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Oct 5

Catalyst Labs: Bob Goff, Chris Seay, Michael Hyatt, Tullian Tchividjian, and Susan Cain

Posted on Friday, October 5, 2012 in Pontifications

So each year National Community Church takes their (our) entire staff (plus spouses) to the annual Catalyst Conference in Atlanta.  It’s an incredible time of worship led by folks like Gungor and Israel Houghton and leadership lessons and other great content from people like Andy Stanley, Susan Cain, Patrick Lencioni, Bryan Stevenson, Perry Noble, Mark Burnett, Christine Caine, Francis Chan, Jon Acuff, Craig Groeschel, Matt Chandler, Simon Sinek, and Geoffrey Canada.

Part of our team arrived Wednesday morning to attend the Labs.  These are some of my key takeaways.

Bob Goff led the opening lab and was as inspiring and hilarious as always. He declared that we should love extravagantly rather than efficiently and said that everyone wants to make a difference but no one wants to be different.  His mantra basically comes down to “love God, love people, do stuff.”

He said we should regularly clear the decks of all that matters in our lives and then reassemble those things in order of priority.  One thing we’ll discover is that most of the stuff that “head fakes” the body of Christ is #52 or so on our list of priorities, so why do we give that stuff so much time?

I highly recommend his book “Love Does.”

For my first lab breakout, I chose Chris Seay, who spoke about how the primary critique of Jesus was that he was hanging out with sinners.  Chris asked if we are like Jesus in that way?

As Christians, Chris argued that we are called to be good conversationalists – we should be able to sit with people and find common ground.  How do we do that?  Often by being honest about our weakness and brokenness.  He said any good conversation will lead to truth, which means it will lead to Jesus since He is truth.  He also said that questions are the breath of life to conversations.

Side note:  He made me wonder if I should start leading the Transformational Conversations workshop I’ve been trained to do and which I’ve drawn from to create our training for NCC coaches.  Maybe as a J-Term group?  End side note.

Chris pointed out that the culture is asking spiritual questions (in shows like LOST and Sopranos, for example) and that we just need to join the conversation.

Check out Cruciformity — his church’s annual Stations of the Cross art show which most recently took the form of tattoos.

Next up I attended Michael Hyatt’s session on developing a platform, which to be honest didn’t impress me that much.  He did have some good content though, especially in regards to engaging your “tribe” (e.g., your blog audience).  He says you lead simply by starting a conversation and asking the right questions, and he has a general rule of thumb of making 20 deposits (helpful content) for every 1 withdrawal (request that your tribe do something for you).

Michael’s hugely popular blog can be found here.

For the third breakout I went to hear Tullian Tchividjian, pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian and grandson of Billy and Ruth Graham.  Pretty awesome talk!

He talked about the power of the Gospel to set Christians (not just non-Christians) free and what it means to live under grace rather than under the law.  Our identities (how we view ourselves) are shaped by which logic we live by and we become enslaved when we locate our identities in anything smaller than Jesus.

Under the law we have to perform, be successful, and achieve, but under grace we can be set free.  As Christians, who we really are has nothing to do with us – our identity is anchored in Christ’s victory, Christ’s strength, etc.

Tullian asked what it is that if taken away from you would make you feel like your life isn’t worth living any more?  That’s your idol.

Freedom happens when we realize we can’t fix ourselves (sounds like a certain Step 1).  We need to constantly remind ourselves where our value comes from so we don’t try to validate our lives through our work.  Jesus does not stand at the top of a ladder and shout down “Climb!”  He hangs on a cross and whispers “It is finished.”

All in all, Tullian’s talk sounded like one you’d hear at Living Waters or The River, but tweaked for a general audience.  Which makes me wonder if that’s something I should do (on my blog or elsewhere).

I’ve started following @pastortullian on Twitter and suggest you do the same.

For my last lab session, I went to find out about the power of introverts from Susan Cain.  Fascinating stuff.

She talked about how our society has become geared toward extroverts – more and more group projects in school, noisy workplaces, etc. – and how we tend to follow the opinions of peers, especially the most assertive.

She advocates a “quiet revolution” where we rethink meetings (let people brainstorm in advance before they do so together) and rethink leadership (go after those with a vision to make a difference in the world, not just the good talkers).

She cited several examples of great leaders who were introverts and said their leadership success was often because they were driven by a passion that caused them to speak out.  Others can catch an introvert’s vision because they know they really mean it and aren’t just seeking a spotlight.

I recommend checking out her TED talk, which has received almost 3 million views.

I’ll post on the actual conference sessions soon!

Sep 10

A New Adventure Begins!

Posted on Monday, September 10, 2012 in Pontifications

Well, last week was my first week at my new job serving as Pastor of Coaching & Care at my church, National Community Church in Washington, DC. This represents a significant career change from the world of policy and politics where I managed websites and social media campaigns (fortunately, experience that will forever be helpful) to a world of full-time ministry. Not that it’s unexpected, however — I spent 2007 to 2011 attending seminary on a part-time, distance education basis at Regent University.

For those who don’t know (which will likely include very few of the people reading this post), National Community Church is a multi-site church meeting in movie and performance theaters throughout the Washington, DC metro area. It is also where my amazing wife (who recently authored a new book!) serves as the Pastor of Discipleship.

The NCC congregation consists in large part of singles in their twenties and thirties who work in politics in some capacity. We experience significant turn-over on a pretty regular basis, making for a very unique church environment with its own challenges but also its own exciting opportunities. We have the privilege to speak into the lives of people for what may be a few short months or years before sending them back out into other corners of the country or the globe.

In my role, I’ll be performing duties I’ve actually been doing for a couple years in a volunteer capacity, but I’ll now be able to devote my full-time attention to them.

My Coaching duties consist of recruit, training, and assigning Coaches to provide spiritual growth coaching to our small group leaders (more here). Our coaching system needs a bit of fine-tuning, but if it proves to be as beneficial to our small group leaders as I believe it can be, I hope to eventually offer it to all leaders at NCC.

The “Care” side of my portfolio includes providing pastoral care (and facilitating others’ provision of pastoral care) to those dealing with a wide variety of issues and connecting them with counseling resources where needed. I’ll also continue to coordinate programs dealing with relational and sexual brokenness like The River, which we’re offering this fall, and SALT, the men’s group we ran this past spring. I’m hoping to eventually start a Celebrate Recovery program (or something similar) at NCC and will continue to lead groups like the Theology of the Body group I led this past summer to help people obtain a healthy Biblical understanding of sex and our bodies. I’ll also recruit and support others interested in leading care and recovery-oriented small groups.

So what does this mean for my blog? Quite a bit, actually.

I’m planning to start a steady diet of books related to coaching, pastoral care, and other such topics and will post summaries or reviews (of a sort) here, partly for the benefit of my loyal readers, but also because I know that will force me to process the books more thoroughly than I might otherwise. It will also now be part of my job to ruminate, ponder, consider, introspect, reflect, and think, which will likely result in some blog posts, as well.

Let the fun begin!

Aug 22

My next big FEAT

Posted on Monday, August 22, 2011 in Pontifications

Now that I’ve finished seminary, I’ve decided it’s time for my next big FEAT. Yes, that is an acronym, and yes, I am that cheesy. That would be Food, Exercise, and Accountability Team.

Food. It’s time to go back on Weight Watchers and to start ingesting large quantities of fruits and vegetables (which are zero WW PointsPlus under their new system). Toward that end, we’re planning to sign up for the Arganica Farm Club, which will allow us to get locally grown organic fruits, vegetables, meat, dairy, breads, and more delivered to us weekly. Additional shopping will hopefully also occur weekly as we adjust to planning meals on a weekly basis. I’m excited to now have time to start cooking again, but I’m going to steer clear of the desserts I’m notorious for and try to prepare healthier food — Weight Watchers recipes will be utilized frequently.

This will also involve embracing Sabbath. As Mark Buchanan makes clear in The Rest of God (which I highly recommend), Sabbath was meant to be a day of feasting, but since we’ve become so gluttonous as a society, we’ve tended toward differentiating it by making it more about fasting (when we recognize it at all). Since I’ll feel like I’m fasting the rest of the week, the Sabbath (for me it will be Sundays) will be my feasting day. Fortunately, this fits perfectly with WeightWatchers, which gives you an extra pool of weekly PointsPlus to do with what you wish. Rather than parsing them out during the week, I will save them for my Sabbath, giving me the ability to indulge a bit without exceeding my PointsPlus allowance.

Oh, and I’ll drink like a fish. (Water, of course.)

Exercise. I’m planning to take my relationship with our Elliptical and Bowflex to the next level, working out regularly and at times using both of them the same day (gasp!). This ain’t workable as an early morning thing for me, so it’ll most often occur in the evening. It also has the added benefit of earning me more WW PointsPlus (in other words, I get to eat more). As the humidity goes away, I’ll also take advantage of my lunch hour to go walking from time to time. In addition, after Labor Day Heather and I will be kicking off our sometimes-annual Fit and Frugal Fall, which includes going on cheap, healthy date nights like playing tennis or walking on the Mall rather than parking our butts in the movie theater.

So why am I telling you this? That brings us to…

Accountability Team. This involves a new experiment in public accountability — asking all those who know me to hold me accountable (hence this blog post). If that’s you and you catch me being lazy or gluttonous, call me out on it. Or preferably, if we’re sharing a meal, preemptively remind me to make healthy choices. And refrain from pressing me to indulge in unhealthy options. And here’s the really fun part — each week I’m going to post on Facebook how much I gained or lost that week.

The A-Team will also be sharing in the sacrifice as they are subjected to healthier food items (or used as Weight Watchers recipe guinea pigs) when visiting the Zempel household. Fewer chips, cookies, and fried foods (sigh…), more fruits, veggies, and White Bean & Ground Turkey Slow Cooker Chipotle Chili.

The Goal:

Okay, I’d have to resign as NCC’s Coaching Coordinator if I did something like this and didn’t set a SMART (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, Time-Specific) goal. Starting from today’s weight (ahem…), I want to lose 30 pounds by January 1st. That basically means 1.5 pounds per week. If I find my weight-loss hindered because I’m replacing fat with muscle I won’t complain, but I suspect that won’t really be a problem for that first 30 pounds.

Let the fun begin!

Mar 11

Greece & Italy wrap-up: Final reflections

Posted on Friday, March 11, 2011 in Pontifications

I wrote this as I was sitting in the Rome airport waiting to depart for DC and reflecting on the trip (after a ten-hour flight, I’m now back home in DC).

One of my biggest takeaways was recognizing that spiritual growth can in fact take the form of intellectual growth (yes, I know – this only ranks as a major insight for someone like me who’s 100% feeler on the Myers-Briggs thinker/feeler scale). Much of our time was spent racing from place to place, cramming in as much as we could, without taking much time to reflect and meditate on what we were seeing and experiencing. Multiple times I had to remind myself that this wasn’t a pilgrimage or sightseeing trip, it was an academic study tour.

Most of what I’ve gained from this trip is a greater intellectual understanding of the world of the first century church. I have to admit that my knowledge of Greco-Roman history has been sadly lacking, so I learned a lot of information that I probably should have known already. Regardless, getting a greater sense of the cultures in which Paul lived, travelled, and was imprisoned gives me greater insight and understanding into his letters and the metaphors he utilizes. I’ll also forever be able to picture particular places when I read the book of Acts.

This trip has also provoked a lot of thoughts that I’ll continue to wrestle through and hash out in regards to contextualizing the Gospel for the culture you’re in. I tend to view that as a modern phenomenon (with emerging, relevant churches) but it goes back to the Bible itself. I have a draft blog post from earlier this semester based on one of our texts for the New Testament class I’m taking right now and it really brought that home. This trip highlighted that fact even further.

In addition, no Protestant can come to Greece and Italy without being challenged regarding their views of the Orthodox and Catholic churches. There are of course theological differences, but it’s practices such as iconography and veneration of the saints that come to the forefront in an experiential context. Those are issues I’m sure I’ll wrestle with for the rest of my life, especially since there would be no Christianity if the Catholic and Orthodox churches hadn’t sustained the faith through over a thousand years of church history.

Well, that’s it for now. Doubtless I’ll have more reflections in the future. Peace out.

Us in St. Peter's Square
Mar 11

Greece & Italy Day 11: St. Peter’s Basilica, Sistine Chapel, and Mamertine Prison – Just your typical day in Rome

Posted on Friday, March 11, 2011 in Pontifications

This post is from yesterday — internet problems kept me from posting it last night.

Our final day in Italy and we spent most of it in another country altogether – Vatican City. We started the day with an incredible guided tour of the crypt beneath St. Peter’s Basilica. The basilica was built on top of an ancient necropolis (above-ground cemetery) including what is believed to be the tomb of Peter. Interestingly, when they examined the bones inside the tomb, they found a lot of bones but none that seemed to be his. They later discovered that in a niche next to the tomb (it’s a complicated story) there were bones that matched what his would have looked like and they believe they are his bones.

His tomb is under the basilica’s altar and on our tour we got to go underneath and see the back and sides of the tomb. Fascinating stuff. Our guide was a woman who is an art historian and explained everything really well.

At the end of the tour, we passed the tomb of Pope John Paul II and then emerged in the middle of St. Peter’s Basilica – incredibly beautiful and packed with a great many statues and paintings and such. Our usual guide took us on a tour of it, pointing out the balconies where the relics are (with huge associated artistic representations in front). Amazing, fascinating stuff.

St. Peter's Basilica

Outside of St. Peter's Basilica

Inside St. Peter's Basilica

Inside St. Peter's Basilica

St. Peter's Basilica - inside dome

Inside St. Peter's Basilica 2

St. Peter's Basilica 3

Inside St. Peter's Basilica 3

St. Peter's Basilica 4

Inside St. Peter's Basilica 4

After touring the basilica, we headed for the Vatican Museum where we grabbed lunch (pizza!), did a 5-minute sprint through the bookstore (we had an impossible time finding it), and then began our tour. A lot of interesting stuff, but of course the highlight was the Sistine Chapel. Absolutely amazing, but unfortunately no photographs were allowed in the Sistine Chapel, so I have nothing to post from in there.

Vatican Pizza

Pizza at the Vatican


Michelangelo's Pieta

Vatican Museum Map Room

Vatican Museum Map Room

After the museum, we zipped on over to the Mamertine Prison, which has been historically considered the place where Paul was imprisoned, but the Catholics have now decided that Peter was also imprisoned there, at the same time as Paul. Whatever. I’ve been somewhat amazed at the degree to which they’ve paired up Peter and Paul here.

Mamertine Prison

Door to Mamertine Prison

I’ve posted a bit on locations – where Paul and Peter were imprisoned, executed, buried, etc. – which I approach with a substantial amount of skepticism (not just these, but all the Israel sites as well). My professor, however, made the case today for them being more accurate than I generally would give them credit for. In many cases, the thinks that early Christians passed on these sites through oral tradition and that when Christianity became official, they simply solidified and publicized what Christians already believed, rather than just picking places at random. He made that point specifically in regards to Peter being buried beneath St. Peter’s Basilica but extended it beyond that as well. A good point, and definitely food for thought (and research).

After Mamertine Prison, we headed over to Trevi Fountain, where Heather and I snagged some more gelato (this time I got chocolate and she got mint chocolate – yum!). After checking out another church, we then hopped on the bus to head back to the hotel for dinner. At that point Heather and I decided to strike out on our own, hopping off the bus at Vatican City. We shot a couple videos in St. Peter’s Square (see Heather’s blog), did some souvenir shopping, ate more pizza and more gelato (chocolate for her and lemon for me), and then walked back to our hotel (only getting lost once).

Trevi Fountain

Trevi Fountain

Gelato at Trevi Fountain

Gelato at Trevi Fountain

St. Peter's Basilica at night

St. Peter's Basilica at night

St. Peter's Basilica at night 2

St. Peter's Basilica at night 2

All in all a fun day. Tomorrow’s Heather’s birthday and we get to celebrate by spending ten hours on a plane flying directly from Rome to DC. Hopefully we’ll recover in time for work on Monday.

I hope you’ve enjoyed these posts! We had an awesome time!

Hopefully the NCC Discipleship Team will start leading some study tours or pilgrimages to some of these places! We’ll see! I still need to visit Israel and would also love to visit “the other holy land” where Paul traveled extensively – Turkey.

Mar 9

Greece & Italy Day 10: I visited a brothel

Posted on Wednesday, March 9, 2011 in Pontifications

I have a funny feeling this post is going to get read the most.

Today we visited Pompeii. I’m not sure anything I write can do it justice. The entire city has been preserved allowing us to see exactly how people lived when it was destroyed by Mt. Vesuvius in 79 A.D. While on the human level it was an absolute tragedy, from the archaeological perspective it’s a treasure trove of valuable information. At 165 acres it’s the largest archaeological site in the world and 1/3 of it isn’t even excavated yet. Interestingly there’s a new train of thought in archaeology – keep stuff buried until we come up with better ways to preserve them.

Pompeii Theatre

Yep, us at another theatre -- this time in Pompeii

Mt. Vesuvius

View of Mt. Vesuvius from forum of Pompeii

Random side note from yesterday – when we were walking through one of the forums, our guide pointed out that the archaeologist who unearthed in essentially chose which century he wanted to reveal. There’s an earlier era underneath, but it’s less exciting in terms of structures and such. Interesting thought in terms of the layered history. End side note.

At Pompeii, the most exciting part for me was seeing the House of Menander and its neighboring houses. In preparation for this study tour, we read “Reading Romans in Pompeii: Paul’s Letter at Ground Level,” which takes a look at the inhabitants of these houses and imagines how they would have understood the book of Romans if they had been members of a house church. The book offers extremely fascinating insights into how the gospel upended the class system of the time and challenged the cultural norms. I highly recommend it. The author goes into detail about those houses, so it was fascinating to see with our own eyes what he had described.

Pompeii House

Pompeii House -- there was an open roof above that central basin so it could collect rainwater

Pompeii Food Counter

Pompeii Fast Food -- people didn't usually cook in their houses, but instead bought their meals from shops such as this

Pompeii Victim

Plaster cast of Pompeii victim trying not to inhale toxic gases (how most of them died)

Then there was, yes, the visit to the brothel. Fascinating to see the beds which are made of stone (so they didn’t wear out) and which are so much smaller than ours today (since people were shorter back then). The paintings in the brothel are also extremely well-preserved – so well-preserved that I won’t post any pictures here. They are depictions of sexual positions, allowing visiting sailors who don’t speak the language to point to what they are interested in. I’m not sure red light districts have changed much in 2000 years (not that I’d know!).

Pompeii Brothel

Dean of divinity school caught leaving the Pompeii brothel

For lunch, pizza! Our guide took us to a pizza place where we were told we should order one per person – they weren’t big enough to share. Turned out each was the size of a standard medium pizza in the U.S., but we managed to down the entire things regardless. Heather and I had Quattro Formaggio (Four Cheese) – yum! (And memories of “Gusta Formaggio!” from my visit to Europe in college.)

Naples Pizza

Pizza in Naples!

After lunch, we headed to the National Archaeological Museum of Naples, which is one of the most incredible museums in the world. Seriously – lots of world-famous works of art, including a mosaic of Alexander from the ruins of Pompeii. The miniscule mosaic stones and intricate detail is absolutely incredible. There’s also an incredibly large statue called the Farnese Bull which was carved from a single block of marble. It had some restoration work done a long time ago and it is now hypothesized that the restoration work was done by Michelangelo. There’s a statue of Hercules, a statue of Agrippina (Herod’s mother), and numerous amazing mosaics, painted plaster sculptures, and other artifacts discovered in Pompeii.

Naples Museum

Naples Museum

Pompeii Column

Mosaic (and shell) covered column from Pompeii

Alexander the Great Mosaic

Alexander the Great Mosaic from Pompeii (NOT a painting -- crazy cool!)

Farnese Bull

Farnese Bull

This entire area had numerous small (inactive) volcanoes and according to our guide was referred to as the “land of Cyclops,” since the volcanoes are “one-eyed monsters.” Interesting to think about how legends are born.

After the museum, we drove through the neighboring town of Pozzuoli – the New Testament Puteoli: “From there we set sail and arrived at Rhegium. The next day the south wind came up, and on the following day we reached Puteoli. There we found some brothers and sisters who invited us to spend a week with them. And so we came to Rome.” (Acts 28:13-14) Not much to see to tie things to Paul, but there were beautiful views of the bay.

View from Pozzuoli

View from Pozzuoli

View from Pozzuoli 2

View from Pozzuoli and us

We headed back toward Rome, stopping en route for dinner. Although we were still pretty full from lunch, we had a pre-set menu of appetizers, bread, two types of pasta, an entrée and dessert. You pretty much had to roll us all to the bus by the time we were done.

I expected to sleep the remaining two hours to Rome, but instead I finished my From Garden to City reading! Well, sort of. I managed to polish off 2nd Chronicles (which was much more interesting than I realized – I much prefer reading a single kingdom’s history than bouncing back and forth between Israel and Judah like in 1st and 2nd Kings). I still need to go back and read the two books I skipped – Genesis and Luke, but I managed to wrap up the rest in time!

Tomorrow: The final day of our trip! We hit Vatican City, St. Peter’s Basilica, the Mamartine Prison, and I don’t know what else. And then Friday morning we head home! Kind of sad to be leaving, but also kind of feeling ready to be done. It’s been pretty exhausting and non-stop. But totally worth it!

Mar 8

Greece & Italy Day 9: The Colosseum. Umm… wow.

Posted on Tuesday, March 8, 2011 in Pontifications

We began our day in Rome by leaving it – heading to the ancient port city of Ostia where you can basically see the ruins of the entire city. Crazy. An ancient theatre, baths, toilets, condos, inns, the works. And it was layer upon layer – in one inn you could see three layers of mosaics on top of each other — apparently the building went through two renovations. The most exciting was an ancient synagogue built in the 1st century A.D. and renovated in the 4th century A.D., making it one of the earliest archaeological testimonials to Diaspora Judaism. Most likely Paul would have come to Rome (as a prisoner) through this port.  You can still see the mosaics from the various shipping offices identifying their functions since it was an international hub with many sailors who spoke different languages.  They also imported the animals for the gladiatorial games through here.

Ostia Theatre

Ostia Theatre - you know us and theatres...

Ostia Toilets

Ostia Toilets - fortunately there were others for us to use

Ostia Synagogue

Ostia Synagogue - 1st century A.D.

Ostia Mosaic Levels

Ostia Mosaics - oldest in center; next to left; most recent to right

Of course, one of the best parts was when we had lunch and were able to finally get gelato! I got strawberry and Heather got blueberry – delicious!

After Ostia, we got back on the bus and headed back into town to see…. everything. Okay, maybe not really, but that’s what it felt like. We visited the Arch of Constantine and then the Colosseum, which was amazing. I’d seen it from the outside when I visited Rome 14 years ago(!!!), but this time we got to go inside, which was pretty incredible. Our guide informed us that no Christians were martyred at the Colosseum — in those times the Colosseum was filled with water and used for reenacting naval battles.

Colosseum Outside

Outside the Colosseum

Colosseum Inside

Inside the Colosseum - Emperor's seat straight across; platform on right would have extended all the way across; corridors at bottom were under-floor entrance for gladiators and animals

We then headed up Palatine hill to see all the various ruins of forums (fora?) and what-not. Amazing stuff, including some building remains from the 9 centuries before Christ – the oldest place they’ve found from the beginning of Rome.

We visited the Arch of Titus, which was incredible. It commemorates his victory over the Jews in 71 A.D. and depicts a golden menorah that was taken from the Second Temple, which he destroyed. The menorah went missing following an attack by the Visigoths way back then, but apparently in recent history Israel sent a letter to the Vatican requesting it back, just in case it was hidden in the Vatican vaults. Over Christmas I read a fiction novel about how the Temple treasures were hidden by Titus on some Mediterranean island (Crete?) and not brought to Rome – fun stuff!

Titus Arch

Arch of Titus (menorah over my shoulder)

We also saw the Trajan Column (now topped by St. Peter instead of Trajan), their Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (a bit more ornate than the one at Arlington Cemetery), and numerous other temples and such. We glimpsed Mamertine Prison, which we’re supposed to visit Thursday.

Trajan Column

Trajan's Column

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier

Tomb of the Unknown Soldier (also a monument to Italy's first king or something like that)

Lots of crazy stuff – much of which passed in a blur.

Crazy factoid: Our guide asked us if we could identify the “third Rome” (Constantinople was the second), but none of us could. He said it’s Moscow – Ivan married the daughter of the last emperor or some such. Apparently tsar = caesar, which seems blatantly obvious once you think about it but I never had.

Well, that’s it for now, I suppose. Tomorrow we’re off to Pompeii, Naples, and Puetoli.

Mar 7

Greece & Italy Day 8: Peter, Paul, and Rome

Posted on Monday, March 7, 2011 in Pontifications

It was off to the airport first thing this morning for our flight to Rome. Upon arrival, we hit a snafu – our travel agency had sent enough bus that didn’t have a large enough trunk (or whatever you’d call it on a bus) to fit all our luggage. Granted, the extra luggage probably would have fit in the five or so empty seats on the bus, but apparently in Italy it’s illegal to put luggage inside the bus. Sigh…. Eventually they got somebody’s jeep to carry the remaining luggage and away we went.

Now it’s impossible to do justice to Rome since around every corner is another ancient building. So I don’t really know where to start. We drove past a lot of cool stuff and stopped at a couple places.

Our first stop was the Pantheon, which has been well-preserved because it was converted to a church in 609 A.D. Pretty dang cool and a disconcerting first stop (especially since we weren’t told that’s where we were going). We then broke for a quick lunch (pizza in Rome! Still need to get gelato!) before heading off on the Appian Way.


Pantheon outside (dome hidden from view)

Pantheon Oculus

Pantheon inside - Oculus in roof

Pizza in Rome


The Domine Quo Vadis Church is on the site where (if I understood correctly) according to church tradition St. Peter met Christ as Peter was leaving Rome (in order to preserve his life) and asked Jesus, “Quo Vadis?” (Where are you going?). Jesus said he was going to Rome to be crucified a second time. As a result of that encounter/vision/whatever, Peter returned to Rome where he was eventually crucified upside down. They have a slab of marble which Jesus foot touched. Umm… yeah.

Domine Quo Vadis

Domine Quo Vadis Church

The Catacombs of Domitilla are essentially a warren of tunnels (apparently among the most extensive, with 10.5 miles of galleries and corridors) including numerous alcoves in which people were buried. The size of the alcove reflects the size of the person, demonstrating that people were smaller back then. There are also numerous small alcoves in which infants were buried. In addition, there’s an underground basilica that was dug out of the rock there (it’s tufa, which is a relatively soft rock which hardens once exposed to oxygen or air or whatever). It was pretty dang cool. This was from the 4th century A.D. According to our guide, the idea that Christians used to meet secretly in Catacombs is just a romantic myth. That was disappointing to hear – I definitely need to have that verified.

Incidentally, if I heard our guide correctly, these catacombs were rediscovered and began to be researched in the 16th century. That was another “and America is how old?” moment.


Heather was excited about the catacombs - unfortunately we couldn't take photos inside

I knew there would be plenty of Peter on the trip, but I didn’t expect so much of Paul. We visited Tre Fontane, which included one sanctuary under which was a crypt and a cell in which Paul was supposedly imprisoned (his second Rome imprisonment) before his execution. And just a short distance away, a chapel over the spot where he supposedly was executed – according to tradition he was beheaded and his head bounced three times, causing three fountains to spring up (hence the name Tre Fontane). The latter chapel had a service going on with a priest blessing children, which was kind of cool and a reminder of the ongoing church life in these buildings. According to our professor the execution site is likely to be more accurate than the imprisonment site. Regardless of the likelihood, it was somewhat moving to stand in that chapel and think about Paul’s willingness to give his life for the Gospel.

Tre Fontane

Tre Fontane - Supposed site of Paul's beheading

Tre Fontane chapel

Tre Fontane - supposed site of Paul's imprisonment

Paul cell

Tre Fontane - Paul's supposed cell

We then visited the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls – an impressive basilica built over the supposed site of Paul’s burial. You can see the end of the tomb and they also display a chain that supposedly held him when he was imprisoned. Interesting.

Basilica of St. Paul

Basilica of St. Paul

Basilica of St. Paul closeup

Basilica of St. Paul (the sword is metaphoric)

Inside St. Pauls Basilica

Inside the Basilica of St. Paul

Inside St. Pauls Basilica 2

Inside St. Paul's Basilica

Pauls Tomb

Paul's supposed tomb

Paul's chain

Paul's supposed chain

While we encountered the active Orthodox church in Greece to some extent, it seemed like most of what we dealt with was simply ancient ruins, often of a pagan variety. Here in Rome, it feels like we’re encountering the active Catholic Church to a greater degree (go figure) and it’s really provoking me to once again think through Catholicism.

Not sure what’s on the itinerary for tomorrow, but should be fun!

Mar 6

Greece & Italy Day 7: Paul was here! Or maybe here…

Posted on Sunday, March 6, 2011 in Pontifications

We didn’t have to leave the hotel until 9am this morning and for the first time I felt I got adequate sleep (the mattresses here are HARD and make it difficult to fall asleep). We immediately set off in the bus for a city tour of Athens, stopping only to take pictures of the Olympic stadium built for the first modern Olympic games in 1896. The original stadium was built in 334 B.C. and made out of wood. The Romans later covered it in marble and this one is an exact copy of that Roman stadium, built in the same location (you can even see some of the original marble).

Olympic Stadium

Olympic Stadium

After our city tour, the bus dropped us off at the Acropolis. What to say? It’s amazing. We saw the remains of the Odeion, built in 160 A.D.; the Parthenon, which was built in a “rapid” nine years as a gift to the goddess Athena Parthenos; the Erechtheion; and assorted other temples and such.  The Parthenon was kind of a let-down having already seen the original in Nashville.  Just kidding!





We then proceeded a short distance away to Mars Hill aka the Areopagus, potentially the spot where Paul spoke about the “unknown god” to Athenian philosophers. We were later to see the site of the Royal Stoa, which is the other potential location where the address may have occurred. This is recorded in Acts 17:18-34, where the Greek text says “Areopagus.” The Areopagites, however, met in two places and the more popular (and scenic) site is typically where they met only for cases of religious crimes while the other is where they met regularly. Our guide still favored the one more widely identified as the site.

Mars Hill

Heather atop Mars Hill

Royal Stoa

Royal Stoa, other possible Areopagus site

What’s notable about Paul’s speech at the Areopagus, of course, is that he contextualized the Gospel. Rather than referencing the Jewish Scriptures which would have been foreign to his audience, he instead quoted Greek poets. This reminds us of the importance of understanding our own culture so that we can use its language to communicate the Gospel in a way that it can be understood. One of my textbooks this semester pointed out to what extent the contents of the New Testament were contextualized for their audiences, which boggled my mind. But that’s a blog post for a future time.

After the initial Mars Hill exploration, we headed downhill to the agora, where we saw the ancient forum mixed together with several layers of history. This is also where we saw the Royal Stoa (the alternate Areopagus), as well as the Hephaisteion, a Doric temple from 449-415 B.C. which is the best-preserved temple in Greece.


Hephaisteion viewed from Mars Hill

Hephaisteion Closeup

Hephaisteion close up

We also visited the Stoa of Attalos, a colonnade reconstructed by the American School of Classical Studies with funds from John Rockefeller (our guide didn’t know which middle initial went with that name). We’d been hearing about colonnades all week, so it was really great to experience what a complete, undeteriorated one would have looked like.

Stoa of Attalos

Restored Stoa of Attalos

After a failed attempt to return to Mars Hill to record a video (the Acropolis shut down at 3pm), Heather and I headed back to the hotel to meet up with Scott and Vicki McCracken, missionaries who have been working with refugees here in Athens for the past 20 years. Scott is originally from Mobile (hence the connection with Heather) and lo and behold Vicky is a graduate of George Fox University, my alma mater. Small world. And awesome folks!


With the McCrackens

After our meeting, it had begun to rain but we were undeterred and headed off to check out the Temple of Zeus and Hadrian’s Arch which we had seen from the bus earlier. Along the way we were barked at by two unfriendly dogs (Greece is full of stray dogs). We ignored them, but they immediately started tailing us through the streets, leaving us largely alone but occasionally growling and barking at passersby and snapping at a guy on crutches. We were afraid they’d eventually turn on us, but we finally ditched them.

Temple of Zeus

Temple of Zeus

Hadrians Arch

Hadrian's Arch

We then weaved our way through the streets to find a vantage point from which we could shoot a video of Heather with the Acropolis in the background. Next up was dinner, grabbing gyros yet again, this time from a place our missionary friends told us had the best ones – they weren’t kidding. Fantastic!

After that we called it a day. Our time in Greece is now at an end.  We’ll be up bright and early tomorrow for a 9am flight to Rome. Italy here we come!

Greece Route

Our guide's map of our route through Greece

Mar 5

Greece & Italy Day 6: Paul, Erastus, and Phoebe were here!

Posted on Saturday, March 5, 2011 in Pontifications

Began the day bright and early, piling our luggage into the bus and heading for the ancient port city of Cenchrae. In Acts 18, Paul left Corinth and set sail from Cenchrae to go to Ephesus. Also, in Romans 16, Paul commends Phoebe, a deaconess in the church in Cenchrae, to his audience in such a way it suggests that she is the one who delivered the letter for him. Cenchrae (along with Athens and Corinth) was destroyed by an earthquake in the mid-6th century A.D. Due to such earthquakes, the sea is higher today, but the remains of the port and a basilica can be seen partly under water.


Cenchrae: Phoebe was here!

Cenchrae and Lechaion were Corinth’s two port cities, linked by the diolkos, an ancient road which transported ships between the Corinthian Gulf and Saronic Gulf.  Let me say that again: A road for ships.  The diolkos was constructed in 582 B.C. and used until the 2nd century A.D., so was there when Paul visited. Ships were willing to pay the toll necessary to use the diolkos to avoid the dangerous journey around the Peloponnese peninsula.



Incidentally, we learned that in delivering Paul’s letter to Rome, Phoebe would have set sail from Lechaion, since it’s the port city on the Italy side of Greece. Kind of confusing, here’s a map:

Cenchrae Map

Diolkos between Cenchrae and Lechaion

Today there is a canal across, saving ships the trouble of transportation across land. Fascinatingly, the bridge at one end is a submersive bridge – when a ship needs by the bridge sinks underwater to allow it through.  When our guide told us that, I assumed she misspoke and meant a drawbridge, but no.  It submerges.

Submersive Bridge

This bridge SUBMERGES. I want one.

There are three Corinths – the modern city of Corinth, the old Corinth, and then the ancient Corinth, which the old Corinth is largely built on top of. Only 1% of ancient Corinth has been excavated, but what an interesting 1% that is! We visited the remains of the Roman forum (built on top of the Greek forum, some of which can be seen), including the Temple of Apollo and a reconstructed building scholars think may have been a church.

Temple of Apollo

Temple of Apollo

But most exciting of all was the bema, the podium or “judgment seat” of the forum, for this is the only precise place in Greece where they can definitely say, “PAUL WAS HERE.” Because of inscriptions, they know that this is the bema where Gallio presided when Paul was dragged before him in Acts 18:12-17. This is also used to date Paul’s presence in the city, because Gallio (who was the brother of Seneca) had a term of 51 to 53 A.D., although he left early because of illness. What that means is that Paul may have been present for the Isthmian Games (similar to the Olympic Games) in September of 51 A.D., a time when the city would have needed the services of a tentmaker.

Corinthian Bema

THE Bema: Paul was here! (Acrocorinth in background)

Down the hill from the forum were additional ruins with another fascinating find – an inscription that reads something to the effect of “Erastus at the end of his aedileship laid the pavement at his own expense.” An aedile is a city official and as customary, at the end of his time of service he made a gift to the city. Why is this interesting? Because Erastus is mentioned in Scripture as a city official in Romans 16:23 and in that context and two others as one of Paul’s companions (Acts 19:22; 2 Timothy 4:20). Erastus is a rare name and the title given in Scripture matches the one in the inscription, so it is believed to be the same person.

Erastus Inscription

Erastus Inscription: Erastus was here!

We also visited the museum on the site, which had a number of interesting things. One thing I’ve learned that I have a hard time wrapping my mind around is that all these old buildings didn’t look as we see them now – they were painted or covered with plaster and then painted. Statues, too. Not what I picture in my head.

The museum also included several statues that had holes where the heads should be and didn’t look like the heads had been broken off. Sure enough, back in the day having statues in your house became popular, so they would mass produce statue bodies and then people would pick one and the head would be custom-made and attached. Go figure.

Headless Statues

Pick a statue, we'll carve your head!

After exploring the forum to our heart’s content, we headed up the hill (and I mean up!) to the Acrocorinth, perched 1,900 feet above the plain. This was pretty much the most impregnable fortress in Greece and if the steep climb wasn’t enough, it was surrounded by a wall (three walls on the “weak” side). We drove most of the way and then hiked a large part of the remainder (through the three gates), giving us an incredible view of Corinth (and ancient Corinth) from above. It once housed a barracks and an Aphrodite sanctuary with 1,000 priestesses, although there’s significant dispute over whether that was in operation at the time of Paul’s visit. Regardless, it contributed to the immorality that Corinth was renowned for.



View from Acrocorinth

View from Acrocorinth

After our whirlwind tour of Corinth, we piled back onto the bus and headed for Athens. There, after checking into our hotel, we heard a talk with awesome photos from photographer/Biblical historian Ioannis Konstas, who focused on all the places in Greece we don’t have time to visit ourselves. It was pretty cool – you can check out his stuff here. We then walked to dinner, catching a cool view of the Parthenon lit up at night.

Tomorrow: Athens!