Our traveling classroom is about to move out to sea to visit Patmos, Crete, Ephesus, Mykonos and Santorini. We’ll post again when we return to land, but here are some photo updates from our days in Delphi and Athens.
A special thank you for the comments we’ve received from those of you following our journey through this “travelblog.”
Though internet access is limited and we’ve not been able to respond individually, we read each comment and your words have blessed us. The joy of special experiences is compounded when you have friends to share them with!
Mike has always been an early riser, and this sabbatical study trip is no exception. Yesterday he woke at 5:30 AM and went up to the rooftop terrace of our hotel for time with the Lord. We’ve been in Athens for three days now, and the excellent hotel chosen by our tour leaders, the Herodian, is located just two blocks from the Acropolis. From the terrace two flights up from our room, you can read your Bible while gazing into the Doric columns of the crown jewel of Athens: the world-renowned Parthenon, already a 500-year-old tourist attraction when the Apostle Paul walked among the Athenians.
You can read your Bible if you have one, that is. To save weight in our luggage, we left print books at home and instead have been accessing our favorite One Year devotional Bible and other reference works on the Kindle e-reader I borrowed from my office. When we were in Turkey, though, Mike really missed having his personal Bible, so we arranged to have it shipped to Gordon College to be brought to us on this portion of our journey. It’s the Bible Mike preaches from, the pages loosening from constant use, the black leather binding so familiar to his hands and the words to his heart. Not surprising for a preacher to love his Bible.
So you can imagine my shock when he returned to the room around 9:30 yesterday morning, our free day to explore the city, and told me he lost his Bible.
After an extended time in the open air with the Lord, Mike was almost ready to leave when a teenager sauntered onto the terrace for the view of the Parthenon. Mike has always had an affinity for young people, so he struck up a conversation with Jacob, a 13-year-old Russian Jew who spoke perfect English. The son of a wealthy couple, Jacob was staying in our hotel overnight before departing from the port of Athens to tour the Greek islands with his family on their yacht.
An extraordinarily self-possessed and precocious teen, Jacob conversed freely with Mike about American and Russian politics, business, finance, and philosophy. “I’ve never met such a brilliant kid!” Mike said to me later.
And then the question: “Enough about me,” Jacob said to Mike. “What about you? What do you do?”
Mike’s response was simple: he preaches Christ. A barrage of objections followed.
“How can the Bible be trusted?” Jacob argued. “How do you know Jesus really existed? And which religion is right about the nature of God?”
What followed was one of the most intense hour-long conversations Mike has ever had. He responded to Jacob’s questions with questions of his own, and the final one was this: “Have you ever read the Bible?” When Jacob admitted he had not, Mike gave him his.
Jacob turned it over in his hands and commented, “This one is pretty worn, you know.” Mike admitted that it was, but that Jacob’s questions could be answered in its pages.
“So that’s how I lost my Bible,” he told me when he returned to our room.
Will we ever see this young man again? Almost certainly not. Will the Bible Mike used to preach from end up tossed into a corner of a private yacht? Perhaps.
But we have walked with the Lord long enough to know that no experience he places in the path of a believer is ever wasted.
In the first century, the Apostle Paul stood atop Mars Hill overlooking the Parthenon and talked to the Athenians about their “unknown God.” 2000 years later, a Baptist preacher named Mike stands on a rooftop of a hotel overlooking the Parthenon and talks to a Jewish teenager about the same thing. Paul had limited success with the Athenians, and only God knows the choice Jacob will ultimately make.
But it sure is the best way to lose your Bible.
Location: Monastery in central Greece, 14th century
Job Description: The faint of heart need not apply. In addition to a strong spiritual aptitude and vows of celibacy and simplicity, each applicant must:
(1) Thrive on the heights.
Yesterday we visited the oldest and largest monastery in Greece, Magalo Meteoro, founded in 1382 on a sheer peak 2,045 feet high.
(2) Complete a vertical commute to work each day.
Goods and people were winched up by a windlass mechanism in a net that descended from a tower. 21st century brothers have it a bit easier: they use cable-cars.
(3) Keep one’s legs covered.
Monks wore robes, and to tour the monastery women must wear skirts.
(4) Labor diligently.
Monks’ days were divided into three parts: eight hours of sleep, eight hours of work, and eight hours of prayer. Wine-making was a major industry at Meteora.
(5) Be prepared to live with fellow monks a VERY long time.
Mike shot this photo while peering into the ossuary at Meteoro, which displays the skulls of deceased residents in nice neat rows.
While we may not covet their spartan way of life, we can’t help but admire the monks’ single-minded devotion to Christ along with their painstaking preservation of the sacred word of God. Throughout centuries of turmoil and political upheaval, these gentle scholars lived and died in community.
In their museum, priceless manuscripts of the early church fathers are displayed along with copies of the scriptures dating back to the 10th century. Many brothers were also highly skilled artists, painting incredibly detailed frescoes and icons telling the stories of those martyred for the Christian faith as well as the message of the gospel. Their spiritual vision saw beyond our contemporary focus on comfort, convenience, and personal autonomy.
Maybe it wasn’t such a bad job after all.
After four wonderful days in northern Greece in the port city of Thessaloniki, with side trips to the ancient sites of the churches in Berea, Neopolis, and Philippi, we depart tomorrow for Delphi and then on to Athens.
Here are 8000 words-worth from Mike describing a small portion of what we have seen-
And a special message to our family of faith as we prepare to depart Thessaloniki:
No, not our marriage vows. We did that at our Silver Celebration nearly 10 years ago. But this has been just as significant a day.
It is Monday, June 21, 2010. We are with our tour group visiting the ancient site of Philippi. The once-thriving metropolis now lies buried under centuries of dirt, dust, debris. Excavations begun in 1930 reveal skeletal outlines of the bema in the marketplace, where Paul and Silas were brought before the magistrates, and the prison where they were held.
We read aloud from the book of Acts, the familiar words taking on fresh meaning as we stand in the very place these events occurred. Walking along the Roman road that leads out of the city, I drag my toe along the ruts made by chariots. Mike trains his Nikon on symbols etched by early believers in the pavement: a fish, a peacock, a circle cut into eight equal pieces.
Just beyond the boundaries of the former city gates, we come to the Zygaktis. Once a major water source for the people of Philippi, the river is largely silted in but emerges upstream from the old city. The city lives only in the pages of scripture but the water is still alive: bright and bracing under the warm Greek sun.
Our guide stops, lifts his Bible, begins to read from Acts 16. It’s as if we have never heard the story before: the description of the woman Lydia, seller of purple, worshiper of God, who heard the words that would change her life in Philippi. Near this spot, Lydia’s heart opened like the roses that bloom near the banks of the Zygaktis. She must have stepped forward, her request in her eyes. The Apostle had seen that look before, that longing. He held out his hand, welcoming Lydia – seller of purple, child of God – into the water.
2000 years later, we listen to Lydia’s story and think of our own – the moment we stepped forward decades ago, nodding our assent. Recognizing, in that heartbeat, that life the first time around was the gift of a human mother and father. This time, it was our choice to make –whether to say yes to being born again.
Decision made, we were baptized. I was 13, Mike even younger. So long ago we can’t recall the feel of the water, the solemnity of the sacrament.
“Would anyone like to renew their baptismal vows?” our friend asks this afternoon. Standing in the stream, scriptures set on a rock, he picks up a small bowl and dips it into the Zygaktis.
Mike and I look at each other, know, and make our way into the stream. Hand in hand, we hear the ancient words: “Have you received the free gift of salvation that is yours in Jesus Christ?” Mike has asked this same question countless times to those standing before him in a baptismal tank or on a beach. Now it is our turn for the affirmation. We nod yes. Oh YES… “Then it is my privilege to baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”
The fresh river water is cold on our feet, warm on our heads. It runs down my cheeks. It tastes oddly of salt.
So what do these three have In common? They all co-exist, sometimes side-by-side, on Rhodes, a small island in the Aegean Sea just off the SW coast of Turkey.
We just spent three perfect days exploring Rhodes on our own before we join our “Gordon and Friends” tour group on the mainland later today. We lived on our own island of sorts – Cape Cod – for 13 years while raising our children, and there aren’t many places on earth as beautiful as the Cape. But Rhodes comes close.
It also boasts a rocky terrain that amazed us: the west coast of Rhodes is extremely mountainous, and you can look up at a 15th century Crusader castle while wending your way down to a pristine beach with water the color of Windex. Unlike the Cape, the beaches on Rhodes are all public – no one can “own” them – and parking is free.
Monasteries also dot the Greek landscape nearly as frequently as olive groves and vineyards. We stopped at several chapels, and in their quiet, cool interior gave thanks to God along with our prayers for His people.
Here are a few images (thanks, Mary!) of our three perfect days in Rhodes.
Have you ever tried Turkish Delight, the treat so beloved by Queen Victoria and the Pevensee children in the Chronicles of Narnia? Turkish Delight, or “locum”, is a sweet cube of gelatin dusted with powdered sugar and often imbedded with nuts. It’s ubiquitous in this part of the world, a little on the level of salt water taffy in coastal areas of the US.
Our time in that beautiful country (Mike calls it our “Turkey Trot”) truly has been a delight in so many ways, and we’re now writing from the Greek island of Rhodes just off the SW coast of Turkey. We’ll be meeting our “Footsteps of Paul” tour group (sponsored by the Gordon College Alumni and Friends Association) in Thessaloniki this weekend.
As we rest and explore on our own here in Rhodes, Mike has been reflecting on the factors that most delighted, and also disappointed us, in Turkey. His list follows.
As first-time visitors, we were surprised and pleased to discover:
- The prosperity of this modernized country
- The genuine friendliness and hospitality of the people; even the airport screeners behave as if their jobs are a privilege
- How orderly and neat everything is; we saw very little graffiti or disorderly behavior. We drove extensively through the western part of the country, yet never saw a single traffic accident
- The beauty; the land is green, fertile, and capable of growing all the food the population requires
- The magnificence and majesty of the ancient cities
- How ingenious the ancients were with their brilliant city layouts, construction, sanitation systems, creature comforts, and theater designs (Maggie’s note: as a dramatist I was impressed with how very important theaters were to the daily lives of the people.)
- The willingness of our guides to listen as we explained Christianity
- Turkish baths and mud baths! And those wonderfully thick Turkish towels!
- The deep sense of national pride in their democratic way of government and in “Ataturk,” the father of modern Turkey – a truly impressive figure
- Christianity, so evident in the ruins, is almost totally absent in the modern culture. We never saw a single church.
- Mary is highly respected as the Virgin Mother of Jesus but they hardly reference her Son, even though they consider Him a “prophet”
- The confusion: our guide talked about “Theotoka, Mother of God” while not connecting the dots that point to her son.
Some of you reading this blog have visited Turkey many times or have actually worked here cross-culturally; your list would be far more extensive. Our observations are only those of new arrivals to this part of the world. But when Turkey appears in the news, we will read it with far greater interest and knowledge than we did previously.
We have left a piece of our hearts, and a few footsteps of our own, in Turkey.
Saturday evenings at home are preparation for the Sabbath, and once all is ready for Sunday Mike likes to spend the final hour of his day soaking in a warm tub thinking through his message for the next morning.
So Saturday nights in Turkey are no exception. By God’s grace, the most unique hotel we’ve been blessed with in Turkey was in Pamukkale this past weekend. Pamukkale is often featured in travel brochures for its famous white travertine cliffs, and our hotel was built over a natural hot spring where Turks have come for centuries to benefit from what they believe are the restorative properties of the mud and mineral water there.
Sounds funny but it’s true: Mike sat in the lovely warm yellow mud this past Saturday night and thought of what he would share with our congregation if he were teaching the following morning. These are some of the themes he was musing about that have emerged so far from our Turkish education:
Everything old becomes new again. Mike has recorded many photos of plants blooming in the crevices of ancient ruins – green tendrils of life springing up around cracked Corinthian columns, purple thistles as tall as a man, coral-colored anemones thriving in the most unlikely places. We think of the two churches back home that we’ve been privileged to serve in the past 21 years – Osterville Baptist on the Cape and FBC Wheaton. Between them, these vibrant fellowships have thrived for over 300 years. Each has preserved memories of their founding in the 1800’s, yet they’ve not parked themselves in the 19th century but have moved on to meet the needs of God’s children today.
Wait a (historical) minute, and things will change. It’s easy to get agitated about politics and the antics of newsmakers because they dramatically affect our daily lives. But when you view current events through the lens of ancient history, you realize that today’s politicians and trendsetters will very soon pass away. How many Americans can name all 44 presidents? Fourth-graders maybe. The rest of us don’t even remember all their names. Nothing will last forever except for Christ, His Kingdom, and the immortal souls of people.
Technology has been a blessing and a curse. In the 21st century we can work at an impossibly rapid rate, but western culture in particular lacks the patience that we see exhibited each day in the lands where the Word was written.
Mike and I are grateful for computer technology in particular. I’m typing his thoughts on a laptop, after all, and the tiny webcam on this Toshiba netbook provided the great satisfaction last week of sharing our oldest son Adam’s 28th birthday with him. From 8,000 miles away, we were able to watch Adam open our gift in his apartment in California, and he carried his laptop over to the frig to proudly display the layer cake his beautiful wife Liz baked for him. Without Skype and this little three pound piece of metal and microprocessors, we would have missed the fun. For two people who didn’t even own typewriters in college, this is amazing. A blessing.
But we see the dark side, too; it’s a discipline to relax when technology makes it possible to work 24/7. If the ancient world had computers, would they have had the patience to carve pillars that would last for thousands of years? The other night we watched a Turkish woman hand-weaving a woolen rug which will take months to complete. She’ll never finish if she’s tempted to check her Facebook account as often as I do!
So, is it true that everything old will become new again? Civilizations collapse, crumble, decay. Governments fall and new ones can rise in a day. But there is one thing that will last forever: the human soul. Yours, mine, our neighbors’. No one who once is ever truly ceases to be.
“I am the resurrection and the life,” Jesus said. “Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never ever die.” John 11: 25-26
Mike’s photos tell more of the story of our trip than words alone can. Here are two collages of photos from our final day in Istanbul visiting Topkapi Palace, plus a side trip this past weekend to southwest Turkey to the sites of the seven churches of Revelation.
[A special thank you for all the birthday wishes via Facebook and email. I read each one!]
I’ve had some memorable birthday celebrations in my life, but few will ever compare to today.
The one that most changed my life was my 20th – June 12, 1973 – the day I met Mike. We were students at Wheaton College’s Science Station in the Black Hills of South Dakota, and the cooks honored students’ birthdays by supplying their dinner table with a special cake. My first memory of Mike was this cute, friendly, dark-haired guy showing up at my elbow, introducing himself and asking if he could have a piece. He insists that we met on the volleyball court a few days before and that he heard my name then, Marji, but couldn’t recall it exactly. So he guessed “Maggie,” and I figured if he didn’t remember, I wasn’t going to correct him. And it’s been Mike & Maggie ever since.
The same friendly guy, his dark hair now salted with gray, has given me 36 memorable birthdays since, and yesterday was one of the very best.
We are in the middle of our seven churches of Revelation tour. We stayed in the modern city of Izmir for two nights, which was Smyrna in biblical times, and also visited Pergamon (now called Bergama), as well as the Agora on Friday. Yesterday we traveled to the ancient sites of the churches of Thyatira, Sardis, and Philadelphia. My best birthday gift? Watching the delight in my husband’s face as he wandered these sites, camera in hand, recording everything he observed and asking question after question of Mehmet.
The two Mehmets, guide and driver, surprised us with a beautifully decorated chocolate birthday cake to enjoy across from the ruins at Thyatira, complete with a sugar rose on top (our signature flower – how could they know?), along with a hearty rendition of Mutlu Yillar, “Happy Birthday” in Turkish.
Second gift? During our drive here to our hotel built over the hot mineral springs in Pamukkale, we watched a dramatic storm build over the hills to the northeast, in the direction of Mt. Ararat. Just as we started to eat dinner in the Ottoman Restaurant, the most astonishing double rainbow appeared. The enormous twin arches seemed so close we could almost reach out to touch them. The Turks in the room smiled at our excitement. I suspect they are used to spectacular rainbows in the land of Noah.
Third gift? A Turkish bath! After we swam in the mineral springs last night, Mike wanted me to have a special treat for my birthday.. The low prices convinced Miss Frugality that this was an experience not to be missed, and I insisted Mike go with me. In Turkey, communal bathing is a family affair and there is nothing skanky about it. Entire families, attired in swimwear, enjoy being doused with steaming water while lying on heated white marble slabs and are scrubbed and shampooed by cheerful attendants. I have never felt so clean in my life.
It was like being born again at 57.
Oops, wrong language. How do you say “we need each other” in Turkish?
Mike and I have been traveling overseas for nearly a week now, and our preferences for recording this journey are clearly established.
Mike takes extensive notes using his Nikon Rebel XS. He finds great pleasure in recording faces and places, archaeological wonders and cultural treasures. He also initiates extended conversations, peppering our new guide, Mehmet, with questions about history and the socio-political climate of modern-day Turkey. Mehmet led us to the ancient sites of Pergamon and Asclepieion today, and he took pride in demonstrating his impressive grasp of thousands of years of Turkish history. Yet when it came to understanding the New Testament significance of these sites, Mehmet, a Muslim, listened intently as Mike explained our scriptures.
We were sitting under a fig tree in the heat of the early afternoon today when I commented on its wonderful shade and its role in a gospel story. Mehmet was puzzled, so Mike briefly related Jesus’ reference to the tree and His illustrations of faith that the tree represents. I could see Mehmet making mental notes.
We have a two-night stay in Izmir (the ancient city of Smyrna, which Mehmet pronounces “Sa-mearna”), but our experience with Emi in Istanbul (formerly Constantinople) was similar. She knew her stuff when it came to history and geography, yet was genuinely interested in Mike’s comments about how the sites we visited relate to our Christian faith. Several times while observing my husband with our guides, I thought, “I wonder whom is teaching who here?”
As for me, I haven’t pulled out my little Canon Cool Pix once yet, but at night back in our hotel I have to get our experiences on paper. Words buzz in my brain like flies in a barn, and they won’t let me be until I swat them down.
So Mike clicks the shutter, exchanges knowledge with our guides, and stores all we are seeing in his heart and mind to share later with our congregation back home. I arrange the words on paper – my verbal scrapbook.
Each of us is recording this sabbatical journey in our own way, and we find joy in sharing it with you.
Istanbul is a beautiful city in the rain, but guess what? When the sun comes out, she’s a stunner.
The past two days here have been absolutely beautiful – 80 ° and luminous – and we are bedazzled. Wednesday morning we met our local guide, an energetic Turkish Jew who spent time on a kibbutz in Israel, and Emi introduced us to the jewels of architecture that sparkle in Istanbul’s turban: Hagia Sofia, the Blue Mosque, the Basilica Cistern, and Topkapi Palace.
Emi told us she’s 37 but she looks 25 and has the energy to match. Extremely knowledgeable about history, Emi puts her whole body into her narratives. Her arms churn the air in front of her as she speaks, and that voice – I recognized it! No, we’ve never met before and she’s not famous, but it’s the voice of a Middle Eastern Jew, the vowels thick and rich with extra consonants at the end of her present participles. She reminds me of what Jesus’ mother must have been like at that age – so passionate and animated.
The arrangements Mike made so painstakingly over the internet for the Turkish portion of this trip have worked out better than we could have imagined. When the initial study group we were supposed to join fell through, he turned to the internet for information, but what sources to trust? The Turkish Council on Tourism in Chicago was helpful, and the company they recommended has been superb. We thought we would be part of a group, but it turns out that Emi is a private guide and we were her only guests the past two days – what a gift! Three motivated people can move through crowds at historic sites at a great clip. We were free to ask Emi anything and everything, and we did.
“Why is the Hagia Sofia so famous?” we queried.
“Eetz vun of the larchest churches in de vorld,” Emi enthused. “Your Stachoo of Liberty? She coot do jumpink jacks in it!”
Emi paused next to a set of bronze doors that were brought from a temple in the Apostle Paul’s hometown of Tarsus. “Theece date back to 200 BC,” she said. “Can you imagine?”
Living in a country only several hundred years old as we do, Mike and I had to keep reminding ourselves that the objects of antiquity we were viewing were real.
Those splendid bronze doors? 2200 years old. The artifacts in the Royal Treasury of Topkapi Palace that were encrusted with diamonds and emeralds as big as your fist? Genuine, not imitation. The cavernous underground Basilica Cistern? It wasn’t created for a movie set.
“We are so used to seeing the fake,” Mike commented, “that we find it hard to believe in the legitimate. It reminds me of that novel Imaginary Jesus. Unless people come to know the real Jesus, they won’t recognize the false Messiahs out there.”
In a world filled with reproductions, illusions and imitations, sometimes you have to stand in the presence of the real thing.
So, Lord, what are You trying to tell us through sending water in such creative ways these days? When we visited Israel we would hear them pray, “God, don’t listen to the prayers of the tourists – send rain!” but I’m not sure what the Turkish equivalent of that request is. We have never seen water pour down city streets as it did here in Istanbul the past two days.
As for last Saturday, we did recognize the hidden blessing in the events that occurred on our departure day: the water flooding our basement prompted a hasty decision (years overdue) that our nearly century-old home needs a sump pump. Our valiant youngest son is holding two jobs plus the paws of the pets while we’re away; he does not need to spend his free time bailing buckets in the basement. And the ominous moisture spreading beneath our kitchen frig spurred an even hastier decision about a replacement appliance to be installed the same day. (Thank you, Lord, for Dr. Allen, our kitchen cardiologist, who had the foresight to find the perfect used frig on Craig’s List before he came to our rescue Saturday morning.)
God’s timing, as they say, is never wrong. He certainly wasn’t early (ok, so did these things have to happen the exact same day we were leaving, she whines?), but He wasn’t late either: Jordan would have had to deal with the mess on both floors alone after our departure. Best of all, Jordan’s mother and Michael’s wife is notoriously indecisive about major spending decisions, but not when she is flinging clothes into a suitcase to leave for the airport.
As for the major rains in Turkey the past few days, so what if we had to cancel our plans yesterday for a ferry ride from the Golden Horn up the Bosphorus River, plus our anticipated trek up the Galata Tower for a panoramic view of Istanbul, now invisible in the pouring rain? Would we have laughed nearly as hard as we did while slogging through the rivers pouring down the cobblestone streets of the Old District ? Would we have enjoyed finding a tiny dry nook to eat baklava high above the bustle of the centuries-old Spice Market?
I’ve never been good at singing in the rain – Gene Kelly, no need to move aside – but dancing a little dervish when it’s pouring is actually kind of fun.
It’s 4 am in Istanbul and neither of us can sleep. The A/C in the room has quit, and the humidity from heavy rains the past two days has made the air as thick as Turkish coffee. The newly purchased portable sound machine we were using to drown out the callers from the mosque next door has also inexplicably quit.
Strange, but if the imam or muezzin can use piercing recordings across the rooftops to call faithful Muslims to namaz five times daily, these small annoyances can certainly do the same for me. What comes to mind in the dark night are the needs of our friends and family back home – in this instance those whose comments to previous blogposts we read just before turning in last night.
I lay awake in the dark praying for dear ones who recently lost spouses due to death or divorce, another who is facing a legal situation that turns her stomach inside out, yet another who is carrying deep anxiety over her young adult children. One friend’s husband is disabled and unable to work, yet she never complains; another has a husband so gifted he could excel at practically any profession, yet cannot find work.
Lord, hear our prayers on behalf of these whom we love…I pray. Those on Central or East Coast time are going to bed right now, even as night turns to dawn here on Wednesday morning in Istanbul. Rain falling in someone’s life is one thing, but some of these women have been enduring monsoons.
Hold them close in the darkness, I ask. Let their righteousness shine like the noonday sun. Be strong on their behalf, O God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. You are their refuge, and underneath them always and ever are Your everlasting arms.
It’s nearly time for the muezzin to begin again, but Mike and I don’t need his recordings to remind us to pray. In the darkness, in the rain, we call out the names of our loved ones, and we sleep.
And here’s a link to Mike’s Picasa photo album, “Istanbul, Day 3″. click here.
Mike and I know how to travel economically.
When he graduated from GCTS in 1979, we drove 16,400 miles over the course of four months in our little yellow Honda Civic, passing through 37 states and visiting 11 national parks, and we did it on a total budget of $2000. This was Mike’s dream all through seminary – to see the country before we settled down into his first fulltime pastorate – and we both worked multiple jobs six days per week to save a modest nest egg while paying grad school tuition and living expenses near Boston.
Travel on the cheap? We could write a guidebook on it. The summer of 1979 we did it by never staying in a hotel (that’s why God invented pup tents) or eating in restaurants (ditto for grocery stores and Coleman stoves.)
Back then, it was about the destination, and not much has changed. When we booked our tickets to Istanbul, they were in economy class – what other way is there to travel? All travelers arrive the same time whether seated in the first row or the last.
So what on God’s green earth happened Saturday night at O’Hare? After a departure day full of serendipitous surprises (water in the basement from heavy rains in Wheaton, and water on our kitchen floor from a leaky, dying frig), we had an even bigger surprise at our departure gate.
Just before boarding, we heard our names called at the departure gate. The gate agent was the same dark-haired man who had checked our luggage two hours before, and he demanded that we surrender our boarding passes. I thought wildly, ”I knew this sabbatical was too good to be true; the Lilly people must have just changed their minds,” when the agent handed us new boarding passes and said, with a huge smile, “You’ve been upgraded to Business Class. Enjoy your flight!”
Stunned, Mike and I stared at each other. What just happened here? When we arrived in Istanbul last night after the most amazing flight of our lives, we shot off a quick email to our prime suspect – my road warrior brother with a gazillion frequent flyer miles – but Dan has disavowed any credit for our upgrade. Or was it our friends Jim and Mary, who know absolutely everyone including, maybe, the head of Turkish Airlines? Nope, they said, not us. Or, more possibly, did the gate agent notice that Mike and I were holding hands in the departure lounge and decide to upgrade two people who appeared to be newlywed senior citizens?
Whatever the reason for our good fortune (and my first international trip without swollen ankles,) we received a lesson in undeserved grace at the very start of this once-in-a-lifetime sabbatical experience.
Sometimes, life is about the journey, too.
We’re here, and Mike just shot this photo of the Blue Mosque from the rooftop of the Hotel Mina where we are staying in the Old District of Sultanahmet, Istanbul. Two days to rest, reflect, and explore on our own before we join our little tour group on Wednesday.
Somehow I don’t think we’re in Wheaton anymore…
Two things come to mind:
(1) We live near Chicago.
I well recall the reaction of people we met when we visited Europe some years ago. “You are from Chicago? Ah…” and then the smile and the raised arm simulating a tommy-gun. Al Capone has been gone for some time now, but his legacy lives on. The wonderful Windy City still has a reputation for violence, but it does not define the lives of Chicagoans.
(2) I’ve flown into Tel Aviv when bombs were falling in the city.
In the late 90s I had the enormous privilege of making two visits to Israel on trips co-sponsored by Gordon College and the organization I served as a staff member: Vision New England. The first was in March of 1996, and most tour groups that spring cancelled due to intensified violence in the Middle East.
The leaders of our group, veterans of many such trips, knew we had nothing to fear, but our little group of 30 or so was still nearly alone when we boarded a jumbo 747 jet out of Boston bound for Tel Aviv. The plane was so empty that each traveler had a row to herself. In the middle of the night, I gave up all attempts to sleep and sat up to watch CNN on the huge screens placed across the front of our cabin. Big mistake. The images coming live from our arrival city were disturbing, and I started to worry. I had a husband and three still-young children at home – had I been foolish to come? I recall turning around to scan the cabin, but the crew was elsewhere and the other passengers were stretched out sleeping. It was as if I were the only passenger on the flight.
Desperate for reassurance in the darkness, I recall raising my window shade slightly. I’ll never forget what I saw as our plane hurtled eastward: a band of the most intense, pure white light on the far horizon. The thought suddenly came, “It’s the wings of the dawn! I am seeing the same sight that David wrote about in the psalms.”
King David may not have been 39,000 feet in the air when he wrote these words, but they resonated in my soul that dark night:
Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
The familiar words were from Psalm 139, and they calmed my fears that night as they have many times since.
So are we nervous about boarding a flight to Istanbul this evening? Not at all. But do we pray for safety each day for our children as they travel by car on the highways, or protection for our son-in-law Ben as he climbs into the cockpit of an Air Force jet? Absolutely.
For all those who are traveling this summer, may this portion of Psalm 139 from The Message be your strength and comfort as well:
“God, You know when I leave and when I get back: I’m never out of Your sight.
You know everything I’m going to say before I start the first sentence.
I look behind me and You’re there,
Then up ahead and You’re there, too—
Your reassuring presence, coming and going.
This is too much, too wonderful –
I can’t take it all in!
Is there anyplace I can go to avoid Your Spirit?
To be out of your sight?
If I climb to the sky, You’re there!
If I go underground, You’re there!
If I flew on morning’s wings to the far west horizon,
You’d find me in a minute –
You’re already there waiting!
Next stop: Istanbul!
It was Monday, September 22, 2009 at 12:35 PM when we got the news. Saturdays are my day off and Mondays are Mike’s, so I generally come home at noon every Monday so we can have lunch together. When our wonderful church receptionist, Gloria, called that day to say that an envelope had come from the Lilly Foundation, Mike dropped his soup spoon and was off like a shot. I immediately lost my appetite and looked desperately around for someone to pray with.
Finding no one available except for Kelli, our collie, I made her sit down and I grabbed her paws. Kelli doesn’t get the concept of prayer, but she’s great about bowing her head when she shakes, and that was good enough for me. “Oh Lord, “ I prayed, “You know how much it would mean to us for Mike and our church to receive this grant, and the decision is now in. Give us the grace to accept whatever news that envelope contains.”
The back screen door slammed and Mike rounded the corner into the kitchen with a huge grin on his face, waving an 8 ½ x 11” manila envelope. Rejections come in small envelopes but acceptances? Ah, it takes space to convey such expansively good news. First Baptist of Wheaton and my own Michael Rowe were awarded a 2009 Lilly Foundation Clergy Renewal grant. In practical terms, this means that the Foundation had approved Mike’s sabbatical proposal, and we would be studying and traveling during the summer of 2010 thanks to God’s provision through their funding. Best of all, the grant provides the means for our church to compensate the exceptional interim pastors who will be preaching, administering, supervising the staff and caring for our people while we are away.
Can you understand why I started laughing and crying simultaneously when I saw my husband of 34 years waving that large envelope? We love our ministry here and both our jobs; our desire is not to get away from something but to go to someplace to receive from God all that He might have for us in a new setting.
For us, that “someplace” is the Middle East. Tomorrow we board Turkish Airlines for our flight to Istanbul, where we will spend the next month in Turkey and Greece studying and traveling in the footsteps of the Apostle Paul. Our youngest son, Jordan, has a fulltime summer job and is working evenings as a lifeguard, and he is also making our time away possible by taking care of the house, yard and pets while we are away.
If you’d like to receive occasional email updates about our sabbatical experience, just click on “subscribe” in the upper right-hand corner of this page, and our postings will come to your inbox. (No ads or Turkish spam, we promise.)
Soli Deo Gloria – glory to God alone!