Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Last day in Rome - the Catacombs!

On my last day in Rome on this, my first trip to Rome, I planned on visiting the catacombs. I understand while there are many catacombs, there are about 7 that are open to the public and each of these contains 5-11 miles on tunnels and hundreds of thousands of graves. These were used in a small way even before
the Christians began to make constant use of them. Christians never lived in these tunnels but since they were forbidden to bury their dead in the city of Rome they looked for places to bury believers in belief of the bodily resurrection. Romans usually practices cremation.

However, the particular catacomb I was planning on visiting is closed on Wednesday (I discovered this the night before as I was doing my research) and so I had to choose another one or two!
So at 10 am as the Catacomb of Saint Sebastiano opened this morning I was there having taken a subway train and then a bus to the outskirts of Rome (then and even today). I was able to immediately join an English speaking student group from North Carolina for the tour.
Steps heading down to the next underground level

You MUST believe me when I say that since I was the last to join this group I had not heard the guide ask for "no photos" nor had a chance to view the "no photo" sign. And so, since the guide asked me to remain last in line and make sure no "sheep" wandered down so corridor or staircase (these catacombs are miles of tunnels on 3-4 levels, each about 5 yards lower than the previous level, I carefully took pictures after the line moved on so I would not get too many people in my pictures! When the leaders of the group asked me some questions near the end of the tour, they were pretty excited
that I was a professor from Dallas Theological Seminary. Shortly after that I realized as we returned to the starting place that there were "no photo" signs. I went over to explain to the leaders that I had not realized that I wasn't supposed to take pictures which I'm sure they had noticed me doing, especially near the end. They told me they had wondered but figured since I was a professor I was allowed to do it! Great people!

By the way, I was told there were seven Basilicas in Rome and this was one of them. I visited 3 of them on this tour.
This catacomb was not really well marked!  

After a half mile walk or so I found another one of the catacombs open to the public, the Catacomb of Domitillo. Not quite a popular as the previous catacomb which has a wonder history (including the tradition that both Paul and Peter's bodies were moved here briefly to preserve them from being destroyed where they had previously been buried), I arrived at 11:15 to find the last tour of the morning just leaving and it was in English! So I joined as the last one once again.

Again a wonderful tour and a reminder of how precious these early believers (from 1st to 5th centuries) held to the bodily resurrection. What was unique to this tour was the area where they had gathered together the many oil lamps they had found which the grave-diggers had used. They are small but remember air was precious down below ground. Also this catacomb had a rare painted fresco that decorated one of the tombs.

It was time to return to my hotel, gather my belongings together and walk to the bus stop where I could catch a bus to the second of the two Rome airports, this time for my flight to Athens. My first flight from Budapest to Rome cost me $61 and this one to Tel Aviv, Israel with a stop over in Athens cost a whopping $121. So my vacation so far has been relatively inexpensive so far which pleases the Scottish blood in me and releases some of my guilt that I am here without my beautiful, supportive wife Sharon. For the worrying types, I am here with her blessing! We talk almost every night on Skype too.

I believe my teaching on the Apostles Paul and Peter will be richer for me being here. You do need to take my classes or listened to my preaching to see if this becomes true!

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Coliseum, Vatican Museum and more - Second Day in Rome

The crowds were just beginning to formed as I left the Coliseum and took this picture from the hill opposite.
I was at the Coliseum before it opened and so I beat the buses and the crowds. I spent about 2 hours wandering, listening to my audio-guide, taking pictures and just being amazed at what they could
build almost 2,000 years ago and what they did in this place. One thing they did not do here was to use Christians to fight animals etc. But the gladiators and wild beasts by the thousands were killed here. The way they built an amphitheater that could hold somewhere between 50-75,000 without modern technology
and equipment amazes me.

After the Coliseum it was up to the "upper city"man-made elevated area called Palatine Hill and also the Forum (downtown area of temples etc.). Because of what I've had the privilege of viewing in the past in both Israel, Jordan, Greece and Turkey I was not awe-stuck at the many ruins but the number and size of them is still impressive. 

The one carving I was determined to see here in Rome was that of the Menorah that had been taken
from the Temple in Jerusalem. I found it on the inside of the Titus Arch and I just had to wonder if it is still residing somewhere in the basement of the Vatican Museum? The money in gold and silver that the Romans took from Jerusalem was used to help restore Rome and probably begin to build the Coliseum too.

I spent some time in various museums and in one I found an altar.
I leave for Athens, Greece tomorrow afternoon where I will see again the "altar to the unknown god" that Paul spoke of when he visited that city. I was surprised to find in a
Museum an altar in Rome by the same name. I'm so glad I know the knowable God and His son, the Lord Jesus Christ!

Once again (see my previous Facebook posting: "What amazes me is that when I travel in the Middle East and Europe I am often spoken to on the street by native speakers who expect me to respond. Today it happened twice, questioned by two people on the streets who apparently wanted me to help them in some way. What amazes me is that I am obviously a pale, but scruffy (I haven't shaved recently) older Canadian who speaks, I'm imaging, with a soft Texas accent now that I've lived there for 18 years. Why would they think I'm a native?") I was able to be of little assistance to the people who greeted me in Italian and, I assume, asked me for directions or my help or were perhaps just being friendly. I am learning that if I put an "o" or "i" on the end of some words I think I sound Italian but it doesn't help at all.

Off to the Vatican and specifically the Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel. I'm not great at appreciating art (painting, wall hangings, carving, handworks, and sculpture) but it's hard not to be impressed with what I saw. I think the disturbing thing to me was the amount of money the Catholic Church has spent on items that don't further the gospel (in my opinion) and the
many times it seems like the Catholic Church compromised with society and adapted and adopted non-biblical thinking into the teachings of the church if I interpreted what I saw correctly. Obviously, I'm not a church historian or theologian but these were my personal reactions. 

The Sistine Chapel was remarkable, though unmoving for me. I know I have just offended all of you art lovers out there but I'm sorry, I'm just not "into" it!

 I did, however, appreciate the various archeological items from Nineveh, from Nebuchadnezzar, Assurbanipal, Sargon and others mentioned in the Scriptures. Also two very small pieces of the Dead Sea Scrolls (not as impressive as seeing the Scroll of Isaiah in Israel but still neat.

I also enjoyed seeing the pottery from the area around Jericho in Israel (called Palestine in most museums since this was the common term until it became associated more recently with Arabs in the land. I actually have a couple authentic examples of these pots (perhaps 4-5,000 years old) in my office so come by and see me sometimes and I'll show them to you so you won't need to come all the way to Rome to see them!
By now I was exhausted since I tend to do a lot of walking (and quickly my wife will remind me) and I hadn't eaten much and it was 4 pm. It seems like everyone I saw (OK a slight exaggeration) were in couples and so I had a hard time stopping at a street-side cafe to drink coffee and eat Italian food. So it was Burger King for me today! (I'm not too adventurous you might notice in the food area. I did have some excellent spaghetti tonight with something on it that was wonderful so I feel like I haven't dishonored the Italian people now).

Tomorrow I'm here til early afternoon so I have the catacombs on my schedule for the morning. The ones I was planning to see I discovered at closed on Wednesdays so I've found two others that I think I can find my way to by metro and bus and a walk. I can't wait.

Monday, March 9, 2015

What did Stephen see First in Rome?

As my plane from Budpest approached an airport in Rome I had a great aerial view of the Vatican and the Coliseum's ruins. I knew I was going to be visiting both of these remarkable buildings but I also had decided that these were not my priorities in why I had come to Rome.
I study and teach the Bible. I had just finished teaching 2 Timothy to 62 college students and I knew that where I wanted to start was where the Apostle Paul ended. I have been reading about Paul being "poured out like a drink offering . . . and I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, and I have kept the faith." I wanted to see the place where Paul finished.

So I bought a metro ticket and rode the subway to the end of the line. Then I began to walk, about a half mile I imagine. I was trying to find a church that is not on most tourist maps. Wayne Stiles, on his blog "6 Christian Sites in Rome You Should Know About" ( had alerted me to this church. It's called  "Tres Fontaine Abbey" not to be confused with the popular Tres Fontane (how could anyone confuse those two!). I didn't get lost (God has given me a wonderful sense of direction that doesn't fail me too often) although I did use my very, very limited Italian (primarily what I have picked up though watching old Mafia movies) about half way just to be assured I was heading in the right direction. I'm sure the two Italian men had a good conversation after I left!

And there it was. Really no good space for bus parking, just a small area for about 15 cars. And what was of importance to me - a church commemorating the place where the Apostle Paul was beheaded for the gospel and Lord he believed.

However, the tradition for this place is not great. From what I can ascertain, Santa Maria Scala Coeli is a 16th century pilgrimage church at the Abbey of Tre Fontane, and is only the legendary site of the martyrdom of St Paul the Apostle. Nevertheless, Paul did die somewhere near Rome and I took time at this spot to pray and thank the Lord for the Apostle Paul. We, as believers, are so indebted to him for his writings and modelling. I was moved as I thought of him lonely here in Rome; many believers had forsaken him and he desperately wanted his young protege Timothy to come to him before winter and to bring the scrolls and parchments. Paul was a student to the end!

From here it was off to the church that commemorates Paul's burial, a place that is about 2 miles from the traditional place of his execution. It's called "The Church of St. Paul Outside the Wall [ie of the ancient City of Rome]." Today the traditional ancient tomb of Paul is contained in a magnificent basilica that is huge and ornate. 

A section of ancient chain is also here to observe, the type Paul would have had on his body (I personally would take this display of chain and move it to the Mamertine Prison [see below] where Paul was actually in chains
but apparently I don't appreciate all the church politics that would make such an intelligent action completely unthinkable). I didn't feel sad here, I know what Paul wrote about "being absent from the body and present with the Lord." If his body was placed here Paul was already with Jesus. However, in the resurrection . . . 

By now I was hungry, sobered, full of deep thoughts so I had lunch at McDonalds!
Then off to the area around the Coliseum to find the traditional prison cell/dungeon that Paul was held in during his second imprisonment in Rome (2 Timothy) called the Mamertine Prison (the Catholic Church places a great deal of emphasis that Peter was held here too - but this is not stated in Scripture - or that Peter was even in Rome. In his first imprisonment Paul apparently was under
some form of house-arrest (Philippians) although chained to guards. I had to seek some help from an Italian policeman to find this site and it was somewhat hidden by on-going construction beside it. 
Today I was able to walk down some steps into what was a circular dungeon prison cell (some of this circular cell was later damaged and so it is not a complete
circle today). In Paul's day he would have been let down through the hole in the ceiling and then left in this dark,
damp cell. How he wrote 2 Timothy from such a place is almost beyond me. I can get distracted from writing if I need a coffee! He was able to have purpose even in the suffering he experienced for the gospel.

Up at 3:30 am today, by mid afternoon I was ready for a cold drink and a nap. I'm on vacation — so I did.


Sunday, March 8, 2015

Brethren Church in Miskolc, Hungary - An Opportunity

 This morning I preached at the Brethren Church in Miskolc, Hungary this morning. Miskolc is the third largest city in Hungary. It is know throughout
Europe for its hot spring baths, the most famous one that is in a cave. For many years buses from all over the communist
world arrived here. This city also has the largest Brethren church in the nation
(though it is small
The church stretches back from this building with a V-shaped sky-lighted roof.
in comparison to many churches in North America). What a privilege to return to this historic church where I preached two years ago. 

The starting of this church is remarkable and the testimony of an early church member Anni Roth, a converted Jew, who later chose to go with the Hungarian Jewish population to be killed in a concentration camp moves me each time I've heard it. Anni had the option of using a letter which declared her to be a Christian and not be deported. She decided the Jewish people needed her more than the church and so she declined the use the letter to avoid deportation to Poland. I wonder how many she was able to lead to the Lord before she was exterminated? What faith and courage! The oldest members of the church still remember.
The wonderful restaurant where I had a delicious Hungarian dinner!
An elder of this church spoke to me at lunch and asked if I could return in the fall to speak to a special gathering of 150 young people from Hungary and Romania. I told him my schedule would not allow me to do it this year but he is wanting to schedule me for October 2016. I believe this may be of the Lord and the Word of Life Bible Institute is prepared to schedule me to come and teach around that conference rather than in March when I usually come. Would you pray that if this is His will all the details might be worked out?
After a long 10 hour day of traveling and speaking I had a chance to have dinner tonight with Paul and Jill Weaver. Paul is the Director of the Bible Institute here and a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary. They are doing a great work among the students. They also hosted Dr. Daniel Anderson, President and Professor of Appalachia Bible College (also a graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary) for dinner and it was a privilege and honor to get to know him! He is here to teach this week the Book of Joshua.
Tomorrow I start a week of vacation. I leave here at 4:30 am for a flight to Rome for 2 days, then to Athens for a day, and then to Jerusalem for 3 days. Not a week of rest but surely a vacation! More on that in my next blog!

Friday, March 6, 2015

Music, Drama and Videos - Hungarian Style!

Today was my last day teaching here at the Bible Institute of Word of Life, Hungary. I've been teaching through interruption, I'm mean translation (an Hungarian intern has been translating for me and she has been wonderful)! In the second session of the three I had today the students had the option of presenting 2-4 verses of 2 Timothy in a creative fashion. I wish you could have been there! Serious songs, humorous videos, exciting dramas by students from different cultures and countries all lent a very creative application to what we've been learning from 2 Timothy. As you
can see from some of the pictures the stage in the meeting room where I teach is under construction but that didn't seem to affect the creativity and insights that the students produced. I was blessed.
I concluded my teaching with a challenge to the students to be faithful in the presence of difficult circumstances and difficult people. I realized as I was speaking that many of these students are from countries where it is much more difficult than in America to live courageously as a believer. I prayed for them as I finished.
Each evening I have had the privilege of being hosted for dinner by one of the staff members here at Word of Life. Usually they have invited a few students to join me for dinner at their home and I have been blessed. To hear stories from staff and students about how God has worked in their lives is always encouraging and often challenging. This week I have been struggling with a cough and a little illness but that seems so small a concern when I hear the testimonies of God. If you have a young person who is looking for a place to spend a year learning God's Word and getting to know God's people from around the world, then they should consider coming here to Word of Life, Hungary for a year.
The staircase up to my room!

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

31 Pizzas!

Tonight the 62 students (along with many staff and some guest from the Czech Republic who were here visiting as potential students) had lots of pizza, soda and dessert due to the generosity of the members of Waterbrook Bible Fellowship ( On my last Sunday before coming here I was preaching at WBF and offer to collect any money our church members wanted to give so that the students here could have dessert one night. Not surprisingly at least to me, the generous people of Waterbrook
filled my pocket with bills and so tonight it was not just dessert but a great meal for everyone!

I wish you could have been there to see the excitement and to hear the words of thanks from these students. They were crowded into the foyer of the "castle" some time before the pizzas ever arrived! Once it did arrive there were many expressions of thanksgiving and joy. Over and over again I was told to thank the people of my home church. So Waterbrook Bible Fellowship thank you! You don't realize how proud and honored I am to come from a generous church - generous in so many ways.
They ordered 11 large pizzas  
from one company and 20 medium pizzas from another company, both from nearby towns here 40 miles east of Budapest. Along with dessert from a local bakery the night was delightful.

I had a long but wonderful day of teaching here, with a late night devotional still to come. I taught 3 sessions of 2 Timothy followed immediately by a chapel message to the staff and students. My translator was a former student from my first time teaching here back in 2002!

I hope some day some of you will have the joy of joining me here to see God at work in some very fine Christian young people who I believe are going to make an impact for Christ, now and in the years to come.