Harding University in Greece
The history of King Philip and the Macedonian rule and the conquering of the area by the Romans is full of war strategy. We hear the background of the region and how it laps over the Biblical history. There was an overwhelming Roman military presence in the town of Philippi. Thus, every mention of a soldier or of citizenship is purposeful and full of deep meaning. As the colors that an artist uses represent meaning, so do Paul’s words in this specific letter to these specific people in this specific time. Occasionally, we need a tour guide, an interpreter, a historian, or a scholarly article to gather some meaning that we simply don’t know. We shouldn’t be embarrassed about that or throw aside these helpful tools for interpretation of ancient texts because of our own feelings when what we really desire is to understand God more fully through Paul’s writings. We should ask for and be thankful for assistance. We tend to separate history from Bible, but we really should teach those simultaneously. It would help us see why Paul wrote what he did to these people and how we could use his words in our own hearts and lives and dealings with other people in this world.
Reading from Acts 16:12, the scene is set for today’s tour of the ground of ancient Philippi. Women of the day were allowed to be household leaders under certain circumstances. The Lydians and the Philippians were specialists in dying items purple from extracting a certain mucus from seashells and letting it sit in the sun for a certain time. Evidence suggests that the female called Lydia (perhaps a geographical reference if she was a former slave) in Acts 16 was truly here, outside of ancient Philippi.
We also discuss the brutality of Roman beatings, which we read about in Acts 16:22-23; again the use of the word “severe” is on purpose. We hear details of what a Roman beating entails and its results on one’s body. Artwork doesn’t show us the blood, the urination, the holes in one’s body showing the entrails, and the infections that arise after one sits or lies in the dirt of a prison cell on an injured body part. The Romans believed in swift justice and short-term prison punishment. Paul and Silas sung hymns and prayed after their beatings. The other prisoners were listening intently. How in the world did they use their awful circumstance to influence others for God’s glory? My brain can hardly wrap around the brutality they faced. Still, they turned to God—likely out of desperation and also because they were on a mission, and they knew it. They’re inspirational to me. Then the issue of Paul and Silas being Roman citizens is brought up, and we ponder on the influence they had because they didn’t play their citizenship card. These are incredible men.
At the ancient agora, we stand at the bema where Paul and Silas were likely beaten. There is graffiti in the concrete which was an ancient game that had to do with beating the loser in a game. This game was played by Roman children to incorporate and desensitize violent attitudes so that they could be efficient and emotionless soldiers.
Thumbnail sized individual mosaics make up a church building floor from the 5th century A.D. So far, this is the oldest found church building in Europe. A Roman Bath is next door which was turned into a baptistery centuries later when the church was strong here. They used what they had, just as we do.
Nearby Church of Saint Lydia has the best acoustics we’ll enjoy all semester. As we enter, I prepare myself to hold my emotions in check. It would be a nice event to exit this particular church without tears, as I haven’t had success thus far. Things simply don’t go as I plan today. If you’re a past HUGer reading this, don’t be offended, but this last group whom we are hosting has a great number of singers who know their parts so well and sing with confidence. It’s a great chorus for us to cherish in our hearts as we leave this land and its people. We sing some of my favorites—It is Well with My Soul (my daughter’s middle name, Hayes, is in honor of a man who took my parents under his wing when they moved to their new town of Grenada when I was little; he and his wife were an extra set of grandparents for me, and this was his favorite song), Magnificat, Ten Thousand Reasons, and There’s a Stirring. I saw bended knees, hands reaching to the sky, tears on cheeks, eyes closed, and eyes open taking it all in, body and soul. Some tourists enter and pause, standing at the door to allow the music to speak to them. Music transports us and connects our hearts, no matter the language. I simply can’t imagine the pleasure that God must receive from praise to Him in song. And we are blessed to receive joy from music, too. We soared with the angels today. I’m storing up these treasures in my heart since I know that it’s not likely that I’ll return to this special setting. And even if I do, it won’t be at this particular point in my life with these particular people with this particular sound. Oh, how I thank Him for this moment in time.
I'm pondering a lot today as I process out these "lasts" for my family. It's a privilege to lead these students through their study abroad semesters, and we count this experience one of the most influential blessings for our family. It's been the plan all along for us to spend four to five years at Harding's Greek campus and then move back to the United States when that term is up. And as that time comes near, I find myself facing a handful of different emotions. One of my sweet friends advised me to store up all the positives, knowing that many of them would be my "lasts" over here and to have meaningful goodbyes at each place that's become familiar to us while we've worked in this part of the world. Well, I'm doing that today. Not only are we on the first physical journey of the semester with these college students, but I am on a purposeful store-up-the-goods journey myself this semester.
After a quick stop to take in the panoramic view of the massive stalagmites with monasteries atop them, we approach one of the remaining monasteries and take a tour.
Today we are exposed to the Greek Orthodox Church, it’s beliefs, it’s history, the architecture and meaning of the church building itself, and it’s icons. Icon means “reflection” in Greek. They are not to be approached by the idea of looking at artwork or the artist’s ability but are approached to be read or interpreted. We concentrate on the stories the paintings tell of the Biblical times we know already and the martyrdom of some of the saints.
The northeast of Greece is our goal today. On the highway, I see roadside stands with watermelons and other fruits, jars of honey and other homemade goods, pumpkins and gourds, and herbal plants. A group of goats are on the road. A group of sheep grazes nearby in the grass that they can find as we zoom past. I suppose they are used to the traffic because they don’t lift their heads. When I see sheep, I always think of my parents. In 2009, we decided to take a little English jaunt with them. We rented a van and drove through the countryside, exploring different towns as we went. Each time we saw sheep, we all raced to see who could point and shout, “Sheep on the hillside!” the quickest. We also ruffled each other’s feather a bit, as familes sometimes do and said, “It’s all so beautiful,” every time someone frustrated us. We still say that. It’s code for, “Goodness, I’m annoyed right now; wide berth requested.” Families do that—get on each other’s nerves, invent language codes, play games together, make car trips entertaining, and make special memories. And families look different; we pass through an old primitive looking village complete with chickens running loose, grandparents sitting on the porches, laundry draped over the balcony rails, and vegetation growing in the side garden. This is a different world from the one I remember; I had no worries because my parents handled my concerns, my food came mostly from the grocery store and my grandparents’ ponds and pasture, there was a clothes dryer tucked off the kitchen, and we had an outdoor cat but no chickens. I’ve learned that families do all kinds of things and live all kinds of ways—the one in which I grew up, the one I’ve helped create as an adult, the coworkers I’ve grown to love, the church friends who would instantly assist me if I needed help, the students with whom we presently live and travel—it’s all family. They’re all different, but they’re all cherished.
After a quick attempt at a snooze, I awake to note grapevines and peach orchards. Still huge and bulky, the mountains are greener than the brown ones around Athens. We approach the village of Vergina, which is located where King Philip II’s tomb was found in the 1980s. Left alone and underground for 2300 years, it’s contents are incredibly well-preserved. Now turned into a museum, this is my favorite museum in Greece. The golden crowns tempt me to imagine testing the museum’s alarm system. I’d enjoy giving those beauties a twirl. No pictures are allowed, and I'm so sorry. The museum also contains shields and armor, silverware, and the tombs underneath another layer of earth.
Reading Acts 17:10 sets up our discussion of our next destination at modern day Veria, home of the Biblical Bereans who examined the scriptures daily. We see a modern mosaic and sculpture in tribute to Saint Paul.
On our walk through the city, we see two trees growing together—a fig grows within a maple tree—not grafted on purpose, likely by a bird. Romans 6:5 talks about being united with Christ. The Greek word is “co-planted.” This tree is a good visual of Christ’s death giving us power over death. Just like the short fig made taller by the maple, we will reach heaven only because we are co-planted with Christ; we couldn’t do it on our own.
A Jewish synagogue still stands in the Jewish ghetto of the city. It is built on Roman remains. It is likely that Paul visited these grounds. I know that today from anywhere, even our kitchen tables, we can read the correspondence that Paul wrote to people in this part of the world 2000 years ago. It’s almost like peeping into a time warp telescope that we are privileged to be holding. But standing in this place that Paul likely stood and thinking of his love for his friends here is a truly special experience. It’s been a very good second day of the northern Greece excursion.
We journey into northern Greece today, passing cotton fields which make me think of my home state of Mississippi and my family there. Also in my view are numerous silvery olive and dark green cypress trees shooting into the sky, orange berry “fire” shrubs line the roadway, hillside clusters of sugar cube houses with terra-cotta rooftops, and rugged Mount Parnassos; so I know that I’m not exactly in the Mississippi nor the Arkansas delta. The same blue skies reign, but everything below them is different.
On our way up into the mountains, we stop at the cliffside village of Arachova, in which we feel transported back in time a couple of generations. We see tiled rooftops up close, staircases twisting and connecting the old shops and other buildings that are still being painted and repaired by their shopkeepers, and the plummeting views of the valley below the town. A local sweet, a bite-sized round dough made with orange and almond extract and dipped in powdered sugar, is a tasty citrus treat.
We listen to a handful of stories of Greek mythology, introducing us to the reputation of life and happenings at ancient Delphi. After touring the site, the museum spouts air conditioning and, more importantly, statues and columns and other goodies from inside the Temple of Apollo, the Treasuries, and other buildings from the ancient days.
Curvy roads take us back to the lower valley. Pine trees, an occasional fig tree, and the Gulf of Corinth are in my view. From above, the olive trees look like shrubs. Back down, I notice a slight breeze that makes their silver leaves dance. The olive tree is a staple in the Mediterranean region, and it’s become my favorite noticeable tree in Greece. Because of what it means to the Athenians and the people in the entire region, it will always be special to me. There is a big piece of olive wood that I (meaning my willing, strong, and sacrificial husband) lugged across the ocean recently, that can be described as a huge cutting board; it’s in the middle of my kitchen table in Searcy. It anchors the napkin holder, the salt and pepper shakers, a morning devotional book, a favorite piece of McCarty pottery, and a memento from my Grandaddy’s house—my everyday kitchen things. Like these years with my family in Greece, the olive wood in the middle of my table, will stay with me, reminding me of how special this land has become in my life—no matter where my kitchen table happens to reside.
Tonight calls for adventure. We anticipate a walk and/or jog with the bulk of the students. But what a surprise when we run upon a celebration for the saint who is the namesake of the local town! Strolling through cute towns and catching a parade in one of them is the perfect ending to the first day of this semester's first group trip together.