May 29, 2013

Resurrection in Albania

We came to Albania very aware that we did not know what to expect. Albania was tagged on partly because we could not get into Syria and partly because the Apostle Paul claimed to have preached the word (in Acts) in Illyricum – modern Albania. The question was did Paul just get to the border with Greece or did he preach and establish churches inside Albania. Last night we had and amazing meeting with some monks and the Orthodox bishop of Tirana (after a 3.00 am wake-up and flight via Munich). In response to questioning the responded by observing that Paul would not have just gone to the border as there was no marked border. You were in Illyricum if you were in a town in Illyricum. They also helped us with many other questions we had about the Orthodox Church.

This was a particularly amazing experience as we had just spent an afternoon seeing and hearing about the economic and spiritual devastation of first Ottoman rule (1453-1912), Tyrannical rule 1913-1944) and Communist rule (1944-1991). Christianity was discouraged (you could not get a Government job) by the Ottoman rulers. Religion was banned by the Communists who destroyed many churches and mosques, converted others into museums or theatres and banished Orthodox clergy. Huge amounts of money was spent on 2,000 concrete and steel bunkers – ostensibly to protect Albania from foreign invaders; actually to protect the rulers. There was hardly any steel left to build houses. People starved to death – they made jokes about being so poor they had to eat grass. In the 1980s there was a lot of unrest, the Communists were voted out and democracy was established. It is still a very poor country – I walked down the street and found the cost of real espresso coffee was five cents in our money. I would be a lot more in the hotel where we are staying as we are in a new parallel tourism economy.

What was most amazing was the brand new (in 2012) Cathedral Church of the Resurrection in Tirana. It is a huge and very beautiful modern building with a beautifully finished auditorium downstairs where they do teaching and programs for young people. There are millions of people who have not had teaching for generations (like in Canada). The Orthodox Church has new special Offices for teachers and priests – like in Acts; which do Baptism and Marriage preparation in 3 to 6 months. New Offices have also been established for Youth Ministry, Woman’s  Ministry and Helping People. Religion is not taught in schools so the Church works with local schools to use classrooms for religious instruction. This is critical as parents have not had instruction for generations – as in Canada.

The takeaway – we have seen with our own eyes that Christ’s Church cannot be destroyed by political and economic oppression as tyranny always fails. We have seen a proud people lifting themselves out of poverty by embracing democracy and Christian values of love and service. For most of us this is our first exposure to the Orthodox Church – and it is impressive. There is a spiritual resurrection going on in Albania. Let us give thanks and continue to pray for Albania!

May 27, 2013

The Oldest Profession
Most people would say prostitution is the oldest profession but as our guide explained the ancient temple practices associated with the Oracle at Delphi, I realized priests have been around even longer. Human beings have deep seated fears about the future and probably even before sex became a commodity for sale, priests offered comfort in the form of assurance of divine favor. Delphi is possibly the most famous example of this.

Delphi is not easy to get to. It is in the middle of Greece two hours from Athens and four hours from Thessaloniki. The road in from the main highway winds around and over a mountain with spectacular – and frightening views. The temple site is about 1 sq. kilometer up the side of a mountain. It includes a Treasury where visitors could leave offerings to the gods, a theatre, the Temple of Apollo and a 5th Century stadium for races and games. The current Museum includes statues, art and artifacts from the Temple.

In ancient times priests had set up an elaborate system to help people consult the Oracle at Delphi. Ancient people had a supernatural worldview that accepted personal experiences of the divine in the form of healing, ecstasy and prophecy. This is the worldview of the Bible which has been dismissed as ignorant superstition by many modern people. The only difference is that Christianity teaches us there is a dark side to the spiritual dimension so we all need to ‘discern the spirits’. In ancient times temple priests would select wise older women who would go into the Temple of Apollo to consult the gods. Archeologists have discovered caverns below the Temple which were likely filled with gases which would give these women an experience of ecstasy – a ‘high’. In this drugged state they would emerge, probably speaking fairly incoherently. The work of the priests was to interpret this for visitors. This would have been the equivalent of modern pastoral care when priests sometimes ‘adjust’ Biblical truth to give people what they want as opposed to the sometimes harsh truth. The game goes on with the consequence that many people do not respect or consult modern priests. This is a great tragedy as there is a whole spiritual dimension to life which many people are completely unaware of. The consequences have been devastating in terms of conflict, wars and personal suffering.

The take away after travelling across Turkey and Greece, retracing the route of Paul’s Second Journey, is that faith is a living thing. We have seen huge ruins as evidence of huge faith. In many places this faith has been either gradually lost or overrun by military conquest. The good news is that in some places, such as  Greece we can see churches which have not become museums where people are fed spiritually and lead richer lives. Now we understand the many Biblical references to conflict in churches and contending for the faith. Being a spiritual person is not supposed to be easy.

May 25, 2013

Finally God Moments (May 24-25)

As we crossed the border from Turkey into Greece we also crossed from an officially secular state where Christianity is under active persecution and limited to a small remnant of Greek Orthodox churches in Istanbul and Izmir plus an unknown number of house churches; to an officially Christian state where the danger is creeping secularism. It feels different. I found the daily calls to prayer oppressive. Often, by co-incidence I would be up early and spreading my own prayer mat – a large bath towel on a marble floor to do my 20 sit-ups and push-ups. We all have our rituals.

Greece feels different. As we had dinner on the top floor of our hotel in Kavala (where the Apostle Paul first landed in Europe) I noticed a small cross on top of the nearby mountain. It was later lit up and visible in the dark. In exploring the small (60,000) town of Kavala I went around and found the entrance to a small Orthodox church near our hotel. It was open at 6.30 pm on a Friday. There were real people praying and lighting candles inside. What a change from two weeks of being in churches that had been desecrated and turned into mosques and museums! I felt the presence of the Holy Spirit. It was a beautifully decorated church with the same type of fresco's and mosaics that had been covered up or stolen from St. Sophia in Istanbul. Instead of empty frames where Christian and Muslim iconoclasts had removed or soldiers had stolen icons – there they were. There was a warm glow in the place and like the early evangelists I went out and shared the good news with my fellow travelers.

May 23, 2013

Back to Europe

It was exciting to see Troy and the difference between amateur and professional Archeology. A German businessman with no training in History or Archeology was obsessed with finding the ancient treasures of Troy, hired local men to dig huge trenches with complete disregard for what was dug up and where it was from. He found the treasures, lied to his workers that he had just found a few pots and left with jewelry and precious artifacts. Professional Archaeologists who followed – and have done a great job of identifying 9 layers of civilization up to the Roman Period, were so upset they actually left one trench, “Schliemann’s Trench”, as a witness to the earlier destruction. Our guide Mel explained how you can tell levels apart by the types of wall – huge square blocks as opposed to less well cut stones, rounded boulders etc. We could also see where the sea had come into bays on two sides of the huge city – several of our city blocks in size. Troy, like Istanbul, would have controlled trade along this strategic coast. Near the parking lot a replica Trojan Horse has been built to show people how high the city gate would have been – and as a photo op.

Next we drove North on the coast, took a ferry across to the European side and drove into the chaos of Istanbul. This city of 15 million is overwhelming in its busyness and impossible traffic. The next day our bus was stuck in traffic for over an hour and late in picking us up at the end of the day. It is exciting to realize that Turkey has both a European and Asian side. This huge and fertile land is the bridge between Eastern and Western Culture. That is a blessing in that the history and culture is so rich – and a curse because Turkey is in the middle between what was Christendom and what is becoming a more fundamentalist Islamic empire. We had an interesting example of this at the Blue Mosque yesterday. Apparently a new dress code has been introduced in the past two months. Women have to cover their hair and everyone has to cover their bare arms, neck and legs. Our guide refused to do this and was confronted by a security guard. She eventually complied but was very upset about this. Turkey’s Constitution defines the state as secular and respectful of all religions. The current government is pushing a more aggressively Islamic agenda by gradually converting churches and mosques that have become museums into active mosques and imposing dress regulations.

On our last day in Istanbul we visited the Chorea Church – our first real visit to a ‘real’ Christian church. They were under a foreign government and allowed to continue as a church when the Ottoman Turks captured Constantinople in 1455. By this time the Crusaders had already looted most of the icons and ornaments from churches – including Haigia Sophia. There are frames but no icons – a result of both Christian and Muslim iconoclast ism. In Chiora Church the wall and ceiling friezes were painted over with plaster which actually preserved the beautiful mosaics and paintings underneath. These have been restored in one of the best collections of early Christian art in the world. Chiora means outside the walls in Turkish but it could also mean out of here, meaning Christianity will eventually spread from here.

On the way to the Archaeological Museum we passed the home of the Greek Orthodox Patriarch and one of their churches. These are a magnet for Greek tourists who come to show support. Following the First World War Greeks, including clergy, were forced to return to Greece in a shameful example of ethnic cleansing. Over the past 17 days our tour group has fallen in love with Turkey and the Turkish people. Turkey is geographically similar to Canada – only smaller and warmer. We feel the pain of these kind people as they struggle to thrive in this politically and religiously charged environment. They need our prayers every day. Please pray for Turkey.

May 21, 2013

Pentecost in Turkey

Our day began with a talk on the bus by Prof. Nienkirchen on the development of Pentacostalism in America in 1901 in Topicana, Kansas . It was a fitting start to a visit to two days of visits to churches both commended for (Philadelphia) and warned about (Sardis) their spiritual ferver. Philadelphia was commended for its love by John (Revelation 3.7-13). This was one of three churches founded by Epaphras in the Lycus Rive Valley while Paul was in Ephysus. Yesterday we had stood among the ruins of Laodocia from which we could see a triangle of Colosse and Hireapolis each about ten km away.

There was a warm feeling still in Pamphelia. There as not much to see as the modern town has been built over the ancient tow. This was a blessing in a way as we had been to so many tourist mega-sites with crowds of tourists – and no real peace. While there was no modern Christian presence, it was comforting to see the remains of the huge basilica still towering over the mosque across the street.

May 18, 2013

Churches in Laodicea and Hierapolis and Colosse (Turkey)

Yesterday after the post on Patmos we hiked up to Hermitage of the Prophet Elias on the highest point of Patmos. We were already tired from our hike to the beach and the reading of the entire Book of Revelation so it was a struggle to walk up the paved but steep path. The wind got stronger and stronger as the path got steeper and steeper. Could this not be a metaphor for our spiritual life as we have to work hard and exert ourselves to develop spiritual self-discipline and wisdom?

At the top there is a hermitage but the door was locked and we had not been able to get a key. The hermitage is controlled by the Abbot of the Monastery, who recently retired creating a vacuum in decision making. Finally we reached the top and were rewarded with a stunning panoramic view of the entire island – and a personal reflection by our leader Prof. Charles Neinkirken on the Book of Revelation. Revelation is dismissed by many Christians as an unintelligible vision of the End Time. The truth is that it is neither unintelligible nor only about a future event. Reversed Thunder, one of the books recommended for this Course contends that Revelation is nothing less than a brilliant summation of the whole Bible. Prof. Neinkirken noted that modern Christianity in many places has become a pale reflection of what it used to be. Instead of standing firm and proclaiming repentance and the good news of forgiveness the modern church avoids conflict with the culture. We have now gone so far as to bless same-sex marriages which have been historically outside the boundaries of acceptable moral behavior in all places and religions. The seven churches we are visiting in Turkey died from within long before they were overrun by Islam and the Ottoman Empire.

Our journey continued this morning (May 19) with a four-hour boat ride back to Kausadasi. As I write we are back on our old bus driving across the huge Meander Valley toward the site of ancient of three churches in the Lycos Valley (near modern) Denizli – Hierapolis, Laodicea and Colosse. The Meander Valley – from which we get the English word, meanders back and forth all along the coast, silting up ancient harbors which with the gradual sinking of the Aegean Sea are now far back from the present coastline. The soil is incredibly fertile so everything grows here. This fertility and massive agriculture everywhere in Turkey was completely unexpected to me.

In Revelation 3.14-22 the church in Laodicea is warned about being neither hot nor cold. The Risen Jesus warns them he will spit them out if they do not repent their loss of faith and recover their spiritual fervor. Like many churches today they had begun to take their faith for granted, reduce religion to a form and not really love Jesus with their hearts. This spiritual decay and severe earthquakes had reduced their great city of over 100,000 people to rubble. Laodicea was at a junction of major trading routes so grew rich from lending to desperate travelers at hugerates of interest. Their prosperity led to their spiritual demise. This should be a warning to us all.

Over the valley about 10 km away we could see the triangle of sites of ancient Colosse (i.e. Letter to the Colossians) and Hierapolis. We did not visit Colosse as the site has not been excavated. Hierapolis was a different story. The Turkish Government has a full-time year round excavation going on. I was amazed at how large these cities were – we walked for over a km. in 30 degree heat just to get to the middle of the site. There were the usual temples, market and theatres. But Hierapolis was a proud place – they famously declined to accept a gift of money from the Roman Emperor to rebuild after an earthquake. This was clearly not a community listening to the Holy Spirit and aware of their need for salvation – and they too passed.

Today’s take away must be the difficulty of keeping our eyes and hearts focused on Jesus when things are going well. That such massive stone cities could simply crumble into the ground reminds us that we are all temporaries.

May 17, 2013

Father John on Patmos

Before St. John (the Theologian) died near Ephesus, he had been exiled to the island of Patmos in 95-97 by the Roman Government as part of the persecution of Christians. So it was that our little band of 23 Pilgrims boarded a chartered boat in Kasadasi for the four hour sea voyage to Patmos. Patmos, like most of the hundreds of tiny islands within sight of the Turkish coast belongs to Greece. Greece covers most of the Aegean Sea which is a source of long contention between the two countries. We are now in the Euro Zone – and also in the Christian Zone. There is something about not being wakened at 4.20 am by loudspeakers blasting men with high voices singing an unintelligible call to prayer to what some people would call a demon god. By the way I have figured out why Moslems have more children – what would any married man do after being wakened at 4.20 am and getting up to pray?

The Turkish people by the way are wonderfully kind and easier to work with than many Canadians. This is being discovered and tourists are flocking in – so get on it while it is still relatively inexpensive.

May 11, 2013

Antioch and the Birth of the Gentile Church – May 11

It was a long hard journey for Paul to get to Pisidian Antioch and preach in the synagogue beneath the ruins of the church where I am standing (the other Antioch is in Syria) so we did not really mind the 7 hour bus ride diagonally across Turkey from Cappadocia. As we arrived the sunny weather became a downpour. We took this as a reminder of the hardships Paul also faced in spreading the Gospel. As I write this our bus is descending through the incredibly steep mountain pass Paul must have walked up from the coast.

In addition to the physical hardships, we could see in the relative layout of the ancient city that the power and authority of Rome towered over the main public market and was directly facing the synagogue below. Paul walked into a situation where both Rome and the Synagogue already claimed divine authority. His message, delivered in the synagogue below the church where I am standing, was nothing less than that both were wrong. He was proclaiming a new religious authority, graciously suggesting God would pardon past ignorance but not forever. When the Jewish authorities opposed the message he turned to the gentiles and the Christian Church was born.

The takeaway for me was an enhanced realization of how hard it is to proclaim a different understanding of God. In spite of Pauls’ oratorical skills, theological knowledge and the evidence of miraculous healings and the gifts of the Holy Spirit; they refused to believe the good news of God’s love in Jesus. Perhaps people are more lazy than inquisitive. We get angry when our pet ideas are challenged and there is a possibility we are wrong. It is as if we prefer being wrong to the mental and political struggle of finding the truth. Our religion is our established comfort zone and we do not like the discomfort of exploring change. Both Rome and the Jewish leadership were using the claim of divine authority to support their political and economic position. Both had a lot to lose if Paul was right. Both ended up opposing Paul, the truth and God – to their detriment.

This goes on in our own time. We are in the middle of a ferocious battle for the authority and reliability of the Bible. Academics including NT Wright, Ben Witherington, Richard Bauckham and Craig Evans are defending the authority of the Bible against popular and academic Biblical de-constructors including Elaine Pagels, Bart Ehrtman and Dominic Crossan. This is literally a life and death struggle for the church and all serious Christians - we can not loose this battle. We had quite a discussion of this on the bus with students asking how theological conservatives can be so narrow and theological liberals so empty. I blew my cover as an Anglican priest and shared my observation that theological liberals do not believe in the miracles of Jesus and spiritual evil – which gives them a completely unrealistic worldview. We appreciated Paul's struggles much more deeply!

Father John in Cappadocia May 10

 Our day began with a wakeup call at 4.15 am so again this may not be too coherent. Most of our study tour group were going ballooning which is a huge tourist thing here because the landscape is so unique. Over 100 ft. of volcanic ash was deposited and over time formed a special kind of rock called ‘tufa’. It is very soft and erodes much like the badlands of Drumheller Alberta. Where harder layers are on top this erosion creates strange mushroom shaped rock formations - which can be dug out to create underground cities as in picture .

It was dark when we got to the launch site but as it got lighter we could - see the outlines of over 50 huge balloons, each carrying up to 30 passengers were springing up from the ground as hot air roared into them. Riding in a balloon is magical in that the only sound is the roar of the burners. You just drift along, often low enough to touch the treetops. It was windy so we stayed below 500 meters. Our assignment was to ponder the question of ‘what kind of spirituality would emerge in a place like this? Our Professor, Dr. Charles Neinkirken had briefed us about St. Basel who went to Egypt in the Fourth Century to study and experience the desert spirituality of the “Desert Fathers” like the hermit Anthony. When Basil came back to his home in Cappadocia he rejected the solitude approach as an attempt to escape from Christ’s commandment to love one another. His famous words were “When I am alone whose feet can I wash?”

Instead he worked out a monastic rule based on community which is still in use in the Eastern Church. Basil, his sister Marika and brother Gregory devoted their lives to rescuing the Church from destructive and heretical disputes over the nature of Christ.

The rest of the morning was spent exploring a seven story underground city carved in the tufa rock where 3,000 people could hide from the various invaders from the Hitites 25 Centuries before Christ to the Moslems in the 7th. Century. The point being that in the world there is persecution and people have to adjust or perish. In the afternoon we visited a whole valley of carved chapels and homes carved into the rock by monastic communities. These lasted until the post-war settlement of 1923 whereby modern Turkey was created – along with forced population movements that meant the Greek monks had to leave.

The spiritual takeaway? Life is dangerous so we need to think globally, work in community and adapt locally. Perhaps this is why 23 people from Calgary are exhausting themselves with long flights and long days trying to understand how Christianity was saved and enriched by the Caoppoadician Fathers in the late Fourth Century.

May 9, 2013

Turkey Blog 1: Cappadocia Cave Churches

This is a blog written in a cave in Urgup Turkey by very tired traveler who spent most of the day walking around a UNESCO Heritage site at Gorme that has dozens of small cave churches. We arrived at the hotel at Midnight after an exhausting flight from Calgary so this is not by best writing.

Cappacocia is in the Eastern side of Turkey, South of the Black sea and West of Syria and Iraque. It famous to Western Christians for the “Cappadocian Fathers, Basil and the two Gregories” who helped settle a huge theological controversy in the late 300s. They also helped save the Eastern Orthodox church from completely losing the Holy Spirit as happened in the Western Church. It was a time of great military conflict and later of Moslem invasions that meant having a safe place to hide was important. Nature provided a solution in this part of the world through massive volcanic eruptions that produced thick layers of ash with different kinds of minerals that later hardened into tufa rock which was easy to carve. Over the Centuries people discovered they could cut homes and storage places into the rock and hide from invaders.

Religious communities formed around the teachings of the Cappadocian Fathers near the modern town of Gorme where they cut small chapels into the soft rock. Some of these are quite elaborate with stone columns left in place to remind the monks of churches in other places that needed columns to hld up the roof. They also cut refectories – eating halls kitchens and storehouses into the rock. The churches are decorated with beautiful paintings of Bible stories. Since there were no books the  story of the Faith had to be passed down orally. The pictures on the walls and ceilings of the churches are like our stained glass windows. If a picture is worth a thousand words then these churches have many thousands of words of teaching that they used to teach the faith to children and converts. This is what we have sadly almost lost in my generation.

Now to bed – wake-up for balloon ride is at 4.15 am. Blessings, John in Capaddocia+

May 4, 2013

How Do You Become Pure and Holy? (Easter 6)

If nothing impure or unholy is allowed into the new heavenly Jerusalem (Revelation) it is very important that we understand how to become pure and holy. The Good News is that Jesus will help us by forgiving the sins we repent and confess. Jesus will come and live in the hearts of those who really love Him. Our love of Jesus is measured by how well we keep his commandment to love God and one another. Since we are human we need help in discerning our sins and overcoming our self-deception. Jesus promises to send the Holy Spirit to guide us, comfort us and remind us of His teachings.

1. Jesus will come and live in the hearts of those who love & obey Him
Jesus is teaching us that our faith or trust in Him must be more than head knowledge. It must lead to real love. Real love is not what we desire for ourselves – that is lust. Real love is an emotional desire for the good of the other. Sacrificial love is putting the need of the other person and your desire for their good before your own needs. The more we know Jesus and understand His teachings from Bible reading, prayer and our worship experiences; the more we come to love Him and obey His teachings:
·         Love God – more than we love alternative idols:
o    Material things
o    Work / Career
o    Political heroes
o    Sports
·         Love what God has done – creation, reading about God in Bible
·         Love what God values:
o    Truth vs deception and lies
o    Holiness vs unholy, divided, impure, mixed
o    Peace not conflict and division
o    Order, justice – not disorder and injustice
o     Forgiveness not anger, hatred and revenge
·         Love your neighbour – sacrificial love based on their need
o    Respect personal value as child of God – physical needs
o    Honour by respecting reputation vs false witness, gossip
o    Respect property (stealing, coveting)
o    Respect marriage relationship (adultery)
o    Respect humanity by forgiving (vs un-forgiveness)
·         Love one another in the fellowship of the church community
o    Particularly tested by people we do not really like

Jesus helped people see how holy God is and how important it is that we be clean and holy if we are to be in the presence of God. The Holy Spirit cannot come and live on a spiritual garbage dump. If we want to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit we have to provide a clean environment.

2. The Holy Spirit will come and guide us in our spiritual battle