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: A Time To Keep Silence

A Time To Keep Silence

A Time To Keep Silence

A busy summer has not left much time for blogging.  But I did read A Time To Keep Silence, the memoirs of Patrick Leigh Fermor while staying in three different monasteries across Europe in the 1950s.  I picked up the book primarily because one of the monasteries he visited was a cave monastery in the Cappadocia region.  Having just visited Turkey this spring, I was interested in Fermor’s experience of staying in one of these caves.  Unfortunately, his chapter on Cappadocia was much shorter than the others and he only visits the sites, rather than spending an extended time in them.

While his recollection of his time in Cappadocia was brief, his account of the experience of silence and solitude is an interesting read.  Before arriving in Cappadocia, Fermor spent time in the Abbey of St. Wandrille and the Trappist monastery of La Grande Trappe.  One of his initial observations is that the “monastic life is so at odds with the outside world that it often inspires immense hostility.”  The disciplines of simplicity and  silence stand in stark contrast to the normal routines of everyday busyness.  Yet during these times of silence he found something deeper inside himself that came to desire this sensory deprivation.  He concluded his time at St. Wandrille by writing,

If my first days in the Abbey has been a period of depression, the unwinding process, after I had left, was ten times worse … The process of adaptation – in reverse – had painfully to begin again.

Fermor’s observations reminded me of my own experience with extended solitude.  By solitude as a spiritual discipline, I am not referring to sitting by yourself in a coffee shop or watching TV during a quiet evening at home.  I am speaking of intentionally removing yourself from all that normally provides distraction for an extended period of time in order to pay attention to what is truly happening in the deeper parts of your soul.

My own experience began several years ago when I spent a week in a cabin in the mountains by myself.  I had set aside the time to further some writing projects, but also to get away for some self-examination.  But I was not prepared for what I was about to experience.  The first day was filled with the anticipation of having finally arrived at my destination.  From airports to rental cars to driving up winding mountain roads, I was excited to finally kick off my week-long retreat.  My first challenge came that night.  As the sun set, the woods were soon filled with the noisy sounds of critters buzzing and unseen creatures rustling just outside the light of the cabin.  It was difficult to sleep without the familiar sounds of traffic noise and the pitch darkness that set in, absent of street lights, was unsettling.

The next day things got a bit wacky.  Starved from the normal diet of music, commercials, and the general noise of city living, my mind began to wander to weird places.  Then I became obsessed with my next meal.  What am I going to have for lunch?  What about dinner?  When I took an afternoon nap, it was restless, full of bizarre dreams.  Then that night, I woke up in a panic convinced someone was in the room with me!

The following day, I was trying to process why this time of solitude had started out so disconcerting.  Then I read a verse out of the Psalms, “Even in the darkness, you are there.”  And suddenly I became calm.  I am convinced that the presence in the room the previous night was a spiritual presence.  I began to realize that part of the task of extended solitude was to strip away all that normally distracts us.  Our minds are so used to being distracted by noise – whatever form that may take – that our mind will kick and scream for distraction before finally submitting to stillness and quiet.

With that newfound perspective, I slept peacefully the rest of the week and embraced the solitude of that cabin.  Since then, I have had the occasional opportunity for other times of retreat.  There is a similar adaptation process, but I can now move through it much quicker, having identified the transition.  And now, I crave these times when I can unplug from the world around me.

What I enjoyed about A Time To Keep Silence is Fermor’s own journey of feeling initially uneasy to a sense of depression to acceptance and finally embracing the solitude of the monasteries he visited.  I have heard others speak of similar experiences, so I know my experience is not unique.  Times of extended solitude are wonderful for those brave enough to take the journey!

What I’m Reading: Biblical Turkey

Biblical TurkeyMark Wilson is a scholar who has lived in Turkey since 2004.  His aim is to promote the study of Judaism and Early Christianity within Asia Minor.  In his book, Biblical Turkey: A Guide to the Jewish and Christian Sites of Asia Minor, Wilson does a great job of compiling a comprehensive list of all the sites pertaining to Judaism, Old and New Testament sites, and extra-Biblical writings from early Christianity that have their setting in Asia Minor/modern-day Turkey.  Along with site guides, there are many in-site features that help shed light on New Testament writings from an understanding of the land and the culture.

Having just taken my own cultural insight trip to Turkey, I won’t rehash all that I have written about the trip.  But you can go to the index page for a full listing of my posts from Greece and Turkey.

However, one thing that was driven home from reading Biblical Turkey – even after having traveled to a number of the sites – is just how much of the New Testament was influenced by this land.  In his introduction, Wilson writes,

As we look at the Bible, there are a number of references to Anatolian regions and cities in the Old Testament and Apocrypha, and two-thirds of the twenty-seven books in the New Testament were either written to of from Asia Minor.

What follows is a list of New Testament books and how they were influenced by the region of Asia Minor/Turkey.

  • John – early tradition has John living in Ephesus later in his life and thus the book of John was likely written from Ephesus.
  • Acts – written by Luke and recounts Paul’s missionary journeys throughout Asia Minor.  Additionally, many of the places of origin listed at Pentecost are located in Asia Minor, such as Cappadocia, Pontus, and Asia.
  • 1 & 2 Corinthians – 1 Corinthians was written by Paul from Ephesus.  While 2 Corinthians was not written from Ephesus, Paul does share a couple insights from his time in Ephesus in this letter.
  • Galatians – written by Paul to the province of Galatia in Asia Minor/modern-day Turkey.
  • Ephesians – written by Paul to Ephesus in the province of Asia.
  • Colossians – written by Paul to the church at Colosse in the province of Asia.
  • 1 & 2 Timothy – written by Paul to Timothy, who was now leading the church in Ephesus.
  • Philemon – written by Paul to Philemon, who lived in Colosse.
  • 1 & 2 Peter – written by Peter to the churches in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia, all in modern-day Turkey.
  • 1, 2, & 3 John – written by the Apostle John and, like the book of John, were probably written from Ephesus.
  • Revelation – written by John to the seven churches in Asia Minor.

While Israel is known as the Holy Land, Wilson is correct in noting “it is not an exaggeration to call Turkey the Holy Land of Asia Minor.”

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: Cappadocia

It’s been a busy week, but I want to continue processing my trip and share some stories from each place.  Back in March I was able to travel to Greece and Turkey with my brother.  For a preview of the trip, read the A Guide to Biblical Sites in Greece and Turkey entry and read my thoughts on AthensCorinth, and Ephesus.

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Our time in Ephesus was followed by a travel day.  Trains, planes, and automobiles!  We took the train back to Izmir, where we caught a flight to Istanbul, then a connecting flight to Kayseri in central Turkey.  By the time we got to Kayseri it was dark, which was disappointing because we knew the landscape was supposed to be spectacular.  Indeed, we didn’t even realize until our return that Kayseri sits at the base of one of the largest mountains in Turkey!  A car picked us up from the airport and took us to the town of Göreme.  When we finally arrived in Göreme we could begin to make out the strange formations Cappadocia is known for.

The landscape in Cappadocia has been strangely shaped by volcanic activity from times past, along with erosion over time from water.  The rock in the area is almost chalk-like – easy to chip away and carve.  The result is an area with deep ravines surrounded by tall cone-shaped rock structures, sometimes called fairy chimneys.  People have carved dwellings in these formations for thousands of years.Cappadocia

In keeping with that tradition, in the town of Göreme visitors can stay in hotels carved right out of the rock formations.  It’s one of those things you have to do to at least say you did it: stay in a cave hotel in Cappadocia.  Our room was spacious and comfortable with a modern bathroom.  Yet all the décor, save two chairs and a table, were carved right out of the rock.  It wasn’t until breakfast the next morning that we were fully able to take in the other-worldly landscape at which we had arrived.  The snow flurries in the air only made it that much more enchanted.

Cave PaintingsOur first stop was the Göreme Open Air Museum.  The museum is a small area of these chimney formations with numerous  churches and monasteries dating back to 1100 AD. Many of these structures have multiple levels connected by stairs or tunnels carved through the rock.  Because they are protected from the elements, many of the churches are still beautifully painted with images from the Bible.  It was easy to see how these paintings were used as a way of communicating the important narratives of the New Testament.

The entire museum area is surrounded by Göreme National Park and upon leaving the museum, we realized the entire park is, in essence, a giant museum.  I had read that it was relatively easy to set off hiking in a given direction and as long as you could keep the town of Göreme in sight from the higher vantage points, you would not get lost.  So we set out to test that theory!  Amidst snow flurries, we spent the day hiking, climbing up to openings in the rock, exploring cave houses and churches, and belly crawling through small tunnels, unknown as to where they might lead.  My brother described the area as a giant playground for adults!  Every so often, we would see a hiker or two off in the distance, but other than that we had the place to ourselves.  Later in the afternoon we climbed to the top of a ridge to locate the town off in the distance.  Not wanting to backtrack, we followed the ridgeline, hoping to find a safe place to descend down to the valley floor and make our way toward town.  It took longer than anticipated, but we finally located a way back down, found the main road, and headed back into Göreme.Goreme

The town of Göreme itself reminds me of a ski resort town.  Hotels encircle a main strip full of restaurants, shops, and a river running straight through town.  We were cold and exhausted and found the perfect coffee shop in the middle of town to warm up in and process the day.  Later we went looking for a place to eat.  Warning: do not stop to look at menus unless you are ready for the full sales pitch, or are very quick about it!  We did get quite the sales pitch at one place and the meal was wonderful – lamb cooked in clay pots, bread with assorted dipping sauces, and Turkish baklava.  We ate like kings!  My brother and I agreed that it was perhaps one of the better days of our lives.

Goreme National ParkThe next day we considered a couple side trips/activities, but decided on more of the same: this time hiking the Rose Valley trail through the park.  We began by running across a cave church structure, complete with a dining hall, dovecotes, a wine press, and a bee farm to harvest honey.  For lunch we climbed up to a platform that used to be a dwelling of some type and overlooked the ravine below.  When we were about spent at day’s end, we ran across a couple other hikers who told us of a large church just up the trail that was worth the climb.  We found the opening in the rock face and climbed up to a second level to find ourselves in a sanctuary as large as a decent-sized church building today.  Again, none of this is visible from the outside.  It was a nice way to end our hike.  We ended up in an adjacent village and found someone happy to drive us back to Göreme for some gas money.

What a truly magical place!

Here are some of my thoughts as they relate to the Cappadocia region:

Insight #1Cappadocia isn’t mentioned often in the Bible, but it is mentioned.  In Acts 2, Cappadocia was listed as one of the places/languages people were able to hear being spoken when the Spirit fell on the believers in Jerusalem.  Later, the beginning of 1 Peter is addressed to Christian exiles scattered throughout what is now Turkey, with Cappadocia being listed among the regions.  These few references tell us that it was home to a Jewish population and subsequently a Christian population as well.  Paul traveled to the south of Cappadocia in order to focus on the prominent cities of Asia Minor, such as Ephesus.  But little doubt the message eventually spread north and east to Cappadocia.

Insight #2Although it didn’t play a prominent role in the New Testament, Cappadocia would help shape the church for the next several hundred years.  We know the message spread to Cappadocia because several figures in the early church came from Cappadocia, including Basil the Great and Gregory of Nyssa.  These leaders were instrumental in shaping the monastic movement in Christianity.  Monasticism was active in the region for the next thousand years.  Examples of cave monasteries abound in the region.

Cave EntranceInsight #3Cave living.  Having explored the area for a couple days, I am convinced that cave living would have been pretty comfortable for that time.  Like I mentioned above, it was flurrying the first day we hiked through the park.  But once in the caves, we could take our winter wear off and be fine – not to mention that we didn’t even have a fire going.  The carved out dwellings would have stayed cool in the summer and moderate in the winter.  There were places to raise bees for honey, wine presses, dovecotes, and stables for horses.  Most importantly, they were easily defended and safe from the elements, with passageways that could be sealed off if trouble arose.  There are many accounts of enemy armies being unable to even locate these cave cities because the residents would simply disappear into the hills or underground.

The last stop is Istanbul!