Today would be a good day to be at Ephesus

I’ve been marking final essays for my New Testament class this semester. So I’ve been thinking about the historical and social contexts of the first churches and the letters written to them that continue to speak into the lives of millions of Christian churches today. Its helpful to imagine walking in their shoes as they figured out how to daily live out this transformative encounter they had had with the risen Jesus. So if I could take a quick jaunt to anywhere today, it’d be great to visit one of the best preserved NT cities: Ephesus, a place where people long ago and yet not so different from me sought to walk in the same footsteps in which I daily choose to walk.

What did I love about and learn from Ephesus?

Ephesus today lies on Turkey’s western coast. It was then was the capital of the Roman province of Asia, an impressive city home to two amphitheatres, one of the world’s largest libraries, and the famous Temple of Artemis.

The apostle Paul spent two or three years here, living out the gospel among the people of this place. He preached in the large theatre and caused a riot that likely landed him in prison.

The church in Ephesus was largely made up of non-Jews, and Paul writes to encourage them by articulating who they are and how they fit into God’s plan for the world.

The letter speaks of the ‘mystery’ that has been revealed: that God’s plan is to bring all things, seen and unseen, under Christ. That’s a huge challenge when what you can see is the might and power of the Roman empire!

This revealed mystery is demonstrated in a completely unexpected and seemingly insignificant way: through a new kind of community, this group called church, where people from different backgrounds, ethnicities, socio-economic circumstances, and statuses seek to live together as family.

Seeing the houses, shops, and public facilities of ancient Ephesus helps me imagine what this might have looked like. I can envision some of its its practicalities and some of its challenges.

These were real people living in a real place, seeking to embody a new way of doing life and being family together in the midst of a city that didn’t quite get what they were trying to be.

Its a similar challenge many face today. I know I do as I seek to do life with my local church community and we try to be a new kind of family to one another.

Its messy and complicated and not always easy. We certainly don’t always get it right as we sit in the tensions between our culture and the gospel.

We hope in and live out of a new story that others may not think makes sense or looks true, and yet we see the transformation it is bringing little by little in our lives and our neighbourhoods.

And we continue to walk in the footsteps not only of the millions who have come before us, but of the risen King we worship and who is making all things new.

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Today would be a good day to be at Milford Sound

When I started blogging about some of my travels, I probably didn’t realise how much the places I love and what I have learned from them would reveal about me. Many of my Monday travel posts focus on cities and places of human history and culture. But every now and then I do really appreciate getting away to somewhere completely natural, untouched by human hands, and basking in the beauty of creation.

As an Australian, it is kind of embarrassing that I had not visited New Zealand (beyond Auckland) until this month. But the breathtaking beauty I saw in just a few days in a small section of the South Island, apparently not even anywhere near its best time of year, has certainly inspired me to return to our stunning neighbour. One well known place of such awe inspiring beauty was Milford Sound.

What did I love about Milford Sound?

Technically a fjord rather than a sound because it was formed by a glacier, the geological history of a place like this is certainly interesting.

But it is hearing the still tranquility of the water

tasting the crispness of the air

feeling the mistiness of the clouds

reaching out to the delicacy of the waterfalls

and experiencing the majesty of the snow capped peaks

that calls for silence, almost reverence, at their beauty

and invites genuine wonder and awe.

What did I learn from Milford Sound?

I’m pretty sure my photos don’t capture what captivated me, and I know I have seen much more impressive shots from others. The experience is so much more than what is seen and thus what can be shown in two dimensions.

All my senses were engaged, a theme I have been exploring over the last couple of years through my studies and through our practices as a gathered church community.

Milford Sound is yet another reminder to be present in the moment and to seek to engage with and make sense of the world with every part of whom I am.

And it is for me another pointer to a Creator who made every dimension of all there is and invites me to respond to Him with every dimension of all I am.

Today would be a good day to be in Nazareth

It’s hard to believe 5 months have flown by since we were in Israel. Today I’m wishing I could head back for the day to one of my favourite towns. Nazareth is most famous as the place where Jesus and His family lived and it is great to ground some of the stories of His life in this place. It’s also just a really lovely place to hang out, observe and share life in today.

What have I loved about Nazareth?

Like many places, it is the combination of geography, history, and culture, that weaves the story and invitation of this place.
Nazareth is located in Galilee, in a natural ‘bowl’ surrounded by hills. This great view of the city is found from Mt Precipice, believed by some to be the place where the people of the town wanted to throw Jesus off a cliff after his sermon in their synagogue.

The mountain looks out over the Jezreel Valley, the most fertile part of Galilee, and standing there makes me feel like I’m standing in the middle of a map.

In the city itself is a maze of donkey-track streets going up and down, round and about, what I have found to be a great place to wander and a tricky place to drive!

I love seeing the beauty of houses from different eras built side by side, standing as testimony to the many lives and stories in this place over generations.

Nazareth today is a large town with a largely Arab population, about 1/3 Christian and 2/3 Muslim. Near the central old market is the beautiful old White Mosque.

Even older again is the so-called Synagogue Church, a simple room built atop crusader ruins to remember  and evoke the church where Jesus preached.

And even simpler (and older) again are the caves located underground where it is believed Christians hid during Roman persecution.

The layers of history are also seen at the Catholic Church of the Annunciation. The large church was built in the 1960s.

Inside is a church within a church, with an 18th century altar.

This is located inside the grotto, an ancient church where 5th century mosaics have been located.

Outside, excavations underneath the church have discovered the remains of the village from Roman times.

In the bustling town today people live and shop and socialise in the footsteps of this history. Take this carpenter’s workshop for example, its owner following in the traditional profession of the town’s most famous resident and His father.

Or the renowned Elbabour spice shop, milling and grinding local produce for over 100 years.

When travelling without the larger group, I’ve had the privilege of staying in the beautiful Fauzi Azar Inn.

The staff and volunteers of this guesthouse have a heart for the local community and were engaged in numerous projects including this youth drop in centre with its juxtaposition of modern facilities in an ancient location.

What have I learned from Nazareth?

There are two experiences in Nazareth that I have found educational in complicated and unexpected ways. The first is Nazareth Village, an open-air museum built to reconstruct and reenact life in Jesus’ time.

I have mixed feelings about this place.

It is certainly helpful for bringing the biblical story to life …

… and evoking imagination about a different time and place.

But it is run by non-locals and has a distinctly Western flavour.

And, I think it is fair to say, it can feel a little bit kitsch.

The other place I continue to ponder is the Church of the Annunciation itself. It contains some of the most beautiful modern stained glass windows I have ever seen, which shaped some of my reflections in a previous post.

But it is also decorated by mosaics from around the world depicting the annunciation story.

Each one depicts the story from their own national perspective.

On one hand I do like the idea of drawing our own connections to the significant stories of our faith.

On the other hand, it feels like perhaps we are re-creating Mary and Jesus in our own image.

I have used these photos in some of my biblical studies classes to raise this question.

And of course inevitably someone asks about the Australian artwork, which I have to admit I personally find one of the more difficult to engage with.

I think in the end my favourite is the one from Nazareth itself, both because of its simplicity and because of its authenticity to the story’s location within history, geography, and culture.

It reminds me again that there is still much to learn from the people who make Nazareth their home today. Apparently the bulk of visitors to this city do a day trip to see a combination of these main sites but don’t actually stay in the town. If that’s true, they are missing out. The generosity and hospitality of the local people here, despite significant political and social challenges, is inspiring and challenging. I hope to spend more time among them if I can.