After somewhere around 11 hours of actual flight time, 10 hours of sitting in airports (or being transported via shuttle from one to another), 3 countries, and 2 customs lines, our group of 19 (6 students plus 1 professor from Gordon College and 11 students plus 1 professor from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary) arrived in Thessaloniki on Saturday where we met up with David and Elizabeth, our tour leaders, and Theodore, our bus driver for the next two and half weeks.
While riding through Thessaloniki from the airport to the hotel, although feeling tired and overwhelmed, observing the contrast of the land before me – the arid land on one side with blue water on the other, the old architecture with the modern multi-story complexes, the expanse of the hills with the density of the city buildings – was awesome and foretelling of what lay ahead.
Sunday morning came early as we left the hotel after breakfast for a session of formal introductions and basic trip orientation outside of the Church of Saint Demetrius, a Greek Orthodox Church in Thessaloniki.
After sharing some of our expectations for the coming days, we entered the church to observe the priest’s blessing at the end of the service, walked outside to engage in a brief discussion on and explanation of Greek Orthodoxy, and then re-entered the church to tour the facilities a bit more extensively.
From the church, we walked past the ancient Agora (from the Roman period if memory serves correctly) and on to the Rotunda and Arch of Galerius.
We then got on the bus and headed toward the sea where we ate lunch in a restaurant overlooking the water along with four pastors from the Greek Evangelical Church. After lunch, we listened as the pastors (who had come to the States to study theology and then returned to their people who they so desperately felt called to serve) described the difference between Greek Orthodoxy and Evangelicalism and shared their heart for their fellow countrymen. The primary concern of each of these pastors was/is to see the people of Greece embrace faith through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ rather than relying on the Orthodox Church – where they find their entire identity, both culturally and spiritually – to be their salvation.
Before returning to the hotel for the night, we headed to the beach where we swam (or in my case, waded) in the Aegean Sea and observed castles on the beach made of pebbles instead of sand.
On Monday, we started off at the probable site of Lydia’s house just outside of Philippi where her Baptistry is now located.
And it was in the river flowing beside Lydia’s Baptistry that several from our group renewed their baptismal vows…
It was a powerful time of reflection and celebration as I couldn’t help but hear these words to the song “The River” by Brian Doerksen as I watched the baptisms take place:
“To the river I am going bringing sins I cannot bear.
Come and cleanse me, come forgive me. Lord, I need to meet you there.
In these waters, healing mercy flows with freedom from despair.
I am going to that river. Lord, I need to meet you there.
Precious Jesus, I am ready to surrender every care.
Take my hand now, lead me closer. Lord, I need to meet you there.”
After lunch, we headed to the ancient ruins of Philippi (the details of which I will save for another post) and then to Neapolis (Kavala) to see a beautiful mosaic illustrating Paul’s vision and arrival at this port city before we returned to Thessaloniki for one more night.
Before leaving the northern part of Greece to begin our journey south towards Athens, we stopped by the market in Thessaloniki on Tuesday morning, where I had fun experimenting with “street photography”.
Mostly of produce…
and friendly shop-owners…