My name is Jeff and I'm a pastor of a small, local, Christian fellowship

It's a wonderful thing to love your work; to know that when you do it you are doing something that you were born to do. I am so fortunate to be both. I don't say I am the best at what I do. God knows that are so many others who do it better. But I do feel fairly lucky to be called by such a good God to do work I can only do with his help, to be loved by a beautiful woman, and to have a workshop where I can work my craft. These musings of mine are part of that work.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Add it to the bucket-list

Most people have a “bucket list.” I certainly do. Included on mine, among others, is hike the Ice Age Trail in its entirety, run the Antarctica Marathon, find and visit the district in Scotland from which my forebear, Alexander Martin, hails from and be part of a flash mob. Today I'm officially adding a new one: to travel in the footsteps of Paul the Apostle, literally. From Antioch in Syria to Alexandria Troas in present-day Turkey, and then travel by boat to Macedonia. From there take the old Roman world down to Athens and then hoof it over to Corinth and then back over to Turkey to the ruins of Ephesus. Essentially I want to follow the entire course of the missionary journeys he took roughly during a decade of travel and ministry between 47 and 57 A.D.

Admittedly, that's a lot of squiggles to follow
What's left of the ancient port of Troas
Last year I began an ambulatory stroll through the Book of Acts. I made it as far as the end of chapter 18 with Apollos loaded down with personal references on his way to Achaia Province and Paul on the road to Ephesus. During the months of November and December I read the passages concerning his second missionary journey and was stirred by his resolute conviction to get the gospel out regardless if the winds blew favorably or not. Usually, they did not. He and his ministry partner, Silas, were flogged in Philippi, legally banned from Thessalonica, forced to leave Berea, laughed off the Areopagus' floor in Athens, and harassed in Corinth and yet he stayed the course. Some towns yielded more disciples than others but even in the ones where only a few converts were made he was able to discover some diamonds in the rough, like Timothy in Lystra, Luke in Troas, and Priscilla and Acquila in Corinth. Now there's some spiritual heavy hitters!

This is just what Paul & Company saw - the island of Samothrace off the coast of Greece

So why this sudden rush to walk in the steps of Paul? Maybe to just heighten the growing wonder I have of the man. The guy was a machine, relentless in his pursuit of what he was firmly persuaded God had called him to do. I want to walk through the Cilician Gates, I want to stand at the ancient port of Alexandria Troas and try and imagine Paul and his companions boarding the boat that will take them across the Aegean Sea into the land mass later to be dubbed “Europe.” I want to visit the ruins of Ephesus and try and imagine the great Temple of Artemis and somewhere in its vicinity Paul standing in her shadow seeking to persuade men to turn from the worship of demons to the worship of the living God.

A hot time in the old town
I think of the day of the book-burning in Ephesus (Acts 19:19). He didn't work the crowd and stir these young converts to such a public act of repudiation but I can't help but feel that at the sight of the fire burning in the agora he must have experienced great satisfaction. After all he had gone through, after all he had suffered, the fact that the Name of Jesus was now held in the highest regard in one of the most important cities in that part of the world had to have brought him joy. It had all been worth it – everything from the blisters on his feet from thousand or more miles he had hiked, the scars on his back from the flogging in Philippi, and the permanent damage malaria had wrought on him. He had paid a great price in blood, sweat and tears but he had persevered. He had stayed the course. Watching all the occultic paraphernalia burn in the town square had to be his inspiration to press on to Rome and proclaim the gospel there (see v. 20). 
One guy's version of Artemis' great temple
I'd love to be able to sit on the highest tier of the great amphitheater in Ephesus and look down the Arcadian Way leading to where the harbor, long since silted up, used to be and exult again in the victory of God over the powers that once held sway there but were tirelessly run out of town by a man who had no quit in him. 
Best view in the house

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

On the road between Antioch and Troas by the sea

As they traveled from town to town, they presented the simple guidelines the Jerusalem apostles and leaders had come up with. That turned out to be most helpful. Day after day the congregations became stronger in faith and larger in size.”

They went to Phrygia, and then on through the region of Galatia. Their plan was to turn west into Asia province, but the Holy Spirit blocked that route. So they went to Mysia and tried to go north to Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus wouldn’t let them go there either. Proceeding on through Mysia, they went down to the seaport Troas. That night Paul had a dream: A Macedonian stood on the far shore and called across the sea, “Come over to Macedonia and help us!” The dream gave Paul his map. We went to work at once getting things ready to cross over to Macedonia. All the pieces had come together. We knew now for sure that God had called us to preach the good news to the Europeans.”
Luke as found in Acts 16:4-10, The Message

This is in many respects is the most remarkable paragraph in Acts.”
William M. Ramsay in St. Paul: The Traveler and Roman Citizen

The Taurus Mountains
Following the conclusion of the Jerusalem Council that officially made it policy that Gentiles did not need to become Jews in order to become Christians (Acts 15:1-35), Paul and Barnabus made their way back to Antioch to share the news with the disciples there and return to their lives in Syria. Some time later, however, Paul has it in his heart to return to the different cities in Galatia where they had established churches the year before and says as much to Barnabus who is equally eager to share in the venture. But when Barnabus wants to bring John Mark, his younger cousin who had bailed on them the last time they were on outreach [see Calling it Quits], Paul will have none of it. Luke, who is usually mum about “family quarrels,” lets us all in on the fact that tempers flared and ultimately they went their separate ways. Barnabus returns to his home in Cyprus with John Mark in tow while Paul takes Silas, a prophet from the mother church in Jerusalem, as his traveling companion.

The first time Paul and Barnabus had itinerated through south-central Pisidia, they had come by sea. This time Paul chooses to make the long journey on foot probably stopping along the way in his hometown Tarsus before making the trek over the Taurus Mountains to the Anatolian Plateau beyond where the cities of the First Journey lay. In order to get to where they're going they pass through the famed Cilician Gates, a narrow pass through the mountains where the likes of Xerxes, Xenophon and Alexander the Great had marched their armies through on to conquest in centuries past. Of their journey through the pass, historian Paul L. Maier writes,
The Cilician Gates
At one point the Gates taper down to a narrow, precipitous pass that resembles a dry gorge. Paul and Silas would undoubtedly have stopped at this spot to gather in its full significance. Here was the aorta of the ancient world through which pulsed the conquerors of the past during four thousand years of history...Now a lonesome pair of missionaries were using the same pass for a spiritual conquest that would have far more permanent results.
First Christians: Pentecost and the Spread of Christianity

Atop that hill Lystra used to stand
Eventually they reach Derbe and nearby Lystra, the place where Paul had nearly been killed by an angry mob the year before. There they add to their small party a young man who was fruit of that first tumultuous visit. After being stoned, his visit to this Galatian town appeared to be a bust but by his third visit there he picks up Timothy who will, in time, become one of his close associates in gospel work. From Lystra they move on to Iconium and eventually reach Pisidian Antioch, the turn-around point. Every where they went they did what they set out to do - strengthen, encourage and exhort the believers in these cities.
Somewhere along the way, however, the mission changed. Instead of turning around and heading back east, they continued on in a southwesterly direction. After all,they're all single guys with no family obligations to hurry back to. And more than likely in the various towns they stopped they were asked by disciples if they could preach in other communities further east where they had relations. Or maybe Paul just had it in his mind that he had to get to Ephesus. But whatever the case, they kept going along the Via Sebaste making for this premier city of the ancient world. What better place than Ephesus to share the gospel? Being a port city as well as the economic and cultural epicenter of the province of Asia, imagine the impact the gospel could have there. But then there was an unspecified “hiccup” in their plan: they encounter a closed door. But it's not devils that hold it shut; rather it's the Holy Spirit who refuses to let them continue on their way (16:6). Now how they discerned that this was the case Luke doesn't seem to either know or care to clarify. Of course, Silas was a prophet and maybe the Lord spoke to his spirit and he, in turn, shared this sense with Paul and Timothy and after prayer and conversation they concluded it was indeed God's leading not to go to Ephesus. Whatever the particulars, they decided then to travel north and share the gospel with the people of Bithynia up by the southern shores of the Black Sea. But after proceeding in that direction again they have a 'check' about Plan B. As Luke put it, “...the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to...” (v. 7, NIV). 

Keep in mind these guys are traveling on foot and in two short verses Luke has shared the journey of maybe 400 miles – and then some (if you include every time they had to turn around when they determined the Lord wasn't leading them into the area where they were headed.) Here's what I'm wondering: I want to know what happened on the road between Antioch and Troas. If I want to go to Chicago, a distance of about 300 miles from Chetek, I can get there, including dinner and bathroom breaks, within 6 and a half hours. When the kids were younger we would take them to Sand Hill Lake Bible Camp near Fosston, Minnesota about 300 miles west of here. If we went on to Fargo it was another fifty miles or so. It was usually a long day but we made it there in a day. But these guys are traveling nearly the equivalent distance on foot. Just how long would it take to walk 400 miles? Where did they stay along the way? What did they talk about? And what were the team dynamics like when one idea of Paul's after another didn't pan out? Four hundred miles is a long enough distance for questions about the purpose of the mission to come up, if not the journey itself, especially as one closed door after another is encountered. I found this at one web site dedicated to the study of the Second Missionary Journey of Paul: “Imagine yourself on foot for 400 miles. You have minimal supplies  and you're not sure where your next meal will be because, quite frankly, you're not even sure where God is leading you.” (see Paul's Second Missionary Journey: Part 1). Exactly.

From here the gospel left for Europe
With the southwesterly and northern ways closed to them, that left only the port city of Alexandria Troas to the northwest, near the famed city of Troy. The only thing is that unlike the roads to Ephesus or Bithynia, there was no real direct route to Troas from where they were. But make for it they do and eventually arrive at this bustling city aside the Aegean Sea. As Stott puts it, They had come a long way, in fact all the way from the south-east to the north-west extremities of Asia Minor, and by a strangely circuitous route. They must have been in a state of considerable perplexity, wondering what God's plan and purpose were, for so far their guidance had been almost entirely negative” (Acts: The Bible Speaks Today). Sir William Ramsay points out that the pace of these few verses is quite unique for Acts:

...point after point, province after province are hurried over. The natural development of Paul's work along the great central route of the empire was forbidden, and the next alternative that rose in his mind was forbidden. He was led across Asia from the extreme southeast to the extreme northwest corner, and yet prevented from preaching in it. Everything seemed dark and perplexing, until at last a vision in Troas explained the purpose of this strange journey.” (St. Paul: The Traveler and Roman Citizen)

At least two things happen in Troas. First, after two closed doors Paul and his companions finally find the open one by means of a vision that he receives one night. And secondly, he meets Luke, a resident of Macedonia doing business at the moment in Asia. Up until this moment in Luke's sequel of his gospel, he has been the narrator of the grand story of the growth and development of the Church of Jesus the Messiah. But in Acts 16:10 he enters the story himself:

After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them” (NIV).

Probably didn't have the circle-thing yet
It is the first “we” passage in the book (there will be more) and Luke's way of letting us know that at that particular moment he is both narrator and eyewitness. Because Luke isn't a 21st century novelist, he doesn't care to let us know how they met but it's certainly within the realm of possibility that Paul came to him in need of medical care. Since going into “full-time mission” work he had contracted malaria and been both stoned and flogged. What's more traveling four hundred miles on foot and living more or less out of a suitcase for weeks on end may have done something to Paul's constitution. But whatever the case meet they did and a friendship began that would last for the rest of Paul's life for his benefit and for ours as well. Whether Paul led him to the Lord or he was already a believer by the time they made each others acquaintance I guess is neither here nor there. The fact that they meet is one of the most providential things to occur in all of Scripture. Paul's vision of the Kingdom of God and the new people of Israel made up of Jews and Gentiles alike permeate Luke's writings and continue to influence our understanding of such things today. All because despite encountering a couple of closed doors along the way, Paul and his companions sensed the Lord was leading them on and they persisted. “ is clear that the coming of Paul to Troas was unforseen and unforseeable; the whole point of the paragraph is that Paul was driven on against his own judgment and intention to that city” (Ramsay).

Guatemala City is a long way from Sand Creek
I think of a couple from our fellowship who last fall left good-paying jobs and moved their family of seven to Guatemala. The decision to go was the culmination of many conversations and prayer that had occurred over the past several years. Their original purpose was to assist a good friend of theirs establish an orphanage outside of Guatemala City. But with that project presently on stand-by due to a morass of governmental red-tape, they are wondering just what it is they are supposed to be doing now that they're there. To their credit and God's glory they have successfully transplanted their family of two teenagers and three elementary age-kids to this Central American country. They have found a good school for the kids, a great faith family to be a part of and a small but adequate home for them to live in. They've taken some language classes and have pretty much immersed themselves in Guatemalan culture but with the orphanage no closer to becoming a reality, they find themselves wondering “Now what?” They are, it would seem, on the road between Antioch and Troas, heading in a general direction but uncertain where the road may lead.


The adventure thus far has been fun and transformational. They've met some wonderful people, gone swimming in the Pacific Ocean - twice, a son has camped at the base of an active volcano and really the move has been a win all-around. But come the end of this school year in May they have to decide if they continue living in the tropics or return to life above the 45th Parallel. This is the stuff from which good stories come from.

I think about a line from the movie National Treasure. Ben Gates and his stalwart companion, Riley Poole, are in search of the famed Templar Treasure. Their quest has been one strange journey as they turn up one clue after another. With each new discovery they hope it will be the sign that points the way to the treasure only to be disappointed to find yet another clue. In a moment of frustration after finding one more clue Riley says, “Why can't they just say: 'Go to this place, here's the treasure, spend it wisely'?” He's tired of all the twists and turns in the race to find the motherload – but that's where the fun lies: in the journey, in the hunt. Otherwise, there's no great tale to tell afterward. Imagine if the divine guidance we each seek came to us as easily as accessing our email account. All we would need to do is log on, check our messages, get our instructions and carry them out to the best of our ability. Admittedly, it would be a more efficient way of doing things. Think of all the time and money that could be saved instead of this fumbling around in the dark that often characterizes our way. And then I read this: “It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings” (Proverbs 25:12, NIV). Glory indeed. Yes, our friends the Hansons who have found the road that leads from Sand Creek, Wisconsin to Guatemala City, Guatemala, will find the way that they seek as they persist in trusting to his leadership, convoluted as it may appear to our eyes at the time. 

Tolkienfile that I am, I think of what Frodo said to Sam on their way through the Shire on their way to Buckland. Quoting Bilbo he said, “It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door...You step into the Road, and if you don't keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.” Indeed, you might end up in Troas or in Guatemala City or someplace else yet to be discovered but somehow God is at work in the journey leading us to an end we cannot yet grasp.