Today, we got our suitcases downstairs by 6:15 a.m., went back upstairs for final preparations, ate breakfast and headed for the airport. Our bus was a little late in arriving, but we made our initial connections from Rome to Frankfurt without any major problems.
Since several people have peeled off and are staying longer in Europe, there are only 25 of us on the return flight to LAX. The transit through Frankfurt went off without incident as well, although a little more time in each airport would have made it easier. The flight from Frankfurt to LAX lasts more than 11 hours and gives you plenty of time to read and relax. You chase the sun the whole flight, so it never grows dark outside the plane, and you can power through the trip without napping if you have enough stimulating material to read.
As I reflect on our trip, I continue to ponder the giants of the ages that have gone before our own. Since Rome was our final destination, it’s the one still dominating my mind. This glorious city, rich in tradition, remains vibrant in its own way today. Rome still struggles from the corruption of its politics and an antiquated legal system that generates almost as much cynicism as its current leadership. When you visit the city, however, its past grandeur and dominance is striking, and you wonder how such a great society and civilization went into a decline and never recovered. Certainly extended political ambitions that drained the national treasury provides one reason. Another was the deterioration of the moral fabric of the society. A third was the willingness of the most corrupt emperors to turn on their own people for self-indulgent purposes. A fourth was the inability to adjust to new threats, both militarily and culturally.
Still, with all of these known setbacks, the Roman Empire lasted 1,000 years. The United States celebrates its 237th birthday this week. We marked our 75th anniversary as a college last fall. How do we make a contribution that endures over time? That thought continues to preoccupy me.
I also spent quite a bit of time thinking about the way certain periods of history generate an unusual wealth of genius while intergenerational decline dominates other eras. The Gospel age, including the life and ministry of Jesus and succeeding years, was certainly one period of genius. Another was the 16th century, especially in Europe. While we toured Florence, I reflected on the contribution and interaction of at least five great intellects of their time: Michelangelo (1475-1564), Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519), Martin Luther (1483-1546), Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556), and John Calvin (1509-1563). So many others influenced the time in which they lived and worked, but these five provide amazing examples of the spirit of the age and the geniuses that embody it, who achieved more than anyone ever thought possible. To see every single one of them make a contribution not just for their time but for all time is truly remarkable. How do we participate in and contribute to the leading ideas and emerging opportunities that will shape our own age while leaving a legacy for the ages?
James Davison Hunter’s thesis in “To Change the World” also occupied my thoughts. His extended exegesis of Jeremiah 11 helps us think together about how we build a “faithful presence” in our contemporary culture. One of my favorite books is H. Richard Niebuhr’s classic, “Christ and Culture,” in which he helps us understand the five dominant ways (Christ against culture; Christ of culture; Christ above culture; Christ and culture in conflict; Christ transforming culture) the church has interacted with and responded to the prevailing culture throughout its 2,000-year history. Although the book was written in the middle of the 20th century, it still holds relevance today. In fact, Dr. Hunter mentions that his book is not trying to replace Niebuhr’s framework but extend it by building off the earlier work. Dr. Hunter attempts to help us see Jeremiah 11 as God’s call to the Children of Israel to settle down in Babylon and build a life, a society and a culture. At this great transition point in the life of the children of Israel, the prophet exhorts them to no longer to look for and anticipate a return to Jerusalem, but to build their lives where God has placed them.
The way in which I read Hunter includes an admonition to stop being dominated by a need to return to the past. Learn from it, but don’t be constrained or consumed by it. Don’t spend your days wishing you lived somewhere else or were somebody else or were doing something else. Accept who you are, where you are and what God is calling you to do to build His kingdom and your life in the here-and-now.
As we return home and re-enter our regular life, it’s an important message to remember: that God has given us an opportunity to practice “faithful presence” to make a difference in our world wherever we are. As I resume my regular routine, I feel a renewed call to practice “faithful presence,” to be faithful to God where He has led me and to be faithful to the college’s work and mission. History will always judge us, and those who receive favorable judgment are always the ones who remained faithful in the midst of fierce opposition or negligible cultural support. This is certainly our time to make a difference for the college and for the greater good of our society and the work of God in the world.
Thank you for your interest in following our trip through Rome, Athens and Istanbul. Thanks, too, for your love and interest in the college.
Blessings and thanks,
Gayle D. Beebe