It was an unusual time for a trip to the Mediterranean - August 1990, just days after Iraq invaded Kuwait. The buildup to the Gulf War was accelerating daily. But tracing St. Paul's missionary journeys was something my mother and I had always wanted to do. We'd bought non-refundable tickets months before. And the US State Department assured us we could proceed "with caution."
Visiting the places where the Apostle Paul preached the story of Jesus to thousands of first-time hearers would have been poignant at any time. But now there was an unexpected dimension.
Suddenly, we were no longer just spectators of long-gone history. We were participants in history being made. American fighter planes buzzed over our ship day and night. Warships cruised past. Newspapers flaunted headlines about impending war. Tension hung heavy in some ports.
But that's where the apostle himself helped. His mission - and his love - interwove the news of 2,000 years ago with the news of today.
The Middle East had been turbulent in his time, too. The Roman Empire ruled the whole Mediterranean basin ironfistedly. Being a Christian and a converted Jew, like Paul, was dangerous. During his journeys he was insulted, beaten, whipped, stoned, robbed, thrown into prison.
Yet, through it all, he doggedly followed the vision that had instantly transformed him from a tormentor of Jesus' followers into a follower himself. It was a vision of what the Bible calls "Christ" - the animus that gave Jesus such ardor, such power to heal.
This vision fired Paul with a passion to take Christianity beyond the bounds of his native Cilicia to the rest of Asia Minor - then to Greece, and finally to Rome. It made him determined to go to these places, despite the multiple risks. It made him love enough to heal and forgive, and often win over, even people who were plotting to kill him.
Without this love, Paul said it was all pointless - his eloquent words, his noble sacrifices, his dramatic cures. "If I did not love others," he told the squabbling church at Corinth, "I would be nothing more than a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.... Love never fails!" (I Cor. 13:1, 8).
That love comforted us one memorable morning in Istanbul. Our American tour group stood on the plaza outside the Santa Sophia Mosque, waiting to enter. A couple of other tour guides rushed up to ours and whispered urgently in Turkish. Then our young guide turned to us and said somberly, "I've just heard that a large number of American fighter planes have landed in my country today."
A hush fell over the group. We weren't sure how to take what he'd said, but he was obviously very disturbed.
Then, I thought of the love that never fails. The love that ultimately comes from God, who cares about all His children equally - without regard for nationality, race, religion, class, or gender. The love that sees only the spiritual perfectness that He has made in everyone. And I felt that love, warming us like the early morning sunshine flooding the plaza. Holding us all together as one.
At that moment, something changed. Our guide broke into his usual smile. A smile so full of love that it was as if he'd said out loud, "It's going to be all right." And with that, he ushered us into his beloved mosque.
It was a small incident. But I think of it often as I pray about the Middle East. Because somehow that moment of coming together - in the apostle's own land - previews for me a much grander coming together. Everywhere. The inevitable coming together of all God's sons and daughters in His magnificent love.
Envisioning that moment, Mary Baker Eddy once wrote, "Then shall all nations, peoples, and tongues, in the words of St. Paul, have 'one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all' " ("Christian Science versus Pantheism," pg. 13).
It's a vision that transcends empires, territories, and war zones - and that will some day altogether supersede them.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor