This week was our final half-week with the Pepperdine students, who headed home yesterday. Carrie and I have a final ten days of travel, mostly involving Greek islands, before returning home on April 28. As we wind down our time in Florence, I’ve been taking a look back on what we’ve done during our time here.
Here’s a partial listing:
Countries visited: 8 total (4 for the first time)
Towns and Cities visited: 24
Churches/Houses of Worship visited: 35, including worshipping at 5
Museums/Major Historic Buildings visited: 21
Audio Tours: 18
Books Completed: 9 (plus two more in process)
Gardens/Hikes/National Parks: 6
People hosted in our apartment: 33 students for dinner, 8 out of town travelers
Speaking Engagements during Sabbatical: 6
Without a doubt, this has been the trip of a lifetime. Carrie and I have been reminded how much we enjoy sharing both life’s adventures and life’s routine days together. We have loved getting to know this cohort of Pepperdine students and to pour into them. We are deeply grateful, both to Pepperdine University and the Conejo Church, for this opportunity to live in Italy, to teach, to learn, to reflect, to travel, and to be still. As I look back over this blog, I pinch myself and ask, “Did we really get to do all this?”
I’ve included some pictures encapsulating our final weeks here. We look forward to being back in the US soon!
To build a city where it is impossible to build a city is madness in itself, but to build there one of the most elegant and grandest of cities is the madness of genius. —Alexander Herzen
We celebrated our Jessica’s 23rd birthday in Venice last weekend, in a city that has been called “The Floating City,” “City of Bridges,” “Queen of the Adriatic,” and “City of Water.” Venice spent four centuries as a regional superpower, exerting her vast naval and trading influence as a link between the Byzantine and Muslim east and the Roman Catholic west. Venice is by turns entrancing, lovely, and mystifying, a city well past her historic prime that still draws 150,000 visitors a day during peak season, full of charming narrow canals, mini-bridges, cozy restaurants, and high-end stores.
The historic heart of Venice is Saint Mark’s plaza (Piazza San Marko), which is flanked by Saint Mark’s Basilica and the Doge’s Palace. Saint Mark’s is a gorgeous church building, reflecting Italian Gothic, Byzantine, and Moorish influences. There is a lot going on, decoratively speaking, both inside and outside this basilica, in part because many items were plundered during the Venice’s heyday as a naval superpower and brought “home” to decorate San Marko. The Doge (related to our word Duke) was the title given to Venice’s chief magistrate and leader between 726 and 1797. His spectacular palace is directly adjacent to Saint Mark’s and today is a gorgeous museum, with some of the most incredibly decorated rooms I’ve seen in my life!
Our favorite aspect of Venice was wandering the narrow alleyways and canals, alternately exploring and getting lost, while never being more than a stone’s throw from a café or gelateria. We enjoyed riding the vaporetto (water taxi) along the Grand Canal and out to the island of Murano, famous for its glass-making for nearly a millennium. We shared several delicious meals sitting by the Grand Canal and ate well—in honor of Jessica’s birthday, of course!
What I’m reading/listening to:
“How to Read Churches: A Crash Course in Christian Architecture,” by Denis R. McNamara (completed)
“Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life,” by Richard Rohr
“My First Summer in the Sierra,” by John Muir
Rick Steves audio tours on Saint Mark’s Basilica and the Bargello National Museum
Led a devotional at the weekly Monday night worship
Coffee appointments with students
Local visits (in Florence) to Santa Maria Novella Basilica, the Great Synagogue of Florence (Tempio Maggiore), Saint Mark’s Church and Museum, the Bargello National Museum, and the Palatine Gallery at Pitti Palace
If you are an email subscriber, and the following video doesn’t launch from your email, you can go to https://vimeo.com/330061531 to watch.
A weekend ago Carrie and I enjoyed a very meaningful visit to London, England. Coincidentally, most of the activities we shared came in twos. We toured two classic cathedrals, saw two noteworthy plays, enjoyed two guided walks through historic districts, took in two world class museums, attended two worship services, and enjoyed the hospitality of two terrific pairs of hosts (thank you Ken and Julie W. as well as Cambry and Heather P.).
A few general observations: 1) London is the most cosmopolitan city we’ve seen in Europe—the city has a beautiful mix of people from all over the world, and the culinary benefits were so good we could taste them (yes, we had Indian food twice)! 2) We loved being able to effortlessly communicate after months of impaired Italian, graceless German, subpar Spanish, weak Greek, and clumsy Croatian. 3) I observed an effort in London to remember. Some of the pictures below show various monuments, markers, and other indications that the British want to remember the highs and lows of their history. Not a bad idea!
Also, I finally figured out how to imbed videos in this blog. Be sure to scroll to the end of this post to enjoy some footage of a couple favorite moments in London.
What I’m reading/listening to:
The Road Back to You: An Enneagram Journey to Self-Discovery, by Ian Morgan Cron and Suzanne Stabile (completed)
Fyodor Dostoyevsky, “The Idiot” (completed)
“How to Read Churches: A Crash Course in Christian Architecture”, by Denis R. McNamara
Rick Steves audio tours on Saint Paul’s Cathedral, the British Museum, the Westminster Walk, and the City of London walk
Carrie and I have traveled outside of Italy for fourteen days out of the last twenty. Of the six days we’ve actually spent in Florence, I’ve played tour guide for five. And in our one day in town without visitors, I guest taught in Carrie’s speech class. None of this is offered as complaint. It’s simply to say, this has been our busiest stretch of the semester, and is the reason for the gap in my blogposts.
In this post, I’ll intersperse pictures and reflections as we go. I’ll begin with our visit to Barcelona two weekends ago. One of my favorite parts of this weekend were the meals we shared with our California friends Buzz and Christy, who met us in Spain and spent part of a week with us in Florence. These unhurried, lingering mealtimes enabled us to engage with a vital part of the local culture (shoutout to Phil T. and Paul B. for outstanding restaurant recommendations).
The other highlight of our weekend was getting to see the Sagrada Familia Basilica, a church building unlike any I’ve ever seen! It was designed by Anthony Gaudí, a Spanish architect and a devout Catholic who combined his love of religion and nature into an organic architectural style inspired by natural forms. Sagrada Familia has been under construction since 1882 and is slated for (possible) completion in 2026, the 100 year anniversary of Gaudí’s death.
This edifice is impossible to describe in words or to capture adequately in images. In looking through my pictures of Sagrada Familia, I realized that I never did back up far enough to get a picture of the whole edifice. The challenge is, the facade of the Basilica is so intricate that to back up is to miss everything; but to move closer is to be overwhelmed!
After spending an hour walking around the richly sculptured exterior facades of Sagrada Familia, we entered the basilica. Here, Gaudí’s genius shone even brighter, as the setting sun suffused the pillars with hot hues of red, orange, and yellow as well as the cooler hues of greens and blues. The supporting pillars branch as they reach upwards, evoking a forest roof. The impact of color, light, and curvilinear surfaces was overwhelming!
Guest taught a class on “The Twentieth Century’s Greatest Speech” in Carrie’s speech class
Florence visits to the Opera del Duomo Museum (and Ghiberti’s famed “Gates of Paradise”), the Accademia Gallery Museum (and Michelangelo’s famous “David”), and The Baptistry of San Giovanni Church
Mealtime conversations with students
What I’m reading:
“How to Read Churches: A Crash Course in Christian Architecture”, by Denis R. McNamara
This past week was travel break for Pepperdine’s Florence program, a rough equivalent of Spring Break that gave the students and us a five day travel “weekend.” We met our oldest daughter Jenna and her boyfriend Michael, rented a car, and drove through Croatia, a beautiful country (once part of Yugoslavia) across the Adriatic Sea from Italy. We found the Croatian people to be enterprising, resilient, and very helpful, including a taxi driver who made a special trip to return a misplaced phone! We split our time between historic towns and national parks and were NOT disappointed! Hvala (thank you) Croatia!
We spent a chunk of our first day in the coastal city of Split, which features a massive palace/fortress completed around AD 305 by the Roman emperor Diocletian. This palace, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, beautifully weaves the ancient white limestone blocks with contemporary stores, shops, cafes, apartments, and narrow winding alleyways. It also boasts the Cathedral of Saint Domnius, regarded as the oldest Catholic cathedral in the world that remains in use in its original structure. We also enjoyed a harbor cruise and an outdoor breakfast by the water.
That afternoon, we took a winding coastal drive (reminiscent of Highway 1 from Cambria to Monterey) to the seaport of Dubrovnik, in southern Croatia. To picture Dubrovnik, think spectacular imposing coastal castle rising straight up from the craggy rocks. We spent most of the next day exploring its lanes, gaping at its red tile roofs, walking its perimeter ramparts, and saying “Wow! Wow! Wow!” The city was shelled for seven months during the Yugoslav Wars of the early 1990s but has been (mostly) rebuilt. It is a World Heritage site and one of the principle filming locations for the TV series Game of Thrones.
After driving three hours north, we spent the next two days walking amidst the spectacular and colorful waterfalls of the Krka and Plitvice National Parks. Words cannot do these series of waterfall-complexes justice! Even pictures struggle to adequately convey the experience of walking on a four foot wide wooden walkway, surrounded by cascades of flowing water on every side, immersed in color and sound.
In Plitvice, we were disappointed to learn that the most popular waterfalls were closed due winter damage to an access road for the park shuttles. We took a chance late in the day and walked about three miles in an attempt see them anyway and were rewarded with our favorite series of waterfalls. It was like Disney’s Jungle Cruise had a baby with Jurassic Park! Lush foliage, crystal clear water streaming from virtually every direction, a sumptuous soundscape of aquatic melodies, and unbelievable colors. Carrie called it a top five favorite place on planet Earth—and I agree!
Our last day was spent driving to the capital of Zagreb, where we enjoyed a lovely stroll in the historic downtown area, coffee at an outdoor cafe, and a visit to the Zagreb Cathedral. We were blessed by a great week with Jenna and Michael, as well as by the Croatian people. I’ll share a few closing reflections after the pictures.
A few parting reflections from “The Book of Nature” In Croatia, I noticed a vine that would climb up the side of trees; some of these vines seem to have taken over entire trees. I reflected on Paul’s teaching on the addictive dominion of sin in Romans 6:12-19 and the good news that sin’s dominion has been broken since we have been united with Christ’s death and resurrection through baptism. These trees seemed to offer an invitation, “Let Christ set you free from sin’s dominion!”
As a California boy, I’m getting antsy for the arrival of spring (and more to the point, warmer weather). This week in Croatia, I noticed the bare branches of deciduous trees with buds on their fingertips, preparing to explode with the blooms and leaves of spring. I was reminded that many trees that appear barren are simply in a season of dormancy. God’s seasons bring new life each year, reminding me that God isn’t finished with me yet either (especially as we move closer to Easter).
Shared a class session on “The Seasons of the Psalms” at the student Spiritual Retreat two weekends back
Carrie and I shared a convocation talk for the students on our vocational journeys
Carrie and I performed Ed Sheeran’s “Perfect” for the student coffee house — don’t worry, we’re keeping our day jobs
Florence visits to the Basilica of San Lorenzo and the Basilica of Santa Croce, both with spectacular interiors
This weekend, Carrie and I took a southbound train to the Amalfi Coast of Italy. We traveled light, with just the clothes on our backs and small backpacks with a few travel essentials.
We spent our first day in Pompeii, which was a Roman city of 10,000 residents until AD 79, when Mount Vesuvius, some five miles away, blew its stack and sent volcanic ash, debris, and lava into the air, blanketing the surrounding area for miles around. Though about two thousand residents perished in the disaster, the result was that a Roman city was buried for later generations to uncover and study. Following extensive excavation, Pompeii is now a very well preserved Roman city from the first century. You can walk its streets, poke your head into homes and stores and temples and theaters, and get a sense of the traffic, commerce, politics, and religion of an ancient Roman city.
We spent that first night in charming Sorrento, a smallish coastal town built on dramatic cliffs. We could see across the large bay to Naples, the third largest city in Italy, with over a million residents. Sorrento is known for its lemons, and we enjoyed several lemon based treats while there.
The next morning, we boarded an early bus that took us up and over winding switchbacks to Italy’s spectacular Amalfi coast and the hillside hamlet of Positano. We spent the day there, mouths agape, taking in the stunning town carved out of the mountainside and perched on the rugged coastline. We enjoyed breakfast on the pebble beach, explored back streets and alleyways, and shared a dramatic hike that paralleled the coastline.
I’ve also included some some personal reflections about Pompeii at the end of this post, for any who might be interested.
Assorted Reflections Concerning Pompeii Say what you will about the excesses of the Roman Empire, the Romans knew how to engineer, how to organize, how to distribute water, how to lay out city streets, how to create and construct impressive public buildings and public art, and how to build seemingly anything, including bathhouses with cold, warm, and hot bathing pools!
I was fascinated to learn about the Roman obsession with status and status signaling. They built their homes to impress passersby, who could look in and see the hustle and bustle of an important person’s household. The wealthy built stone benches by their front doors to accommodate those who lined up to ask for favors. They left inscriptions everywhere regarding who served as the benefactor of this or that public space. They had their tombs built while still alive, to ensure others knew of their importance. The local forum had separate entrances for the elite and for the masses, all part of signaling who was who in the social pecking order. Small wonder where we “moderns” learned such games.
The Pompeiians were, as Paul also noted of the Athenians (Acts 17:22), “very religious.” Throughout Pompeii we saw many home and neighborhood shrines and niches, as well as city temples, dedicated to and invoking the protection of various local and major deities. Reading between the lines, the people of Pompeii were an anxious folk, concerned about appeasing their gods and ancestors as well as mollifying local evil spirits, all the while trying to control the outcome of their lives.
One of the challenges of being a religious person in any age is the temptation to turn one’s own religion into a means of trying to manipulate and control the gods (or God). The ancients were not the last to try to co-opt the gods (or God) to ensure prosperity, fertility, protection, happiness, honor, or power. Israel’s prophets repeatedly warned against such shallow and idolatrous understandings of the True and Living God. The eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79 provides a case in point against the futility of trying to bargain with the gods. As I understand the Christian faith, we are not promised the absence of hardships and challenges in exchange for walking in Jesus’ way. We are promised God’s love and presence, come what may (John 16:33).
This past weekend, Carrie and I got to share a bucket-list trip to Athens, Greece, my childhood home. Athens is also, you may recall, where our daughter Jessica is living this year, serving as a high school teacher in the Fulbright program. Our visit to Greece was resonant with memories and full of joyful reunions.
I LOVED getting to share my childhood home, school, and congregation with Carrie and Jessica. I was pleasantly surprised when phrases of Greek came back to me from somewhere in the recesses of my memory. I was delighted when store-keepers, looking perplexed, asked me if I was Greek (“You aren’t dressed like a Greek; why do you sound like one?”). I greatly enjoyed savoring favorite Greek foods, including dinner at the table of Eleni Melirrytos, a lifelong friend who with her husband Alexander, serve the Omonia Church in Athens. And we loved getting acquainted with Jessica’s school, apartment, community, and friends.
A special highlight was getting to take part in the worship and ministry of the Omonia congregation in downtown Athens. Alexander Melirrytos invited me to preach in English, while he translated in Greek, and while additional translation was taking place in the back in Arabic. We were thrilled to witness the baptism of a young Kurdish man and delighted to meet a young friend of Michaela from her mission trip to Athens. On Tuesday, I took part in the church’s ongoing ministry to Syrian refugees (among others), many of Kurdish ethnicity. This included a two hour conversation about preaching the story of Jacob with five Syrian-Kurdish men, one of whom is studying in an online seminary. Several long-time members reminded me of the ongoing influence of my parents on their lives and on this congregation, from their time as missionaries in Athens (1967-74).
Of course, we also took in a healthy variety of the sights and sounds of Athens, which I’ve tried to highlight in the pictures below. I’ve also included some pictures toward the end which are especially for my family (feel free to skip). When it came time to leave, I found myself feeling, not sad exactly, but wistful and full of yearning, like saying goodbye to a close friend you don’t get to see very often but dearly cherish. I’m deeply grateful for this opportunity to travel to Greece and to share it with part of my family.