My Year In Review: Blog Edition

Last week, I posted a screenshot of books I read during 2013.  Today, as a means of reviewing the past year, I will take a look at some of the topics and events that prompted me to write over the last twelve months.  You may have already read some of these, but if not, the links will take you to each story.

Connected-thumb

2013 began just as it has for me for the past several years, with a spiritual review of the year by studying the Fruit of the Spirit.  I have built upon this idea for the past couple of years, and this past January/February I wrote further on each individual piece of fruit.  It has been a great way to begin the new year and I am embarking on this same exercise even now.  For a full index of the Fruit of the Spirit, go to Top Posts and review all the entries on this topic.
Better yet, go here and download the complete guide!  Yes, 2013 marked the release of the short study, Connected To The Vine, inspired by this topic and your feedback.  Thanks to those who have read it, provided feedback, and even used it as a group study guide.

Corinth

In March, my brother and I took a trip visiting many biblical sites throughout the Mediterranean region.  Our journey began at Athens, and continued to Corinth, over to Ephesus in Turkey, then to the Cappadocia region of Turkey, and finally concluded in Istanbul.  It was an amazing trip that continues to impact and shape the way I read scripture.  I shared just some of my observations from each stop through this space.

2013 had its sad moments as well.  Personally, I experienced the loss of a couple of loved ones.  Death seemed to be a theme in the late summer/fall.  More broadly speaking, two authors whose writings impacted me deeply, also passed.  Brennan Manning and Dallas Willard always challenged me and their spiritual insights will be missed.  I was fortunate to meet Brennan Manning in person and he was a great example of spiritual strength in brokenness.

I didn’t have as much time as I would have liked to post this past fall – primarily due to the previously mentioned loss of loved ones.  But I did have a moment sitting in an airport that reminded me how easily relationships can be pushed aside by electronic distractions if we are not careful.  We can be so engrossed in our on-line world that we are not present for those actually along our path.

Finally, I completed this interview for my book site, where I share some of the events that led to my writing, as well as provide a glimpse of my upcoming project.  God willing, 2014 will see the completion of A Journey Through Ephesus, a project I am very excited about!

Thanks for your support and encouragement; follow this blog to stay up-to-date on my observations and projects, and blessings in 2014!

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What I’m Reading: Waking The Dead

A recent interest of mine – and a reoccurring theme in the events of life – has been Greek Mythology, and the larger role of myth in our lives.  I realize that initially, most people will assume that mythology has very little to do with their lives.  But I have come to realize that my life needs a good dose of a mythic element to it.  I will attempt to explain how I arrived at this realization, and why this has anything to do with a book by John Eldredge.

Last year, in anticipation of a trip to Greece and Turkey that took place this past March, I began reading a collection of classic Greek myths.  I’m sure you are at least vaguely familiar with characters such as Jason and the Argonauts, Helen of Troy, Hercules, and the adventures of Odysseus.  I enjoyed reading the full accounts of these stories and began making connections to the larger meaning of these myths in Greek culture.

I also began to understand the role of myth in any given culture.  I posted my thoughts on how understanding mythology might give more insight into the Biblical book of Job.  This connection isn’t normally made because most today misunderstand myth.  For the majority of people, a myth is a fictional story, or even an outright lie – something akin to a fib.  If I say that Job is a mythic story, most will assume that I mean to say that the story of Job never really took place.  But that is not the true meaning of classical mythology.  Myths were ancient attempts to describe what was happening in the spiritual realm, where the gods were at work.  And myths today still serve to connect us to deeper truths and help us recognize where God is still working.

Myths are, first of all, stories: stories which confront us with something transcendent and eternal …  a means by which the eternal expresses itself in time.  (from Waking The Dead)

100 CharactersSo when I read another book, 100 Characters From Classical Mythology, something was tugging deeper at my soul, but I  didn’t know what it was.  I intended to write about the book, but I honestly didn’t know what I would say.  Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading it.

Then one of those moments took place where several seemingly unrelated trails suddenly merged together down a clear path forward.  It happened, appropriately enough, while in Athens, Greece.  Maybe it was spending the day walking among temples to Zeus, theaters to Dionysus, and statues of Poseidon that served as inspiration – I am certain all of that only fueled the inspiration.  But while on that trip, I began reading a book by John Eldredge called Waking The Dead.

One of the unexpected themes to emerge from the book was that when our hearts get overwhelmed with the mundane, the familiar, and busyness, we begin to lose touch with the larger narrative that God is at work in our hearts and we have a role to play in what God is up to in the world around us.  This is why we need to keep the mythic element alive in our hearts.  From Eldredge,

You will not think clearly about your life until you think mythically.  Until you see with the eyes of your heart.

Waking The DeadI realized that my heart was getting bogged down in errands to run, bills to pay, and obligations to meet.  I was losing touch with the larger story I am a part of.  I think that is why reading about the Trojan War and Perseus and Pegasus stirred something in me.  Eldredge helped connect that stirring to the passions God has set in my heart.

Greek mythology may not do much for you, but the principle is the same.  You can view whatever stage of life you are in through the lens of the reality before you – be it sitting in front of a computer screen all day, changing diapers, or paying off school loans.  Or you can view your life with the eyes of your heart and see the larger story you are a part of.  I have determined that I need more of the mythic element in my life.

Journey (in)Site: Istanbul

Back in March I was able to travel to Greece and Turkey with my brother.  This is the last leg of the journey.  I have enjoyed sharing thoughts and images from a wonderful trip!  For a preview of the trip, read the A Guide to Biblical Sites in Greece and Turkey entry and read my thoughts on AthensCorinth, Ephesus, and Cappadocia.

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The drive back to Kayseri was much more revealing in the daylight.  The snow-capped Mount Erciyes was in clear view and served as a nice backdrop to our departure to Istanbul.  It was during the flight that we realized we were flying into the airport on the Asian side of the city, which is farther out than the airport on the European side.  For a couple liras we took an hour bus ride to Taksim Square, and then a taxi to our hotel.  Our hotel was located close to the historic Sultanahmet district and many of the main sites in Istanbul.  So after settling in our room we set off orienting ourselves to the city.  Hiking through the desolate landscape of Cappadocia was quite the contrast to hiking the urban streets of one of the largest cities in the world, yet there are many similarities as well.

Spice MarketWe had arrived in Istanbul early enough to have most of our afternoon and evening to explore the city.  We strolled through the Spice Market and the surrounding Egyptian Market.  We soon learned that Istanbul is like one giant Target store: If you found the right aisle, or in this case several city blocks, you could find anything you were in need of.  We wandered through the clothing district, the spice market, electronics, hardware supplies on several city blocks, food courts, the jewelry district, and even art and music supplies.  If you found one music store, you would surely find several others down the same block.  It was fascinating to just wander.

Blue MosqueBy evening, we found some of the primary sites of Istanbul.  The Blue Mosque was built in 1609, meaning it was relatively new as far as the architecture of the city goes.  It is an impressive structure.  It is located at the site of the great Hippodrome that hosted most of the sporting events in Constantinople for over a thousand years.  The area is now a park, but is still home to two or three of the monuments that would have been part of the stadium.  Facing the Blue Mosque is the Hagia Sophia, the primary church of the Byzantine Empire.  We located the Basilica Cistern nearby and managed to get in just before closing.  The cistern served as one of Constantinople’s main water supplies and has the capacity to store 100,000 tons of water.

MosaicThe next day we returned to the Hagia Sophia, as it was closed the previous evening.  It is an incredible space filled with Christian mosaics and Islamic calligraphy.  It is odd to see both side by side, but because it served as a church for the Byzantines and then was converted to a mosque when the Byzantine Empire fell in 1453, it is now a museum where both histories reside together.  Unfortunately, Turkish courts have just ruled that it could be converted back into a mosque, bringing into question the fate of much of the Christian artwork.  After a boat ride on the Bosphorus, we made our way up to the Galata Tower, which is a great place to take in the entire panorama of the city and watch the sunset.  We ended up back near the fish market on the shore of the Bosphorus, where we enjoyed a wonderful grilled fish sandwich while taking in the evening boat traffic and listening to the evening call to prayer.  It was one of those perfect simple moments that cannot be scripted.Istanbul

On Thursday, we took the train out to the old city walls, sometimes known as the Theodosian Walls.  Built in the 5th Century, they protected Constantinople for a thousand years.  Large sections of the wall still remain.  We took it easy the rest of the day as we had been going non-stop for most of the trip.  So the remainder of the day was spend walking the city, enjoying coffee, and perusing the markets.  The last day turned cold and rainy, so we stuck to indoor activities.  We went to the Grand Bazaar, which wasn’t quite as grand, having walked through many markets already.  Then we took in the Istanbul Archaeological Museum, home to numerous artifacts from Turkey’s long history.  Still raining, we spent the evening in a coffee shop processing all we had taken in over the course of the trip.  The next day we would be heading home.

Like Cappadocia, Istanbul isn’t filled with New Testament history but it does play a key role in Christian history.   Here are some thoughts on Istanbul/Constantinople:

Insight #1Constantinople preserved a wealth of Christian history, while elsewhere it was crumbling.  When the Emperor Constantine moved the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to what would become Constantinople, one could argue that he extended the Roman Empire by an additional thousand years.  While one can also argue whether it was a good thing for Christianity to be subsequently aligned with the new Roman Empire in Constantinople, much of its history was shaped and preserved as Constantinople flourished.  Meanwhile, the city of Rome fell into decline and the Western Empire would come to an end in 476.  Over the next several hundred years, Constantinople became an immovable object against the surging tide of Islam.  Historians have pointed out that were it not for the strength of Constantinople strategically located between Europe and Asia, Islam could have become the dominant force throughout Europe.

Hagia SophiaInsight #2Faith is not housed in buildings.  As impressive as the Hagia Sophia was, it was not the dwelling place of God and faith.  Seeing the Hagia Sophia (and many churches throughout the Middle East as well) converted into a mosque, then a museum, and now potentially a mosque again, it is a reminder that God does not live in structures we build.  As I mentioned in my Athens post, Paul would point out that, “God does not live in your magnificent temples.”  Buildings can be impressive and communicate much about God, but God resides among people.  The modern church can learn from this as well.

Insight #3Disagree with ideas and beliefs, but don’t destroy history.  While structures do not contain faith, something is lost when structures are destroyed over faith.  It was a common theme to hear throughout the trip: An impressive piece of history was lost when one group destroyed it during a conflict.  Christians tore down temples, pagans destroyed churches, churches were converted to mosques and then back again, libraries were burned – there are so many stories like these.  From a historical perspective it hardly seems worth destroying so much history.  Argue, disagree, fight if you must, but leave art, books, structures, and monuments alone!  There is so much to be learned from these things.

Thanks for following along.  Even if very few read it all in its entirety, I enjoyed reliving it!

Journey (in)Site: Athens

Last month I was able to travel to Greece and Turkey with my brother.  I wanted to share a snapshot (and snapshots!) of each city, as well as some insights gained.  For a preview of the trip, read the A Guide to Biblical Sites in Greece and Turkey entry.

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Caryatids

The first stop on our trip was the city of Athens.  Upon dropping our bags in our room, the first thing we did was take an evening stroll around the Acropolis.  Initially, what strikes you is how elevated the Acropolis is above the rest of the city.  It is not difficult to imagine a commoner straining his or her neck looking up the dramatic slopes of the rocky plateau, only imagining what must be taking place there.  Surely it was a mystical, awe-inspiring place.  The next morning, we walked through the Acropolis site, taking in the Theater of Dionysus, climbing the grand entrance steps, passing the Temple of Nike, marveling at the impressive sculpted caryatid columns of the Erechtheion, and finally gazing at the Parthenon.  The Acropolis gives a wonderful view of the surrounding city, encircled by ocean and large hills.  The Acropolis does not disappoint!

On StrikeLater that day, we surveyed the city again from the top of Mount Lycabettus, which is actually higher than the Acropolis.  (Of course, the Greeks had a mythic explanation for this.)  The next day we set out for more sites, but encountered the soon-to-be familiar “On Strike” sign, announcing various historical sites closed for the day – frustrating for a visitor with limited time in the city!  We did manage to discover Mars Hill and the Areopagus (literally standing on top of it, trying to figure out exactly where it was).  The final day before we left for the airport, we did a quick pass through the Ancient Agora and took one last look at the Acropolis.

Parthenon

Besides the old stuff, one thing you quickly notice is the many stray dogs that roam the city.  Most however, seem well-fed and even have de-facto owners who care for them.  In the National Gardens we observed a couple police officers call for all the dogs – about 8 or 10 responded – and led them out of the park at closing.  You will also notice graffiti everywhere.  We even ran across a shop that specialized in all your graffiti needs – paints, stencils, as well as tips and tricks!  I read some speculation that given the economic climate of Greece, graffiti may be the cheapest form of advertising your business, though I didn’t gather that from what we saw.  There is little doubt that the economic climate has people frustrated, both at the politicians and at those who think the problem should be solved as long as someone else foots the bill.  I would look forward to visiting Athens again when it has its economic house in order.

As far as historical/Biblical insights, here are some more thoughts on Athens:

Mars HillInsight #1Athens isn’t nearly as important to the Apostle Paul as other cities.  Visiting Athens versus Corinth today, we might naturally assume that Athens was a key city in reaching the Gentiles.  As I mentioned in a previous post, for all its influence Athens does not stand out in the New Testament.  Paul quickly moves on to Corinth.  But his sermon delivered on Mars Hill is recorded in Acts 17, thus giving Athens a lot of air time.  I imagine one reason that Athens is not predominant in Paul’s thinking can be found in Acts 17: “All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.”  The picture we get is that Paul could have had many great discussions with the lovers of philosophy in Athens, but would have seen very little transformation take place.  A few did accept Paul’s message, but Athens isn’t mentioned again.

Temple of HephaestusInsight #2What is recorded in Acts 17 rings authentic.  Despite the relegated role Athens takes on Paul’s journeys, his message in Acts 17 does capture the spirit of the city.  Acts 17:16 says Paul, “was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols.”  The city today is still littered with temples, statues, and monuments from that time.  I can only imagine what it must have looked liked to Paul.  Yes, every city of any size in Paul’s day outside of Judaea would have had a temple or two to various deities, but even for Paul the amount of it in Athens distressed him.   Yet at the beginning of his sermon, he chooses to identify this with spiritual hunger: “People of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious.”  Athens was a city of learning, ideas, and spiritual hunger!  “The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands” Paul would go on to say.  The Parthenon, the Temple of Nike, Hephaestus, Dionysus, Zeus, the Erechtheion – they were all amazing sites.  But for all their glory, past and present, they are not where you will find God.  I imagine that must have stung a bit, “God does not live in your magnificent temples.”  The good news was – and is – that though God does not live in these temples, “he is not far from any one of us.”

Greek StatueInsight #3Greek mythology reveals much about how the ancients understood the world beyond.  I’ll comment more on this in a future post as I process it more, but one of the things I wanted to do in preparation for this trip was to better understand Greek mythology.  And although I enjoyed it, I wasn’t sure what to do with it.  I was going to write a post on one of the books I read, but honestly didn’t know what to say.  But having immersed myself firsthand in the subject matter for a couple of weeks – walking through it, touching it, breathing it – I have come to appreciate it much more.  It circles back to Paul’s own observation: “I see that in every way you are very religious.”  And I have concluded that my own life could use more of the mythic – that attempt to understand the spiritual world and connect to the larger story  – not less!

Check back for the rest of the sites on my journey!  Corinth is next.

What I’m Reading: A Guide To Biblical Sites In Greece And Turkey

A better title for this might be: Where I’m Going!  I’m using the format of sharing what I have been reading to write about an upcoming trip I am taking to Greece and Turkey.  However, one of the reasons for such a trip is captured in this book.  My journey will take me to some of the most important classical and biblical sites around the Mediterranean.

A Guide to Greece and Turkey

The book itself is a great resource for such a trip.  Any ancient site mentioned in the New Testament located in modern-day Greece or Turkey is summarized in this guide.  A brief history is given for each site, followed by the Biblical significance of the site, as well as an orientation to a site visit.  As the book itself points out, “Nearly two-thirds of the New Testament, including all the letters of Paul, most of Acts, and the book of Revelation, are set in either Turkey or Greece.”  My intention was to only peruse the sites I would be visiting, but I ended up reading the entire book.

Here is a brief synopsis of the places I will be experiencing on my trip.

  • Athens.  Next to Rome, no city has made as many contributions to art, philosophy, and political theory as Athens.  The city is the birthplace of Democracy and was the underlying cultural influence for much of the Roman Empire.  Surprisingly, for all its influence, the city itself does not stand out in the New Testament.  Acts 17 records a sermon that the Apostle Paul delivered in Athens at the Areopagus, or Mars Hill.  After Paul left the city, nothing more is said about Athens and other cities become the focus of Paul’s journeys.  Yet, like its influence on Rome, the cultural impact of Athens reverberates throughout the New Testament.
  • Corinth.  Much more prominent in Paul’s writings is the city of Corinth, which is only a couple of hour away from Athens.  The authors Fant and Reddish note that while Corinth benefited much from trade and commerce in the ancient world, it also found itself frequently dragged into the rivalry between Athens and Sparta.  In the New Testament, Paul spent eighteen months in the city and visited it on at least three separate occasions.  Two extant letters were written by Paul to the church he established at Corinth and they contain numerous references to the ancient site.
  • Ephesus.  The site of Ephesus is one of the best preserved archaeological sites around.  It was home to one of the ancient Wonders of the World, the Temple of Artemis, though there is little that remains of the temple.  Ephesus served as a home base for much of Paul’s missionary endeavors in Asia Minor, spending about three years there.  The book of Ephesians is a letter from Paul to the church he established there.  One of my current writing projects explores the connections between the book of Ephesians and the ancient city of Ephesus.
  • Cappadocia.  The region of Cappadocia in central Turkey is not mentioned prominently in the New Testament, though Paul does pass through the region on a couple of occasions on his way to Asia Minor.  Cappadocia is better known for its other-wordly landscape and does figure prominently in the history of the early church.  Many early churches can be found throughout the region.
  • Istanbul.  Another city not covered in this particular book is the city of Istanbul, better known historically as Byzantium or Constantinople.  While not mentioned in the New Testament, Constantinople would take center stage in the Christian world when the Emperor Constantine moved the capital of the Roman Empire from Rome to the site of this modern city that serves as the place where Europe and Asia meet.  It is a large modern city that is littered with Byzantine and Ottoman sites.

I’m not sure if I will be able to blog during my trip, but at the very least I will be exploring these sites and sharing pictures upon my return in a couple of weeks.