Dr. John E. Johnson

Dr. John E. Johnson

What a Journey to Another World Taught Me

We enjoyed a nice conversation around an evening meal. Everything was going well until our hosts asked, “Want to see slides of our recent trip?” Out came the projector, down went the lights, and I was out. Almost. It reminds me of moments we would return from the Netherlands on summer breaks. Friends and family wanted to hear all about life in Holland—for about three minutes!!

We are not so inclined to step into another person’s journey. Maybe it is because it is enough to keep up with our own. Still, those who travel want to share their experiences. Maybe to impress. But hopefully, just to say, “I wish you could have been there with me.” “I wish we could have stopped and asked each other, ‘What did you gain from this? How did it change you?’’”

I just returned from another overseas trip, this one to southeast Turkey. I and others went back to ancient Hittite sites, climbed Mt. Nimrud, stayed in ancient Ur, and traveled through the birthplaces of the ancient patriarch Abraham, the apostle Paul, and his associate Barnabas. Oh, I almost left out Aphrodite. We stopped at a spot off the coast of Cythera where ancient myths claim she was born from the foam (ἀφρός, aphrós) produced by Uranus‘s genitals, which his son Cronus had severed and thrown into the sea. Still with me? Two more minutes.

I was with a curious mix of biblical scholars and archeologists. I fit right in. Sort of. Okay, I mostly ate alone. Those who discovered I have been a pastor and a professor in practical theology and leadership gave a passing nod (and sniff) and went back to discussing the dating of ancient rocks, textual variants, and the latest arguments for a South Galatia theory.

Still, I am grateful for this experience—really—but between a recent study tour in Greece and this one in Turkey, I am done with rocks for a while. At the risk of offending every geologist, including Alex, these stones all start to look the same. Maybe I should add museums to the list of things I want to visit again—in 2030. Turkey has some of the most impressive museums, but one can take in only so many exhibitions of pottery, coins, and inscriptions. You know it is going to be a long afternoon when the first room begins with Neanderthals. By the bronze age, I was finished. It wouldn’t be so bad, but most museums lack chairs. Have you noticed? By the ninth museum, I was charging through like a shopper on Black Friday.

There were the occasional jokes: “You can tell that he is an archeologist—his life is in ruins.” Ha Ha! What was not so funny was the daily temperature, for it hovered around 105-107 degrees. Though I consider myself in good shape, especially in comparison to these chronic Magnum Bar eaters, there were times in our search for obscure sites I feared I would collapse. Like those on the Bataan March, I would then be shot and pushed out of the way (okay, a bit of an exaggeration).

We did come upon digs where the findings date back to 12000 B.C. We came across some of the world’s oldest pagan worship, where gods have been carved out of rocks, but there is no evidence that there was human life. Like Stonehenge and the pyramids, one is left to wonder—was something otherworldly going on? Aliens? I was overwhelmed with the thought that at this point in my life, God has allowed me to overlook a plain where Abraham journeyed, “not knowing where he was going” (Heb 1:8); survey a city where the Spirit set apart Paul and Barnabas to go on their first missionary journey (Acts 13); stand in a setting where Paul met Sergius Paulus and led him to faith; and walked on the road Paul and Barnabas took as they headed to Antioch Pisidian—and changed the world.

So what did I learn-?

-jet lag creates a strange humor. You have already noticed this

-humanity has a propensity to worship. The world’s landscape is full of altars and strewn with images on rocks and carvings out of wood that people have worshipped. One senses a perpetual search to find God, but men tend to settle for lifeless images of themselves they can create and manipulate. The true God is rock-like, but his immovable strength gives way to gentleness, a God who can hear and see and feel and love and save

-like today, the ancient world had its elites who enjoyed all the privileges of wealth and power. We marveled at their ceramic tiles, posh rooms, and ostentatious tombs. In countless necropolises (cities of the dead), elegant sepulchers were created to memorialize people who are no longer remembered, while in some areas the fields are dotted with tumuli, massive artificial mounds where the “indispensable” ones are buried—all on the backs of the conquered who did their bidding

-no matter the size or height of their power, civilizations come and go. We traveled the barren landscape where once the mighty Babylonians and Persians and Greeks and Romans ruled. It reminded me that for all of our sense of self-importance, we are all passing history, soon to be forgotten. “Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath!” (Psa 39:5)

-so much of ancient (and present) history is the story of leaders—the Alexanders, the Caesars—who hoped to acquire godlike status. On one climb, I saw a carving of the ancient king Antiochus shaking hands with the mythological god Heracles, son of Zeus, as if to say, “How cool am I? I network with deities.” Like so many narcissistic types today, those in power can’t  help but stare at their reflection and become obsessed with their beauty

-on almost every site, one finds ancient walls constructed to keep invaders out. They serve as a metaphor for life. We continue to build walls and create barriers. It’s our nature. (I thought of this point on the plane as they closed the curtain between those in Economy and the elite in Business Class—not that I envy them).

Travel, for all of its costs and TSA annoyances and flight delays and crammed seats and pushy people, does enable us to move from our telephoto lives to gain a wide-angle perspective. But for now, it is enough to go to Safeway.

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