If you are like me you have occasionally looked in wonder at photos of ruins of ancient civilizations in far flung places. Odd, unworldly structures they seem, as though not even on the same planet! Unreachable and untouchable, by both time and distance.
I never dreamed that I would actually visit such places, like the ruins of Ephesus and Smyrna, immortalized by their mention in the scripture. Streets where the Apostle Paul walked, and preached. This is the stuff of legends. But, unexpectedly it happened, and with less than a month to prepare, I was actually there!
Being in Turkey for 2 weeks in January had a dreamy, surreal kind of feeling. Intensely interesting, exotic, sensing all the while that I was being deeply affected, but not exactly how. Since that amazing trip nearly a year has passed and I have had time to reflect. What did I really take away from it?
For anyone measuring the benefits of visiting biblical sites against the cost, I can give you my experience. This is one of those “bucket list” things that often dies in the bucket. The cost and time involved is just too much to muster. Sure, its once in a lifetime, but I want that “ONCE!”— and I would never give it back.
So if you are pondering a trip like this, let me tell you how it has affected me.
1. I don’t read the Bible the same as I used to.
Let’s face it, reading the bible is quite a stretch. You have to reach back into another time, another culture, another language, knowing there is life changing truth passing before you, but somehow its hard to grasp. Of course its hard to grasp– it is the mind of God! But that other part that makes it hard–the part that the scenes are just so…so…removed from my everyday life, THAT is something that can change, and a trip like this does that for you.
When you SEE the places where the stories took place, those pictures come rushing back out of your memory when you read about them in the Bible. You can feel the cool breeze, hear the scuffle of footsteps on stones, or the rattle of chariots in the streets. I will never forget dipping my fingers into a groove in a solid stone street in Ephesus–a chariot track groove worn by countless chariots. Two, or even 3 inches deep in solid stone! How many chariots did it take to make that groove?! A little thing maybe, but it lifts the whole ancient world out of the realm of fiction, and makes it a real place where real people just like me did things.
2. I have gained a more realistic sense of time.
No–not “time management” and getting to the next appointment. But “earth time,” and the progress of civilization on this beautiful planet.
In Laodicia, excavations are ongoing, and passing by I chanced to pick up a recently dug up ceramic tile, one of many. But on the backside of it were fingerprints, deliberately stroked in the center when the tile was still soft and wet, perhaps to provide the tile grip after it was set. I stroked my 4 fingers into the lines made by that ancient craftsperson. Who was it? It was a small hand, maybe a girl or boy, or a young slave. What was their life like? Had any other human stroked that same tile in the 2000 years between them and me? Likely not. If only this old tile could talk. I felt strangely connected to that long gone person–a human being like me, separated by thousands of years, but we have something in common now. Our fingers have stroked the same tile.
In America the history doesn’t go back very far. If you visit the sites of the Pilgrim Colonies on the East coast, you are really reaching back only 200-300 years. As I sat on a stone wall and sipped a Coke, leaning against a pillar, I asked our guide how old it was. “This? Oh this pillar is Greek, probably at least 3000 years old.” 3000 years???! That will stretch your grasp of history on this planet. I have a much greater sense of the shortness of my life–that I’m just one little blip in a long stream of humanity. Since the trip, I feel more compelled to make my years count, or what is left of them.
3. Even my prayers are different.
Since taking the trip I have been engaged in a Bible study with a small group, probing the mysterious messages to the 7 Churches, In Revelation chapters 2 & 3. That study has something to do with it, I’m sure, but the trip itself is what occasioned the study. And the connected-ness to the places these letters talk about, their struggles, their failures, and the warnings to me– all that has made my prayers more vivid.
Well, I’m not sure I have covered it all, and I don’t think I can because I am trying to impart things that are really beyond words. But take any first time trip you have taken, even to just another city or state. See how it became a real place for you? Well, magnify that experience 1000 times when you visit an ancient Bible site. I have left the places, but the places will never leave me.
If you are thinking about a trip, measuring the cost and timing, of course, be wise about these things. But don’t let it die in your “bucket list.” Get out and do it, while you still have life and strength and a mind to appreciate it. You, and I, and ALL of us, will soon enter the marching ranks of history. Most of us will leave very little mark, and the earth passes into the hands of another generation.
But its YOUR world while you are here. See it, ponder it, learn from it.