Monday, July 11, 2005

A teary-eyed farewell

Our sacred trek has come to an end. The flurry of thoughts and emotions associated with good endings, however, has left me with much more than memories to reflect upon...too much, in fact, to begin to jot down here. The trip has meant a lot to me personally. One of the greatest priviliges a deliberate and lengthy "pilgrimage" affords one is the chance to share in some soul-searching conversations with your travel companions, and I must say it was a privilige to do quite a bit of that with Tamara and Krista and the people we got to befriend along the way. We learned a lot from each other sharing at length about our personal struggles with faith, singlehood, work and relationships, among other things.

The other great priviliges are the moments in your travels when you get to witness the hand of God. Occasionally, these are deeply emotive experiences, which take you by surprise and can reduce you to tears. I actually gauge the value of this trip by this "tear" factor.

When it comes to visitting pilgrimage shrines or the ruins of ancient cities, I usually don't experience much emotion at all, aside from that passive curiosity one might find about those objects that one is drawn to in a museum. I lived three years in Jerusalem and was never really moved by any religious site in it. To me, the physical religious environment of Jerusalem is mostly a kind of museum relic. I suppose this makes me quite a typical Protestant, which, not incidentally, also makes me quite a terrible "pilgrim". In spite of what it commemorates, to this day I still have a hard time relating to those teary-eyed pilgrims I encounter in the Holy Sepulchre.

Nevertheless, occasionally, a place does strike me deeply. My first occasion of this happened three years ago, not while I was in Israel, interestingly, but during a study tour of Asia Minor. The occasion was a visit to the ruins of Alexandria Troas on the Turkish shore of the Aegean, the ancient city where St. Paul received a heavenly vision to take the Gospel into Europe. At that point in my life I was a year and a half into my studies of Second Temple Period Judaism, and I found it somewhat befuddling there that God would take this man, a Pharisee of Pharisees, a man so zealous for God that he modelled his life on Phinehas, Elijah and the Rechabites, shake him down and send him to Europe to save his peoples' oppressors. To add to the effrontery that this "Macedonian Call" represents, just realize that the figure Heaven used to beckon Paul into Europe was indeed a Macedonian. Recall that it was a Macedonian who turned the eastern world upside down, Alexander the Great. So I wept because, standing on that Asian shore and looking towards Europe (as Paul must have done), I saw for the first time fully the God of Israel's love for the heathen, including my Latin ancestors. And I wept because this Jew of Jews, who had every reason to hate my people, turned the western world upside down with his message of unbounded Grace.

On this trip, I did not necessarily have a "weeping experience", but there were two instances when I did fight that undeniable dampness from forming in my eyes. The first occurred in Antioch (modern day Antakya, Turkey) the place where the followers of the Way where first called "Christians". We had been waylaid in Cappadocia because of stomach illnesses, and so we happened to be there on a Sunday morning. I was anxious to get into Syria to make up for lost time, but Tamara insisted that we attend the morning services at the local churches. What unfolded was amazing. We first talked to Father Dominco, the Catholic priest in Antioch, in his house church in the ancient Jewish Quarter. He was the first to relate to us about the very special movement of unity in the city between the Christian sects...and about their special developing bonds with the local Muslims and Jews. He was particularly proud of the fact that his church was in the Jewish Quarter, because of the heritage that that ancient bond represented, telling us that he and his Jewish counterpart delighted in calling each other "brothers".

Afterwards, we walked to the Orthodox Church in town. Along the way, I noticed that Father Dominco had also left his house. In the court of the church we encountered a friendly Syrian Christian named Joseph. He invited us into the service and told us before we entered that we were most welcome to attend. "I myself do not call myself 'Orthodox' or 'Catholic' or 'Protestant'", he explained to us as we informed him that we were Protestants, "I am only a 'Christian'". The significance of this statement at the threshhold of the Church of Antioch was not lost on us.

Inside the Church, I was surprised to find that Father Dominco was seated among the worshippers. I was already moved by Joseph's statement, but when I saw the Catholic priest in the Orthodox church, I began to feel that kind of special feeling you get when you are in the presence of the Holy Spirit. I was even more surprised when Joseph pulled us out of our seats to receive Communion. I was quite sure that we were breaking there every rule of both of our sects, but I was not in the state of mind to politely refuse. So we partook of the elements before the entire congregation. Immediately after the service, Joseph led us to a Protestant house church in town, to a congregation whose worship service was led by children and whose members apparently all have come recently to Christianity from Muslim backgrounds. I sat in quiet amazement after the service as one of the members recounted how his yearning to know God had led him to fundamentalist Islam and then to a remarkable encounter with the Holy Spirit.

A second occasion of fighting tears happened to me in Damascus. Weakened from amoeba, I went on a fruitless search in a market place for fruit yoghurt, the only thing I could imagine eating at the time. Thankfully, I passed the National Archeological Museum of Syria along the way, so I decided to pay a quick visit. Inside, I discovered that the museum housed the Dura Europa Synagogue. This entire ancient Synagogue had been carted from the middle of the Syrian desert to Damascus! My encounter was particularly poignant, even though it was now a relic in a museum, for throughout the trip, I could not help noticing the sheer lack of signs of Jewish settlement in all the cities we had visited since Sarajevo. The sadness I felt over this grew particularly acute in Syria, a place that had long been an important center of Jewish civilization. While the visit only punctuated this sense of loss, the frescoes of the Dura Europa Synagogue (for which it is famous) gave me some solace with the vibrant spirit of their bright colors and their celebration of Jewish resilience in the midst of destruction, war and dispersal. I stood before the ark niche in a kind of suspended gasp, only half-believing what I was seeing. Although I am not Jewish, nothing could keep me from singing the Shma at that moment in the heart of Syria's capital.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

A birthday to remember

I watched the sunset as I rode in a taxi, across the border into Syria- it was my birthday. Actually the day began in Antioch, Turkey. Antioch is the place where the followers of Christ were first called Christians and itis mentioned in the book of Acts in the Bible. We decided to venture out to find a church service to see what the church is like today- we were amazed at how our morning unfolded. We knocked on the doors of a catholic church and met Dominco, a priest originally from Rome but living and working at the catholic church. We learned that the Catholics, Jews, Orthodox and Protestants have a special sense of community- often worshiping together. Later, we discoved an Orthodox church and before we knew what was happening we had met Joseph. A 45-year old Turkish man with a kind heart who invited us in to the service. After the hour long Orthodox service Joseph took us to a Protestant service- another hour service but beautiful. We learned that the small group of people worshipping were all former Muslims who had incredible stories of coming to faith as Christians.
Joseph and his wife then invited us to their home for a wonderful meal, we ate and talked into the last afternoon and then headed to our taxi to begin our journey to Syria.
It was about a 3-4 hour ride to Aleppo, Syria. As soon as we arrived and checked into our inexpensive hotel, we ventured out to find a famous fallel stand we had read about. Fallels are some of my favorite food and I can say that I had the best fallel ever in Syria!! We also met the owner and before we knew it we were getting a tour of the fallel restaurant, sitting and chatting and being served drinks. ( we went back the next day to the fallel stand- that's another story). We ended the night with a big ice cream cone of some intersting flavors, strolling through a park and watching all the activites happening in the town square. I fell asleep that night, content and happy to be turning 35 in Syria.

Monday, June 27, 2005

John’s Apocalypse of Benefactions

Although I have visited the ruins of Ephesus twice in my previous travels to Turkey, I never noted the preponderance of inscriptions on the remains of the ancient civic buildings. Almost all of the inscriptions (with little exception I noted) are examples of dedicatory inscriptions honoring the patrons of a monument, statue or building, typically, these being Emperors, magistrates and/or wealthy individuals. Some of the donors were even buried in their buildings. One Celsus evidently bequeathed a sizable endowment for Ephesus’ library and was honored by burial on the premises (he, of course, paid for that as well). Some of these inscriptions even went to great length to describe exactly how and under what circumstances the funds were procured. Why the level of detail and obsession with donorship?

It turns out that the political, social and religious realities of the Roman Empire demanded it. A leader in Greco-Roman society was considered a “benefactor” before any other designation. In order to earn the privilege to rule, one had to dedicate a sizable portion of one’s estate for the common good. This is how cities in the Roman Empire funded civic projects, temples, institutions, festivities and games…directly from the personal coffers of such wealthy individuals. In return, the population honored its benefactors with “honors”, such as giving their ruler-patrons prominent front-row seats in the theatres and coliseums, placing their busts in public places, or singing their praises on dedicatory inscriptions, murals, and so on. Eulogies were even composed in their honor at special occasions and festivities, where they were sometimes conferred strings of honorary titles, and given wreaths or objects symbolizing their lordship over their cities and so on.

This reliance of governance on honoraria was actually the civic bedrock of Greco-Roman society, a phenomenon scholars have lately begun referring to as “evergetism” (from the Greek word for “benefaction”). Evergetism reached its zenith at the time of the Emperor Domitian, the very figure whose persecution of Christians inspired the writing of the book of Revelation. Domitian took evergetism to new heights when he declared himself a god and erected a temple to himself at the top of Ephesus’ Via Sacra, in contrast to previous Emperors, who, though knowing they would be conferred the status of deities upon their death, still considered it tactless to refer to themselves as such while they were still living. Apparently, Domitian knew himself to be the Empire’s top benefactor, and made it compulsory to be honored as such among the pantheon of the gods.

To us, it may seem extremely shallow and completely unethical to buy one's own honor (not to mention one's power). But we underestimate the impact of "Jewish sensibility" on Western culture, which gave us the impulse to credit God first in all things (since He is the ultimate source of our wealth). Archeological evidence has revealed the fact that Jewish donorship lists underplayed the role of the individual and placed the focus on the community. Jewish donors even creditied their gifts to "Providence". Christ's teachings also deeply reflect this sensibility. “I tell you the truth,” said Jesus about those who received praise from others for their acts of righteousness, “they have received their full reward.”

So it comes as some surprise that Jesus promises the obedient hearer of his admonitions with several rewards that sound suspiciously like evergetistic honors in the letters to the Seven Churches in John’s Apocalypse. The Smyrnans are promised a crown. The Pergameme faithful are promised “new names”. The lowly Thyatirans are to be given a rod of iron to rule the nations by. The Sardians are even promised to have their names proclaimed in the heavenly throne room, much like the conferral of an honorary title.

On second thought, however, Revelation's model of benefaction actually throws the patron-citizen evergetistic relationship on its head. For it is not just the ruler (Jesus) who is shown receiving the honors of benefaction, but the faithful citizens of his kingdom. As such, the letters actually represent a drastic leveling of the honorary distance kept between the ruler and the ruled in Greco-Roman society…In fact, the promises indicate that the servant-citizens of Christ's kingdom are to fully share in the act of government! The "poor" and the "powerless" are the very ones who are to sit on Christ's own throne.

Another reflection also reveals the fact that God is always the benefactor--only, He will inscribe His name on the faithful overcomers, who are to become the "pillars" of His temple. God's civic project is our lives. The honor that is due to Himself, He inscribes on us.

Saturday, June 25, 2005

St. Paul's Message for Today's Athenians

Recently, we've been noting recurring themes in the responses we hear to our question, "How would you describe God?". Many reflect that the search to know God is universal, and that all religious paths can lead the authentic adherent toward God. This universalistic view is sometimes complemented by a conception of God not dissimilar to the Platonistic understanding of God as the distant "unmoved mover" who sets all things in motion and orders the cosmos with His thoughts. The ancient Stoics referred to these primordial divine thoughts or precepts as the "spermatikoi logoi", which need not be discerned through religious instruction but could be intuited in our very nature. Since we all have embers of divine reason within us, we can discover the Mover in ourselves and in the world around us. Quite fittingly, one of the places where we've encountered this universalistic view was on the Areopagus (Mars Hill) in Athens, the site where Paul once engaged Stoic and Epicurean philosophers.

Surprisingly, Paul did not refute the Stoic conception of the spermatikoi logoi in his dialogue with the philosophers. Paul, in fact, stakes his argument on the unquestionable existance of this pan-religious, universal quest (like many Jews of his day--including Jesus--he gave surprising deference to the gentiles on some matters). While Paul dwells at length on the folly of pagan idolatry, his comments there are not as provocative as the text of Acts 17 might make one think. In fact, with his tirade against serving lifeless icons (such as the premier icon in the world at that time on the hill above him) Paul is more likely casting his sinker into their midst. Paul would have known that these philosophers shared his contempt for showy pagan religiosity (his statement "Men of Athens, I see that you are religious in all things" bears a twinge of light-hearted sarcasm). But Paul was well-aware that they did not share his notion of a relational God-head who is very much involved in our lives. To the Stoics and Epicureans, the gods (if they existed at all) were inimically absent and remained distantly unconcerned with the affairs of men. They taught, in fact, that it was useless to entreat the divinities for favors...much less their images.

The quest of the Stoics and Epicurians, as for many of us today, was simply to achieve serenity in one's lifetime through careful reason and self-discipline. As Paul Veyne has described in A History of Private Life, their ideologies were "the tranquilizers of life". Theirs was the science of living the well-lived life (the Epicureans, in particular, coined the aphorism carpe diem). It is thus easy to see why the Athenians dismissed Paul out of the Areopagus. Paul's science of living for the life to come--as opposed to the present one--completely undermined their quest. With Paul, knowledge of the divine spermatikoi logoi carried a certain accountability. It could mean a private, costly devotion to the Creator of the Universe. Still, the striking difference of his conception of the spermatikoi logoi from theirs is that he regarded them as signs of a beckoning, relational God.

In our journey we have discovered that regardless of their religious stripe, certain individuals express an infectious closeness with God. We are now in Cappadocia, where the early Church thinkers first fully integrated the Classical intellectual heritage of philosophy and rhetoric with Christian theology, and so bequethed to the Church their rich legacy of "Natural Theology", the science of knowing God through a carefully reasoned reflection of the cosmos. We had the privilige to bump into two Natural Theologians here while touring the ruins of the ancient Christian cave cities of the region. One was Bassa, a young doctor from South Africa of Muslim background who expressed an authentic yearning to deepen his relationship with God. Another was Jerome, an officer in the Singaporean army and a fledgling convert to Christianity from a Buddhist background. I immensely enjoyed how these two loved to listen to one another without condescension and with authentic interest. They never responded with well-worn doctrinal catch phrases (as you might expect between a typical Muslim and Christian), but immediately built on one anothers insights and expressed humility in their thoughts. Reflecting back on them and previous respondents, those individuals who do seem to be on a path towards knowing God sincerely seem to have one thing in common: they respect views other than their own and are deeply aware that the quest for a life of authentic devotion to God can only first exist because of God's outstretched hand toward us.

Captivating Cappadocia

June 24.05 (Goreme, Turkey)

3:15 pm

I wasn’t supposed to still be here. But I am.

So I sit in the shade of grapevines as the quiet is illuminated by the chirp of a swallow, the muted beats of Turkish music wafting up from the valley and the occasional moo of the local cow. I have time to listen because I am sick (food poisoning or the like). We had not planned to bed down in this charming town for so long. But thanks to a little bacteria that first hit Krista then myself, we are getting to savor our setting.

Now for another day I am surrounded by volcanic rock formations more bizarre than lunar landscape. Some rocks host pigeon houses, others are tributes to ancient churches and others are now cave hotels, like ours.

Cappadocia’s curious contours were formed by the eruption of three volcanoes, which are said to date back 15 million years ago. Its first inhabitants pre-date the Hittites who built up the region in 1200 BC, creating elaborate underground cities and rock homes. It later became a center for Christian thought when the Cappadocia siblings (Basil, Gregory and Theadora, who trained her brothers) and Gregory of Nyssa came on the scene in the 5th century. These early Christian scholars were able to integrate the classical system of learning with church theology. They shaped the way the Byzantine Eastern church taught and discussed doctrine. Their influence on the Church of the East parallels that of Augustine’s effect on the West.

In the 5th century churches were built, schools were formed and monasteries became replete. Apparently Cappadocia had a thriving Christian community for almost 1,500 years. I ponder the mysterious disappearance of the Christians in this area. Yesterday Eric and I went on an elaborate search for a church that was still active. Goreme, the winsome town where we have stayed, had a plethora of cave churches. But our quest to find one still in use ended with a declaration that there were no more Christians living here. Where did they go?

My question was interrupted by friends and easier thoughts.


The sun is sliding down the sky and my sickness is slipping away. So, we climb up to the peak to see the fireball’s final descent. Turkish music is still stirring in the air and the beat is too compelling not to dance. The breeze lures me and my scarf around in circles as light flutters down the volcanoe rock formations. I hold the moment close, asking it not to leave me.

11: 20pm

The sky is a black box displaying Venus and Mercury. I am feeling a little weak, but I couldn’t resist letting the night take me where it would. This meant dining on “Mama’s” cooking (we became friends with the owners) and then going with “Papa” to a wedding party. Krista and I were greeted by the groom and then a host who offered us hand sanitizer, cigarettes and candy. We ventured into a back-garden filled with over fifty men, where we would told we could have a pick of any. We chose to simply enjoy the passionate songs of the traditional Turkish singer as we drank tea and chatted with two kind older men. I did discover when the Christians left Cappadocia. Apparently Christians and Muslims lived sided by side up through the Ottoman times, but when Ataturk came to power the Christians disappeared. While the Armenians were being killed in the country (1914-1917), likely these Christians were a part of the half-million person population swap with Greece. A bit of sadness invaded the glory of the night as I was caught between the realities of the generous Turkish hospitality and the realization that a city of churches no longer has Christians living in it. Papa kindly took us back to our cave hotel, but the sounds of our singer followed us. I could still hear his voice and the drums as I fell asleep. The music from the valley mingled with my thoughts. My mind did not wander to the sites we had seen, but the new friends we had made.

In our four days in Goreme we had met stellar people from Brazil to Korea. Among our new friends were Rosie and Bedo, our Turkish tour guides, who exuded a contagious pride in their country and a deep appreciation for Islam. I gained a quick affinity for Bassa, a 26-year-old doctor from South Africa, who had a poetic soul, inquisitive spirit and a passion for truth. Bassa described Allah as greater than any perception – more distant than we can imagine and closer than our jugular vein. His longing to know and live truth was inspiring. We also toured with Victoria and Kate, two Kiwi women who had a gracious persona and an impressive strategy to travel months on end, and dined with Joey and Melinda, Aussies whose love of music and each other was magnetic.

We suspected that we might leave this former Christian center without meeting one follower of Christ, but Jerome’s acquaintance shot down our suspicions. Jerome is a 23-year-old from Singapore with an easy laughter and a near constant smile. He converted from Buddhism to Christianity just four months ago. However, his love of Christ and understanding of struggles and riches of faith was vast. I was wonderfully challenged by his unabashed adoration of my Lord.

As I fell asleep with music and thoughts swirling in my mind and medicine in my body, my heart wasn’t awake enough to muse about what God might be doing in the lives of these new friends and my own. All I knew was that I missed them already and couldn’t help but be grateful for our extended stay in Cappadocia.

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Eastern Exposure

An eastern breeze woos me forward as I write you. When my ferry reaches land I will be in Turkey and half way through my sacred trek from Rome to Jerusalem. Since I wrote you last, my journey along the ancient Roman pilgrim routes has taken me through Albania, Macedonia and Greece.

While I set out to learn more about God, the world and my faith, I should have suspected that I couldn’t escape learning about myself as well. Conversing with people from diverse cultures and traveling along the Mediterranean with a double-wide backpack strapped around me in a sea of small-thighed women has caused me to look at a few identity issues along the way.

However, I am trying to cut down on public narcissism. So I will write to about others’ identity issues – specifically the hopes and struggles of the countries along the pilgrim path I visited during this latest leg of travels.

Albania is in a curious stage of rediscovering itself. It emerged from an isolationism rivaling North Korea just 15 years ago. Now a transformation is taking place: the populace is allowed to drive, the former dictator’s mausoleum has been converted into a bowling alley/concert venue and the mayor of the capital city, Tirana, has painted the communist buildings purple, red, yellow and orange with geometric designs. However, the rediscovery of religious roots is requiring more than fresh paint for the facades of souls. Albanian nationalism remains the popular religion of the day. Albanians are said to be 10% Catholic; 20% Orthodox; 70% Muslim and 100% atheist.

Albania has an extensive history of religious alignment with whoever is in power. However, it was once a significant place on the Via Egnatia pilgrim path. Paul and Timothy, important pastors in the New Testament era, are said to have traveled there. During my visit I met people who have set aside their nationalism to discover a relationship with God transcending their ethnic heritage. Among them was Lida. She is a beautiful woman in her early forties who was raised Muslim but has recently become a Christian. She says her country has failed to hope because they didn’t know the real meaning and experience of God’s love. For Lida the one thing Albania needs is God, then it will rediscover itself fully.

According to my chats with elderly people in Macedonia, their country seems to be mourning the loss of its former identity. I met Christopher, a gregarious and slightly disheveled small boat captain in his sixties, along the boardwalk in Ohrid. He spoke of his regard for the former dictator, Tito. He exclaimed that when Tito was in power the economy thrived and people felt safe, free from the fear of being robbed. Christopher associates democracy with a bully-capitalism, which promotes deviant ways to make fast money. He speaks of the rise of the mafia and sees democracy as bringing crime up and employment down.

Despite Christopher’s laments for the good old days of dictatorship, he says he loves America. He learned his English by watching American movies and attributes his passion for Christ to his encounter with American missionaries a decade ago. Christopher lives in the region where the early Christians developed the Cyrillic alphabet and trained missionaries to reach the Slavic peoples. But he says it took people from the States to help know God in a special way.

Greece seems to be grappling with its own sense of religion and nationalism. For centuries to be Greek has meant one is a Greek Orthodox Christian. However, I spoke with youth who say the church doesn’t feel relevant for them. I met a lovely 23-year-old named Matilda who believes in God but spoke of being caught up in the pressures of fashion and image. She contemplates the struggle between faith and materialism, but she said materialism is the path most traveled by those her age.

However, the gap between this generation and the church has not been completely lost. While I was in Meteora, Greece I met Vaslis, a monk around my age, who described God by using the paintings in the church. He showed me an image of hell and heaven. He said that hell was a place where no one knew who each other was, all identity was lost. Heaven was where people’s personalities were in full color by the light of God’s love.

By encountering people of faith in Albania, Macedonia and Greece revealed my own struggles and hopes. As my identity issues continue to be exposed, my prayer is that I journey through it in the light of God’s love. I’ll keep you posted on the learning as I travel east through Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel.


The realities of backpacking

Seeing the world as a backpacker is definitely a defining experience. First of all, I thought our six week trip was a long endeavor until I met people traveling for months and even for years. It is not uncommon for Australians to travel for a year or two or even more as we discovered.
Also, as freeing as it might seem to live out of a backpack, after a while your pack becomes a weight and you start ditching things along the way you once thought valuable just because your back is breaking under the weight.
I have also learned on this trip that you may stay in places with bedbugs, you are never to proud to sleep on a dirty ship floor for eight hours, that having clean clothes is something you once had, you can get sick in route and you will most definitely take many forms of travel; on foot, ship, hydrafoil, taxi, charter bus, mini van bus and random strangers.
We have two weeks left and four countries to see, we have dirty clothes but many new friends. Would I choose to do this trip again knowing what I know so far and have experienced-yes!

Friday, June 10, 2005

Oh the places you'll go...

One of my favorite Dr. Seuss books is entitled, "Oh the places you'll go."
One of our most recent countries we visited is Albania. It is hard to really describe Albania, you really do have to visit it- especially the capital, Tirana.
Most of Europe is easy to travel through, there is an incredible train system that can route you through most countries, everyday and any time. Once you choose to travel through the Balkans however, travel is usually done by what we would call a minivan- you buy a seat and may travel with a variety of people to your location. But even minivan wasn't an option getting from Belgrade, Serbia to Tirana, Albania- so we flew. Our first introduction to Tirana was driving from the airport at 11 pm at night by taxi- Tirana is definitely a city of lights but a bizarre combination of lights and strutures, small walking bridges are lit up on the underside by bright blue lights, buildings in the downtown square are illuminated by a yellow overall glow. By daylight we saw even more interesting and unusual things- it really felt like we were in a Dr. Seuss book- the city seems random, a bit our of sorts and a living version of someone's imagination. Various buildings are colorfully painted- blue, green, yellow- sometimes in blocks of color or patterns. Most buildings have different design structure and the layout of the city is unusual. So, what is it about Albania that makes it such a random place? Here is what I've learned- it wasn't until 10 years ago that Albanians could own cars, western and outside influence had been cut off. Albania has been conquered and controlled many times-they have both European and Eastern influence- Ottomans to Communism. Religion is seen as an adoption of the religion in power. It is said that Albanians are 10% Catholic, 20% Orthodox, 70% Islamic and 100% Aethesist- there is a sense of nationalism in Albania. The color of buildings is a gift from the mayor to brighten up the dim, bland communistic buildings many people live in. Also, there are few people who seem like visitors from other places, especially from America.
Overall, I'm glad I was introduced to Albania- Tirana is one intriguing place and is a great contrast to the beautiful mountains of the countryside we rode through on our way to cross the border into Macedonia. -Krista

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Learning from Sarajevo

Traveling through the Balkans has been a truly revelatory experience. After meeting the people of these lands, it has been humbling to realize just how many misperceptions of this area I had held before our arrival here. Part of those misconceptions had arisen, I suppose, from sensationalist war reportage and commentary in the media...although, mostly I'm realizing that myself and Americans in general have simply a tremendous lack of knowledge about this part of the world. For these reasons Sarajevo was one of those places that left a deep impression on me. Our conversations with Sarajevans revealed the somewhat surprising fact that Sarajevans did not experience the recent war as a conflict arising from deep-seated religious/ethnic interests, so much as an attack on their tolerant and pluralistic way of life. As proof of this, our host cited the fact that many of the Serbs of Sarajevo served alongside their Muslim and Catholic compatriots in the war against the Serbian nationalists. It is perhaps wrong to generalize about the "Spirit of Sarajevo" from the handful of conversations we had in two days, but it became quite clear to us that--at least with the Sarajevans we spoke with--an attitude of civic and social pluralism is something Sarajevans hold deep in their bones. They did not always express it consciously, but it was more than clear that cultural identity--and most especially religious cultural identity--is not the root cause of the problem that we Americans have long come to associate with the term "balkanization".

Sarajevo, in fact, has long existed as beacon of religious tolerance, not just in its part of the world, but even in Europe in general. It is clear, anyway, that Sarajevans need no lectures from the West on the value of "coexistance." The reasons for Sarajevo's pluralistic "spirit" are manifold, but the two most pertinent that we've been able to perceive in our conversations are the value Sarajevans place on intellectual openness and independent thought, and secondly, the primacy they place on the family unit as opposed to tribal and religious loyalties. Perhaps related to or as a result of this attitude, our host pointed out that Sarajevo's neighborhoods have not existed as fragmented ethnic enclaves (ghettos) since Hapsburg times. Sarajevo is proof to me the city can truly exist as a beacon of multicultural tolerance against nationalism, and has even produced a pluralistic civic ethos that can serve as a tantalizing model for multi-national cities in this part of the world, such as Jerusalem and Baghdad.

This is a great reason why America, ten years after Dayton, must not forget this region of world. This pilgrimage has taught me that I as an American must do all I can to support the renewal of our efforts to rebuild the region, to continue humanitarian aid, and to double our efforts to build up civil society in the region. Most importantly, we must renew our commitment to stabilizing the economies of the region, the key struggle the people of the Balkans perceive as the key to sustaining peace. In Belgrade, for example, we witnessed many bombed-out shells of buildings still standing precariously close to collapse as a result of our bombing over five years ago. It may be a small gesture and perhaps too late, but if we Americans offered to rebuild these monuments to Serbian grievance and American ignorance, I don't believe such a gesture of diplomatic goodwill would be overlooked among Serbs...

That could be one desperately needed step towards the reconciliation and redemption between our Balkan brothers and us.

Thursday, June 02, 2005

Sacred Bench Encounters

Ah, our bench has been a sturdy space for serendipitous moments! It has been a rich gift conversing with people such as Maria, a mother of 7 from Argentia, who traveled to Rome on a pilgrimage. She spoke of how life is to be lived on God's time, not ours. Priest Benardo, from Florence, spoke of the perfect love of God. He did so with a contagious grace. He had studied philosophy, but was left empty reasoning love until he discovered a God fragile enough to come in human form and strong enough to transform the soul. Tony, a gregarious 24 year old from Split Croatia, recalled how he had done drugs and was addicted to alcohol until he had a personal encounter with Christ when he visited a holy site in Bosnia. He now plans to become a priest committed to helping the suffering. I met Maryanna, a 17 year old from Dubrovnik, today. She plans to be a nun, though all the other nuns are quite old. However, her love for God is irrestible and her desire for Him irrepressable. Many of these inspiring people have shared their struggles and their dreams candidly with me. They have also given me gifts. I am left humbled and expectant. It has been nothing less than divine encounters on these sacred benches. Ah, yes, more to come...

We are 5 days into the journey and wow!

Right now we are in one of the most beautiful cities in the world, Dubrovnik, Croatia-or at least the three of us think so. We even decided to stay one extra day which is challenging in our schedule, but worth it. I am enjoying taking photos - I have a couple of cameras and it is hard not to look like a tourist! So far I have taken 3 rolls of pics with my 35 mm and almost 300 with my digital. We are posting just a few for you all to see. Look forward to sharing more with you as we continue our journey! krista

Wednesday, June 01, 2005

The Journey So Far

Ah, we are 5 days and 2 countries into the Sacred Trek and it has been exhilerating. In Italy we chatted with charming priests, spoke with a delightful woman from Argentina and a student from Columbia. The conversations have been rich and the sites stunning. We just arrived in Croatia after a 9 hour ferry making our way across the Adriatic. We will have photos and excerpts of our encounters with others soon. Cheers, Krista, Eric and Tamara

Friday, May 27, 2005

The Sacred Trek the Ages

When God called a people to Himself, He set them on a pilgrimage. He made for Himself sojourners. He led them through seas, navigated them through deserts and took them up mountains. He caused them to move, so they could be still and know He was God. He put them on a journey, so they would remember He was their destination. Abraham. Isaac. Jacob. Moses. Ruth. David. Elijah. Elisha. Jeremiah. David. Isaiah. Mary. Joseph. Jesus, the ultimate Pilgrim. Peter. John. Paul. Each was called to sojourn, all were led to follow the Father and invite others to Him en route.

From the time of the Torah to now others too have sojourned to and through the Holy Land. Some traveled for feasts, others to offer for sacrifices. Curiosity and love wooed many weary souls. We have the accounts of women such as Egaria who trekked from Spain and Helena (Constantine’s mom) and Paula who traveled from Rome to Jerusalem in the 4th century A.D.

Pilgrimages were an integral part of medieval spirituality. During those days some sojourned for devotion, others to make atonement for sins by gaining indulgences, some to seek a miracle for sickness, and others went for adventure and to get away from home life1. People would visit shrines to saints, places where holy people lived, labored, did miracles, or died2. Pilgrimages to Jerusalem were of such importance in the Middle Ages that the Crusades started -in part- to ensure passage to the Holy City. While people’s motives for their pilgrimages varied, what was consistent was that they were compelled to journey.

1. Gallyon, Margery Kempe and Medieval England, 151.
2. Ibid., 151.

Thursday, May 26, 2005

Setting Off on a Sacred Trek

I am writing to you from a familiar bench in Freedom Park, my favorite park in Charlotte. But I’m dreaming of benches I have never seen in parks thousands of miles from here.

Tomorrow, I set off on a sacred trek from Rome to Jerusalem. I will journey with two friends along ancient Roman pilgrim routes. As we traverse through the Balkans, Greece, Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel, we desire to take an honest gaze at the origins and legacy of our Christian faith.

Our pilgrimage West to East will steer us through cities central to the spread of Christianity and countries scarred by religious fragmentation. The path from Rome to Jerusalem has been the stage for some of the most romantic and tragic scenes in two millennia of Christian history - if not, indeed, of world history. It has also served as the backdrop for some of the most reported religious conflicts in the last two decades.

We long to pass through these lands as learners and listeners -- not as confident Crusaders or citizens of a super power. So, we plan to interview people on benches in squares, cathedrals, ancient amphitheaters, train stations, temples, gardens, mosques and maybe even at the Hard Rock Café in Beirut.

We will ask two questions:

1. How would you describe God?
2. What would you like Americans to understand about your country?

We don’t know what to expect, but we are praying for divine encounters and holy serendipity. We desire to discover the sacred en route – not simply stationed in ruins and relics but also present in people.

We have an ambitious itinerary, and at this moment it feels more like The Amazing Race than a hallowed holiday. But soon we will be on the road, and as we travel I plan to send you a few postcards to let you know who we meet on those benches along the way.

This journey feels like a dream set in motion. When asked what compels me to go, I confess I can't fully explain it. I am stirred and stilled by adventure. I am moved by the dance of the past and the present. I love seeing God work in the world and sharing those stories with others. However, I suspect greater understanding will be found on the road.

I look forward to sharing this sacred trek with you!