I Must Be Crazy

This is the final installment of The Beard Goes Home, a chronicle of my trip to Israel, Cairo and Rome from November 3-18.  If you want more information on a picture, hover your mouse over it for a pop-up caption.  If you want to see a bigger version of the picture, click on it.

A Canaanite worship site dating to around 3000 BCE, uncovered on Mt. Megiddo.Over the course of this trip, I have traveled to three continents, engaged three major world religions and more interacted in at least a half-dozen cultures.  I’ve been further outside my comfort zone than ever before in my life, and all in the name of following Jesus.  Of walking where he walked and seeing the things he saw, as much as possible.

Thomas and I at the pyramids at Giza, which were built about 2500 BCE.I was certainly without most of the comforts of home – I was much less connected to the Internet than I’m accustomed to, and between that and the 6-7 hour time difference, I felt very disconnected from my wife and community in the US.  I met new persons every day, and all of them were in some way the Other.  I learned that two weeks is more than long enough to spend adrift and apart, with no place to put down roots.  I understand now why we create colonies, little islands of our own culture, when we go to a new place.

The old Jebusite wall of the oldest part of the city of Jerusalme, fortified by later Judean kings. Dates around 1000-800 BCE.I learned that I’m a lot more xenophobic than I thought I was.  I spent the whole trip as the consummate outsider.  Even Thomas was at home among his Dominican brothers; each of our rest stops offered something familiar for him, a place he understood and knew how to function in.  Initially I only felt a sense of shame at my suspicion towards the Arabs or my indignation at the disgust I felt from the Jews.  My fear of being alone in Rome.

Ruins of the Temple to Saturn in the Roman Forum from the first century BCEBut the longer I’ve been gone, the more I’m trying to cherish these uncomfortable moments.  I am learning in a way I never have before what it means to be a Stranger, an Alien.  Amanda and I chose ‘Forasteros’ as our last name because it is the Spanish word for this very idea.  Because we both want to be that and to learn the art of hospitality, of welcoming strangers and aliens.

Ruins of the first century synagogue at Capernaum, where Jesus taught, healed and cast out demons in the late 20s CEIn Middle Eastern cultures (Jewish, Muslim OR Christian), there are two categories of person (as I was just discussing with one of my new Dominican friends): Family and Enemy.  The Arabic phrase for ‘Welcome’ roughly translates as ‘I make smooth the path for you to come into my family’.  If you’re not a part of my family, then you’re my enemy, and I have full freedom (and possibly even an obligation) to cheat you.  I certainly don’t have to welcome you.

This makes the Biblical mandate to welcome the stranger even more powerful.   As the Israelites were preparing to enter into the Promised Land, Moses reminded them:

Heading down the Mt. of Olives towards Jerusalem, as Jesus would have durind Passover week around 30 CE.

For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing.  You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. – Deuteronomy 10:17-19

The altar over the slab on which Jesus' body was laid and from which he was resurrected around 30 CE.This would be a radical teaching in the Holy Land today.  It was at least as radical then.  If we’re honest with ourselves, it’s radical in the good ole’ U.S. of A. too.  We’re not much better at making strangers feel welcomed in our country, let alone our homes.  Especially if they don’t speak our language or look like us.

But welcoming the stranger is fundamentally what it means to follow Jesus.  His Incarnation is the ultimate sojourn.  God became human.  He took on flesh and moved into our neighborhood.  And we killed him for it.  Which only goes to show that God’s commands to God’s people didn’t take hold very well.

Vatican Square, including St. Peter's, renovated in the 1600s.

A plea for peace on the wall the Israelis built around Palastine, using mostly concrete from Palestinian suppliers just a few years ago.And we who follow Jesus today aren’t any better.  We still play favorites.  We still stick close to our families (whatever we decide those look like) and we do little to step outside our comfort zones.  We usually actively avoid it.  Intentionally becoming a stranger is difficult.  It’s not a vacation (which is why we build resorts that have all the comforts of home but still let us feel exotic).

And yet again and again the New Testament appropriates the metaphor of stranger/alien/sojourner to describe the Christian life.  We are on a journey in a foreign land.

About to enter into Armageddon (Mt. Megiddo), the site of John the Revelator's apocalyptic final battle.All of these died in faith without having received the promises, but from a distance they saw and greeted them. They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak in this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.  If they had been thinking of the land that they had left behind, they would have had opportunity to return.  But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; indeed, he has prepared a city for them. – Hebrews 11:13-16

Here’s the end of my story: I took a trip and it turned my world upside down.  You should try it sometime.  If you want a tour guide, let me know.  It helps to travel with friends.

Rome Alone

The Beard Goes Home is an ongoing chronicle of my trip to Israel, Cairo and Rome from November 3-18.  If you want more information on a picture, hover your mouse over it for a pop-up caption.  If you want to see a bigger version of the picture, click on it.

The Roman Forum. From left to right: the Temple of Vespasian (3 columns), the Temple of Saturn (8 columns), the Arch of Septimus Severus (behind), the Column of Phocas (single column), Temple of Antonius and Faustina (columns in front of Church), Temple of Julius Caesar (small set of three columns), Temple of Castor and Pollux (taller set of three columns), Arch of Titus (behind and right of Castor/Pollux)

Thomas and I landed in Rome on Monday, November 15.  We made it to the Angelicum, a Dominican school where we’d be staying, and settled in for the night.  Just after I’d gone to bed, Thomas came The statue of St. Bartholomew at St. John Lateran. According to tradition, Bartholomew was skinned alive, so in his iconography, he's alwasy holding HIS OWN SKIN. That's messed up.to my room to tell me that a family emergency had come up and he would have to fly home ASAP.  The earliest he could arrange was Wednesday morning, so on Tuesday we met up with a group from his parish in Columbia as originally planned and took a whirlwind tour of the city.

I confess that I was very nervous about Thomas leaving.  I’d never been to Rome and didn’t know my way around; I was also feeling very ready to get back to Dayton.  All of these emotions were strange to me – I’m usually much more adventurous, so I spent some time in prayer and reflection and determined to make the most of my time.

St. Peter's Square. These marble columns all used to be a part of the Coliseum. Jerks.

Rome turned out to be a city where it’s easy to get lost in the trees, but the forest is (relatively) easy to navigate.  Once I’d gotten a good sense of how the famous Seven Hills are laid out, I could figure out how to get back to the general area of the Angelicum.

Seriously. I know THE Michaelangelo designed those uniforms, but those Swiss Guards look RIDICULOUS.We managed to see a good many sites for as little time as we had, though since the rest of my group was Catholic, it mostly revolved around art and the 17 billion or so churches in Rome.  We took in St. John’s of Lateran (the Pope’s actual church), St. Peter’s (including the Vatican Museum, St. Peter’s bones and the Sistine Chapel) and several Caravaggio’s.

Yes, that's the Pope-mobile. And yes, they actually call it that.One of the highlights of the trip was our Wednesday audience with Pope Benedict XVI, with about 20,000 people from all over the world.  He addressed us in a half-dozen languages – the same five-minute homily to each group.  After being in Israel, I was shocked at how lax the security surrounding the whole Vatican was (unless those goofy Swiss guard uniforms grant secret superpowers).

The easiest way to get stabbed to death in Rome - mess with a dude dressed as a Roman guard.For me, though, the Roman ruins were definitely what I was most excited to see – especially anything pre-Constantinian (315-330 CE).  This was a lot tougher than I thought it would be because Rome has been Christian for so long.  It turns out that we’ve done a great job of Christian-izing pretty much everything in Rome.  Even the red-granite Egyptian obelisks that are all over the city all have crosses or statues of Peter and Paul on top of them.  All those marble columns that surround Vatican square?  Their marble used to cover the Coliseum.  The grand Circus Maxims, that made Herod’s circus in Caesarea Maritima look like a little league stadium?  It’s basically a big strip of grass with some stairs cut into it.  The Pantheon, a temple built to all the Roman gods is now a church dedicated to all the Christian martyrs.

Approaching the Coliseum, which truly is a ruin compared to its former state.As a person of faith, I get it.  Rome was the capitol of the Roman Empire (I’m sure this is not a news flash).  The monuments to the pagan gods were just as widespread in the city as Christian churches and monuments are now.  But the history nerd in me weeps over the artifacts and monuments that have been lost (or destroyed).  The church (and the Empire) found it expedient to recycle – to tear down old monuments to men and gods long dead in order to build new monuments to the new kings and new God of Rome.  It was cheaper and it erased from history the records of the Other cultures.

The last remains of the Temple to Saturn, one of the oldest pieces of Rome we've uncovered.This is something I’ve seen over and over in this trip – the new cultures and religions cannot abide the old, so they destroy and replace.  Caesarea Maritima was a great example of this – it changed rulers five times before it was abandoned, and each army destroyed what was there and built their own monuments.  Mt. Megiddo was the same.  Not to mention the city of Jerusalem (::cough:: Temple Mount ::cough::).

And, of course, Rome.

But I wonder if we could try something different.  What if, instead of looking at these structures and monuments as Other, we instead celebrated the good in them.

All that's left of the once awesome Circus Maximus.The ancient Temples are beautiful in their way, and they’re certainly marvels of architecture.  I can confess that without praising Roman gods (or Muslim or Canaanite or whatever).  I can wonder at the ingenuity and power of the human spirit that is, after all, created in God’s image without worrying or feeling threatened.  That creative drive that led to the construction of Cairo’s ubiquitous mosques and Rome’s obelisks, columns, arches and temples is the same creative drive that spawned the enormity of St. Peter’s and the beautiful churches that mark all the sacred sites in the Holy Land.  It’s the creative drive that we have been given by our Creator, and I believe that we can celebrate it in a way that honors the Gospel without compromising it.

The Coliseum, with a part of the arena floor restored. If you look closely, on the right side you can see a cross that marks the Emperors box (obviously added after Constantine). This marked where the (Christian) Emperor would sit and cheer as men murdered each other.

Book Review: Empire (Orson Scott Card)

Don't let the bad photoshop fool you... this is a wicked-awesome book!Anyone who reads Orson Scott Card – the author of the insanely awesome Ender saga – knows that he’s one of the best Science Fiction writers around.  His stories reflect what is best and worst about our natures, and use gripping, thrilling, so-awesome-you-have-to-read-it-twice narrative to do it.

Empire is no different.  It’s the story of the Second American Civil War.

The book feels as though it’s set tomorrow.  Foreign terrorists assassinate the President and Vice President, and shortly thereafter a group of either right- or left-wing radicals take over New York City, declaring themselves to be the liberators of America.  States quickly move to choose sides and the fighting begins.

What makes Card’s tale so compelling is the frightening plausibility of it.  Card’s America is as sharply divided along party lines as is ours, so this war is not fought across the Mason-Dixon line; instead, it’s red-state/blue-state, urban/rural.  The divisive, divided rhetoric could be taken from any number of email forwards so lovingly sent around – not to mention FOX News or CNN.

Perhaps most intriguing is Card’s comparison of America to Rome – not the Empire, but the Republic.

Card argues – through one of his more interesting characters – that America is not an Empire because were we to disappear as a nation today, our culture would not endure in the world the way Rome’s did.  Rather, America exists as did Rome at the end of her republic phase: broken by infighting and divisions, unable to stand strong on the world stage.

Only when Rome was united under a strong leader was she able to become probably the greatest empire the world had ever known.  And so Card begs us to ask, Will we follow those currents of history, ride along in Rome’s wake?

One of the more inflamatory passages in the book sums his probing well: “We don’t want individual liberty because we don’t want individual responsibility.  We want somebody else to take care of us.  If we had a dictator who did a better job of it than our presenty system, then as long as he pretended to respect Congress, we’d lick his hands like a dog.

Bottom line: A great, quick thriller that will make you rethink your politics.

Bonus!  Card just released a sequel called Hidden Empire.  I can’t wait to read it!