Even though it has been over a month since I last blogged, that doesn’t mean that I haven’t had anything to say. On the contrary, I’ve had much on my mind in the midst of frantic busyness! Let’s see, since I last posted…
- My wife and I have been to Scotland and come back (after 17 days). We primarily visited the island of Iona on a “pilgrimage” with a group of believers. Iona was the epicenter of the spread of Christianity to Scotland, Northern England and Northern Europe 15oo years ago. A few Saints and a lot of beauty and peace reside there.
- I’ve been sick with bronchitis (in addition to my other ongoing illnesses). I developed it our last night on Iona and had to stifle the coughing on the trip home, lest people feared I captured the black plague! That seven-hour plane flight was a beast…
- I’ve been feverishly working on ministry plans for our retreat center in Arkansas. The Mrs. and I are joyfully pursuing a ministry of rest and reconciliation that we pray that the Lord uses to transform broken and distressed lives. We have a long way to go, but with the Lord preparing the way before us, we cannot wait to see what He has in store!
- I spent six days finishing interior work on my house in South Louisiana. It is the “bachelor pad” I bought when I was but a mere single man. Whew! Check it out here. The home I bought for myself (my first house) did not have flooring, had wallpaper walls and looked a lot like a factory-built mobile home. BTW… we Newtons cannot afford to have two houses, so please pray with me that the house sells this summer.
But the Lord has been fueling my heart and mind throughout the time away and I have so many subjects to blog about that I just cannot write as much about everything as I desire! So I’m going to clue you in to what has been on my heart so far this summer. Maybe I’ll write more on each topic later. Maybe not. We’ll see.
The Scottish island of Iona is a remarkable place.
Iona, for those not familiar, was the launching place for the evangelization of most of Great Britain and some of Northern Europe. In church history, Iona is a most special place. From this three-mile-long by one-and-a-half-mile-wide barren spot of land in 563 A.D., Saint Columba of Ireland stepped foot and established a monastic order that would send out missionaries across Scotland. By 650 A.D. most of modern day Great Britain was “Christianized.” On our tour of Iona, Mrs. Newton and I saw where Columba came ashore, where he established his monastery, and where pilgrims worshiped God for nearly a thousand years.
- Iona has a beautiful 12th- to 14th-Century stone Abbey that serves as a kind of spiritual and architectural center of the island. Daily worship services are held in the abbey church by an ecumenical group that is also spearheading the restoration of the site. A number of “high crosses” remain standing on Iona, places where pilgrims would stop and pray on their way to the abbey and St. Columba’s shrine there. Shannon and I stopped to pray at one cross, 15th Century MacLain’s Cross, and it was my wife who sent shivers down my spine when she said, “Can you imagine how many believers have prayed to God on this very spot through the ages?” I was reminded of Hebrews 12:1, “Since we have such a cloud of witnesses (before and/or around us), let us run the race marked out for us with endurance…” The very first Celtic cross, known for its distinctive circle around the crossing, was carved on Iona. It is now in a museum but a replica stands on its original foundation and site.
- Iona is a peaceful place. I’ll write more later about this, but Iona was one of the quietest, calmest, most vibrant places I have ever been in my life. Because the island is under Scotland’s National Trust (kind of like our Parks Service but with a history/preservation bent), very few people live on it and those that do lead a much different life than residents of the big cities. Time seems to slow down. There are very few cars. There are no air conditioners, no ceiling fans, no “filler” noise in the air. Not even a lawnmower. Iona is quiet during the day and dark during the night. Unless…
- The sun doesn’t want to go down for the day. The northern latitude and the island geography mean that Iona gets 19 hours of daylight in late June. Shannon and I laughed a lot as we took 11pm walks on the deserted pathways, never losing sight of the ground or the surrounding buildings. On the flip side, however, it also got light at 3 a.m. and the sun came out at 5 a.m., well before we wanted! On the plane flight to London, England, I stayed awake during the entire night, looking to the north, bewildered that I never saw darkness descend up there. It was the first time I ever experienced a night that never came.
The “refuge of God” has both an emotional AND physical side to it.
- We saw many castles and fortresses in Scotland, none mightier than Edinburgh Castle. Seeing the massive walled stone fort 300 feet above the valley below gave me chills. It seemed so imposing that no army could possibly muster the courage to attack it! The castle was a fortress — a refuge— for the people of the Old City of Edinburgh. During times of siege, the people could retreat behind the castle walls and find protection. During the days before airplanes, building a wall around a city was the best way to protect it from attack. Berwick-Upon-Tweed in Northeastern England is such a mighty walled city. From the train, it looks incredible!
- People came to Iona for refuge of another kind —spiritual refuge. Iona was a place where pilgrims, religious orders, and merchants could come and find spiritual shelter from the monks and nuns of the island. Hospitality was practiced there by both rule and by principle. It still is! For Shannon, myself and our tour group, Iona provided refuge from the stress and worry of our everyday lives. We could kick back on Iona with very little Internet access, no television, three solid meals, and the beautiful sound of waves crashing on the rocky coast with seagulls conversing overhead. Our week there was really de-toxifying, mentally and emotionally.
- As I thought about refuge and Iona, I wondered how churches in our world today could become a part of the refuge of God that David often wrote about in the Psalms. Is the Church of God even thinking of meeting people’s physical needs in a sheltering kind of way? Are our buildings places where hurting people — people under emotional siege or spiritual attack — can come to find refuge? To not only seek the Lord but also de-stress, find hospitality and be embraced with the love of God? Shannon and I are planning to open a retreat center in the mountains of Northwest Arkansas that we hope serves as a refuge for those in distress — “restless hearts” I call them. We want it to be a place of beauty and stillness; of rest and re-connection with the living God. But how can churches channel this same ideal? I was part of a church a few years back that went from being open-to-the-public during daylight hours to having locked doors day and night. Even during the middle of the day, “enhanced security” called for a key card entry system, a buzzer, and a good reason for letting you in. What if someone came needing prayer? What if they wanted to kneel before the cross in our sanctuary and plead before God because they are at wits end? There must be a way for our churches to become better at being places of spiritual and physical refuge.
Stillness has a way of bringing about more productive days.
- Here’s the kicker for being nearly internet-less on Iona and in a place of quiet: my days got more productive! Stillness somehow led to more productivity.
- When my heart is calm, my mind is clear. It is easier to think when I’m focused on the here and now. Being on Iona showed me that truth about myself.
Hospitality can break down many barriers.
- I’m still chewing on this concept, so please forgive any verbal vagueness. But the simple attitude and act of hospitality can minster to a person’s soul regardless of where they’ve come from or what they’ve experienced. I’m thinking of the nomads of old and Bedouins of today, who hold hospitality towards strangers in the highest regard. Think of Abraham with the three visitors in Genesis 18. A stranger, if they did not present themselves as hostile, is a friend.
- Take this concept to a Christian principle. Humans need certain basic things in order to live and not struggle… nourishing food, clean water, adequate clothing, a safe place to lay our heads. Without meeting these basic needs through hospitality, why should they listen to the message of hope in Jesus Christ? Doesn’t God care about their basic needs? I think of James 2 and those believers who would say to the poor, “Be warm and filled” but not reach into their pocket to meet a need. Being “incarnational” means to enter into people’s physical lives and show them Christ.
- Stories of the saints of old can be quite entertaining.
- OK, this is gonna sound odd but I really, REALLY enjoy reading the hagiographic stories of the Saints of old. Do I think Saint Nicholas really restored three murdered children to life? It’s a stretch, for sure, but maybe! Either way, it’s cool to think that God might work in the New Testament world like He did in the Old, and that the Saints with a capital “S” are like the old school prophets.
- I picked up the modern print of a book written in the 600s by Adomnan, an abbot of Iona and distant cousin of Columba. The book is a biography of the famous saint and includes a lot of stories about the saint’s travels, miracles and teachings. They are a hoot to read! Fun! We’re talking “Merlin the Wizard” kinda stuff with a Godly purpose. I was fascinated. In the book, “Columba performs various miracles such as healing people with diseases, expelling malignant spirits, subduing wild beasts, calming storms, and even returning the dead to life (Wikipedia).” Like, awesome!
- I really enjoy those stories and legends, true or not. They remind me that the power of Jesus Christ precedes the Gospel wherever it is preached.
So those are a few things percolating in my mind this summer, most of which came to the fore on Iona.