas package for all the young missionaries in the area.  She also organized all the music for a Christmas devotional that was held today, with solo, group and choir numbers.  One of the highlights of the devotional was one Samoan Elder singing "Hallelujah" - using the Leonard Cohen music but with considerably modified "Cloverton" lyrics more in keeping with the nativity story.  Elder Sobkowicz prepared a slide show of the early life of the Saviour to accompany the various musical numbers.

The church is promoting a #LightTheWorld initiative this Christmas, that we feel will help people to understand more about Christ and feel the true Christmas spirit.  You can find out more about this by clicking on the following link:

Light the World

Here are 25 ways that you can Light the World this Christmas:

25 ways

We have been singing in two Christmas choirs, which is a nice way to get to know other people in Melbourne and to share the beautiful feeling of Christmas through music.  It's turned out to be quite a few performance dates, but it helps us not to feel at loose ends right at Christmas, when we are so far from family.  It helps others to feel a good Christmas spirit, too.  The community Christmas concert in which our church choir will be singing is December 23.

We have been visiting self-reliance classes and are pleased to see how well people are applying the principles in the courses.  Lots of people are finding new jobs, starting businesses, or improving their family life with better education options.  As we go hiking in the local parks, we also meet people who are interested in what we are doing and want to chat about our mission.

While we are well into the Christmas month (December), we are also well through spring and almost into summer.  Even for someone brought up in the balmy climate of Vancouver Island, this is a shock to the system.  Our bodies remember the many, many cold winters in Terrace, Edmonton, Fort McMurray and Calgary, setting up Christmas lights when it is -20 deg. or less outside, and shovelling snow into piles a metre or more high along the driveway.  That is what our bodies expect at this time of the year, but what they are experiencing is an onward march of warmer and warmer days, usually with +20 to +30 deg. temperatures.  Yikes!

Our Australian friends tell us that they have no carols about snow - only about hot, dry, dusty weather!  Here is one you might find interesting.  It is called "Christmas Day"; the words were written by John Wheeler:

The North-wind is tossing the leaves,
The red dust is over the town;
The sparrows are under the eaves
And the grass in the paddock is brown;
As we lift up our voices and sing
To the Christ-Child the Heavenly King.

The tree-ferns in green gullies sway;
The cool stream flows silently by:
The joy-bells are greeting the day,
And the chimes are adrift in the sky,
As we lift up our voices and sing
To the Christ-Child, the Heavenly King.

To give you an idea of how lush it is in Melbourne at this time of the year, here is a photo we took of some tree ferns in a gully at Grant's Picnic Ground, in the Dandenong Mountains, about a week ago:

Also related to the Christmas carol, here is a photo from 2009 in Sydney, which adds some meaning to "...The red dust is over the town...".

Here is a recent photo of a flowering tree (a late bloomer, as they say), that was just stunning.  Again, not what a Canadian would expect in early December, but typical of the rich vegetation in the "Garden State" of Victoria.

Occasionally, people in Australia will ask us what our (current) home city of Vancouver is like, and we often say it is similar to Melbourne, but not as hot in the summer.  It would be more accurate to say that they are both cities influenced strongly by the nearby ocean, with relatively mild climates, but Vancouver is at about 49 deg. latitude while Melbourne is at about 38 deg. latitude.  That puts Melbourne at about the same distance from the equator as San Fransisco, if we are looking for a west coast of North America equivalent for Melbourne.  Consequently, Vancouver is definitely not as hot in the summer and it is certainly a bit colder in the winter.  We hear Vancouver is locked in a few cm of snow right now (granted, an unusual situation), whereas most people in Melbourne have never seen snow (last snow fall in Melbourne was 1952, and before that, 1866).  Not having lived in San Fransisco, we can't really speak to it's climate.

We've seen some exciting birds since our last post - of some of which we have photos and some of which are too fast or shy to stay in front of the camera for more than a millisecond!  We've included a few photos below.  The first bird is an Australasian Grebe - a small, humble water bird, normally with drab, nondescript colours for most of the year, but with quite striking colours during mating season.  We like this photo because we "caught" him before he dove (tricky) and because of the reflection:

The following guy is a blue-winged parrot (named for obvious reasons) - one of several "grass parrots", so called because they love eating grass seeds and spend a fair amount of time on the ground doing just that.  Not that common in Melbourne, but we found this one in the Dandenongs:

The following is a Crimson Rosella - fairly uncommon in Melbourne but quite a few hanging out at Grant's Picnic Grounds in the Dandenong ranges.  We felt we were cheating a bit with this photo, as someone had thrown a piece of bread on the ground and the bird could not resist grabbing it.  But his colouring is so gorgeous, we just had to include him:

Now, we do look at other fauna than just birds, believe it or not.  We were standing on this bridge over one of the tributaries to the Yarra River and Sister Sobkowicz pointed down at some foliage and asked "I wonder what is making all those trails?".  Elder Sobkowicz just happened to be looking right at the perpetrator, quietly hiding under some overhanging bush.  Do you know what this creature is?  We'll give you a hint - its last name starts with a "W".

Here's someone who made us jump 3 m in the air when we first saw him, thinking we'd come upon our first snake.  Fortunately, he is a much less threatening lizard, with a name that fits his most prominent feature - a Blue-tongued Lizard:

We saw the following pair at the end of a long walk, the first visible bird being the baby.  Then, the papa emu reared his head to see who was there.  We decided to keep a good distance away - he looks rather fierce.  We were told afterwards that it is the father emus who look after the babies; mom's job is done once they hatch out.

Our next photo is of a baby possum.  These creatures continue to haunt the top of our fences and our roof in the late evening, driving the neighbouring dogs crazy.  Photo taken in the dark with only a flashlight as a light source.  He did pose for a while, though, allowing us to get the spotlight just right.

We encountered a number of the following bird, a Yellow-tailed Black-Cockatoo, by chance one day, hearing a baby squawking for some food.  The adult birds were tearing various Acacia trees apart, stripping the bark off them to get at the sweet sap underneath.  They were very efficient at it.