Saturday, August 31, 2013

I Stand Near The Door

Years ago, someone introduced me to a poem by The Reverend Samuel M. Shoemaker who was an Episcopalian priest from 1920 until his death in 1963. Shoemaker was one of the top 10 preachers in America at the time and is best known for his spiritual influence on the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). He is known to a few as one of the "co-founders" of AA. I first knew him from a little poem he originally called "So I Stand Near The Door - An Apologia For My Life."  It is a poem that explains his outlook toward ministry.

I was talking to the staff the other day and asked if they had heard the poem; they had not. I sent it to them and thought your might like it too.  This poem was personally influential. I realize that now, years later, I too prefer to "stand by the door." I suppose its influence on me comes from the gratitude I feel towards those who helped my own "outstretched, groping hands" find the door to God. 


I stay near the door.
I neither go too far in, nor stay too far out,
The door is the most important door in the world—
It is the door through which men walk when they find God.
There’s no use my going way inside, and staying there,
When so many are still outside, and they, as much as I,
Crave to know where the door is.
And all that so many ever find
Is only the wall where a door ought to be.
They creep along the wall like blind men.
With outstretched, groping hands,
Feeling for a door, knowing there must be a door,
Yet they never find it . . .
So I stay near the door.

The most tremendous thing in the world
Is for men to find that door—the door to God.
The most important thing any man can do
Is to take hold of one of those blind, groping hands,
And put it on the latch—the latch that only clicks
And opens to the man’s own touch.
Men die outside that door, as starving beggars die
On cold nights in cruel cities in the dead of winter—
Die for want of what is within their grasp.
They live, on the other side of it—live because they have found it.
Nothing else matters compared to helping them find it,
And open it, and walk in, and find Him . . .
So I stay near the door.

Go in, great saints, go all the way in—
Go way down into the cavernous cellars,
And way up into the spacious attics—
In a vast, roomy house, this house where God is.
Go into the deepest of hidden casements,
Of withdrawal, of silence, of sainthood.
Some must inhabit those inner rooms,
And know the depths and heights of God,
And call outside to the rest of us how wonderful it is.
Sometimes I take a deeper look in,
Sometimes venture a little farther;
But my place seems closer to the opening . . .
So I stay near the door.

The people too far in do not see how near these are
To leaving—preoccupied with the wonder of it all.
Somebody must watch for those who have entered the door,
But would like to run away. So for them, too,
I stay near the door.

I admire the people who go way in.
But I wish they would not forget how it was
Before they got in. Then they would be able to help
The people who have not even found the door,
Or the people who want to run away again from God.
You can go in too deeply, and stay in too long,
And forget the people outside the door.
As for me, I shall take my old accustomed place,
Near enough to God to hear Him, and know He is there,
But not so far from men as not to hear them,
And remember they are there too.
Where? Outside the door—
Thousands of them, millions of them.
But—more important for me—
One of them, two of them, ten of them,
Whose hands I am intended to put on the latch,
So I shall stay by the door and wait
For those who seek it.
"I had rather be a door-keeper . . ."
So I stay near the door.”

Sunday, August 11, 2013


Outside of the Frontline Church in downtown Oklahoma City
Sunday, August 11, 2013

Last night, a McFlurry milkshake from MacDonald's led to an amazing work of God.  We had spent the day working hard.  The team I led cut down trees all day and the team our youth minister Nicky led did more scouting (going door-to-door to see who needed volunteer help and praying with them).  They also worked in some homes organizing places that residents still had not taken care of since the storm.  After getting back to our sleep site, cleaning up some, and eating a quick bite for dinner, we decided to go to MacDonald's for a milkshake.  We were there for three hours. We completely skipped the evening worship planned by our site leaders.  God was on the move among us as a team.

You should know that the students on this trip are awesome. I am particularly fond of each of them (you "The Shack" fans will recognize that language spoken by God in that book).  I really am.  It's great to hear someone tell their story of what God has done in their life; it is infinitely better to be there AS GOD IS DOING IT.  I can't tell you specifics.  I am bound to confidentiality and, even if I wasn't, I couldn't do the moment justice.  Suffice it to say, some of them were working through some hard issues of life.  Imagine a person inhaling and never exhaling.  Imagine holding your breath as you deal with life's difficulties and never finding a good or safe place to release it.  For whatever reason, last night was a night to release it.  Last night was a night to exhale all that was pent up inside and it was beautiful.  God was so real, so close, and so powerful.  No everyone had that exact experience.  Some are still new to mission and sharing and being wide open to God, but at some point in the evening everyone was feeling something good and divine. And it was only Saturday. We have days to go yet.  I am particularly fond of these youth.

Afterward, no one could sleep. Even me, the guy who races the chickens to bed.  I dozed for about 30 minutes after lights out and then got up with my heart breaking for what some of these students shared at MacDonalds and how God was speaking and healing. Plus, I looked around and saw our students all walking around the gym where we were staying (divided by a giant curtain to separate boys and girls).  I stayed up for another hour and half talking with leaders and students about, well, just about everything from God to relationships to Minnesota (where one of the other teams is from) to sports. Everyone finally got to sleep, but it was late.

This morning we went to a downtown church.  It was clear from the pastor's message that the church regularly attracted seekers of God who are not Christians.  He addressed them directly several times to help them understand our God. The music was great, the crowd was enthusiastic, and our group were glad they were there.

This afternoon is a spiritual exercise that I am skipping to do some work I promised to complete for the larger church (Presbytery).  I've heard what is coming and they should be in the middle of an exercise to listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit as I write.  Looking forward to hearing from them later.

I missed being with my full church family, but was happy to be with a portion of them here in Oklahoma City on this mission journey.

Grace and peace.

Serving God After the Storm

The following is a summary teport of the storm that led us here to serve.

"The Oklahoma Department of Emergency Management reported that 25 people killed (with another indirectly), an estimated 1,150 homes were destroyed, and an estimated $2 billion in damages. The number of injured was 377. Most areas in the path of the storm suffered catastrophic damage. Entire subdivisions were obliterated, and houses were flattened in a large swath of the city. The majority of a neighborhood just west of the Moore Medical Center was destroyed. Witnesses said the tornado more closely resembled "a giant black wall of destruction" than a typical twister. Among the hardest hit areas were two public schools: Briarwood Elementary School and Plaza Towers Elementary School. At the latter school, 75 children and staff were present when the tornado struck. Seven children died at Plaza Towers Elementary School. Moore Medical Center was heavily damaged, but no injuries were caused. Staff had to relocate 30 patients to a hospital in Norman and another hospital. Part of Interstate 35 was shut down due to debris that had been thrown onto the freeway. On May 21, Moore still did not have running water. There were more than 61,500 power outages related to the tornado.  More than 100 people were rescued from the rubble on May 20."

Today, after a morning of orientation and then sorting clothes at a Seventh Day Adventust disaster relief agency, we went to the neighborhood where the May 20 tornado hit. It was also the neighborhood in which the school where the seven children died was. The scene we witnessed was one a handful of people at our church are becoming familiar after tornadoes hit Tuscaloosa, Alabama and Joplin, Missouri.  Many homes were completely gone and many others in various stages of restoration. Our job was to be scouts talking to neighbors about their needs for which volunteers can help. Our group got to hear a handful of stories about the six minutes of living through the F-5 tornado. Two people described it as "like a jet engine right over us." It is clear that nearly three months after the storms, the lives of everyone are still affected, not just the people who were in the path of the tornado.  Everyone talks about where they were when it hit, everyone talks about the impact and aftermath of the storm, and the whole community is still trying to rebuild their individual and collective lives.

The Internet is down here where we are staying so updates are likely to be slow in coming.

All is well. God is good.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

The Long Day

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Today was a travel day. Up at 4 am and drove until after dinner. The trip was safe and uneventful. The youth stayed up late and slept in the van for much of the day. The afternoon was a time of goofiness and music and just getting slap-happy.

We are staying at a clean, organizer, and well-run shelter that houses the mission group organizing our work. Showers and settling in tonight and now, mercifully, it is time for lights out.

In our preview team meeting the leader spoke of God wanting to do much more than help people from Moore, Oklahoma recover from a storm. "Your 'Moore' is more."  Eager to see God's "more" for each.

The mission begins tomorrow.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013


On the path of the Maclay Gardens in Tallahassee
A handful of St. Andrews youth are left Dunedin for Moore, Oklahoma today.  We are going to serve with Adventures in Mission in Moore, Oklahoma.  We are doing post-tornado clean-up.  You may recall that an EF-5 tornado struck at about 3:00 pm on May 20, 2013 with peak winds estimated at 210 miles per hour and lasting about 40 minutes.  The storm killed 23 people and injured 377 others. 

So we go to do what we can to help them. 

Today, the nine of us left the church at 5:30 am and drove to First Nazarene Church in Mobile, Alabama where an aunt of our youth minister, Nicky Clark, worships.  We will bed down here for the night and get an early start for a 12 hour trip tomorrow.  It will be our long day of travel.  All went well today.  The students slept mostly.  We stopped in Tallahassee at the Alfred B. Maclay Gardens State Park for some time of stretching our legs and taking in God's beautiful creation.  Other than that, it was all travel.  

At the church, we met up with Nicky's aunt, the new pastor, the youth leader, and some other staff.  They then fed us a meal and then our youth joined theirs for some games.  Now, it's time for bed.  We are getting an early start tomorrow. 

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Israel 2013 - "Not Quite Alive, Yet Not Quite Dead"

"Not quite alive, yet not quite dead."
 - Holocaust survivor

Israel is a country in need of peace and the Jewish people are too.  Today, we opened a chapter of world history in which peace was absent and tragedies seemed unending.  World War II.  One staggering reality was before us today...

Six million dead.

Our minds can hardly fathom the injustice, brutality, dehumanizing, and shocking acts of one group of people against another.  Six million dead.  Their crime was being a Jew or helping Jews.  Six million dead.

Today we went to the holocaust museum in Jerusalem, Yad Vashem ("Museum of Names").  It is a unique museum in arrangement, story telling, and architecture.  You physically descend a center hallway with side rooms along the way (no photos allowed inside; photo above is from internet).  The museum slopes down to the depths of the worst atrocities imaginable against the Jewish people.  The side rooms tell the story of the build up to the abuse, overpowering, and then mass murder of the Jews in Europe during World War II.  We were there with a large group of Israeli Air Force soldiers who were remembering this part of their Jewish story.  By the time you got to the bottom, you felt with Isabelle Leitner, quoted above, that the Jews who were living were "Not quite alive, yet not quite dead."

The museum did not leave you there, however.  Hope is always in the heart.  Our tour guide, Ezra, who is a Jewish man and retired soldier who fought in the 1967 Six-Day War in Israel, said, "Without hope, there is nothing."  We all need hope.  The Jewish people needed hope in their darkest hour.  We need hope in our darkest hour.  The museum itself signified the hope by physically sloping up toward the end and the rooms documented the liberation of the concentration camps and the steps taken to return them to life after the war.

It is a fair question to ask why Christians visiting the Holy Land would go to Yad Vashem.  My notes at the end best answer that question.  I wrote, "The unthinkable happened that led to the systematic extermination of six million human beings.  We cannot turn our heads and ignore this dark chapter of human history.  We cannot because such dark chapters are still being written.  Until we learn to stand with fierce determination against all injustices, we are certain to repeat them and when they are repeated we will have blood on our hands."

We went to Yad Vashem last in our day of touring, but we began with the groups first trip into the Old City of Jerusalem.  We went through the Jaffa Gate and made our way to the Redeemer Lutheran Church, an English-speaking congregation.  After church in what felt like a refrigerator - all were cold, not just me - we walked the market and most did a little shopping.  I met my vendor from last year, Joseph, and made sport of haggling with him again.  I'm sure I paid too much, but the experience was fun.

We then went to Israel's version of the Smithsonian called the Israeli Museum.  There we saw a large scale (1:50 ratio) model of the first century version of Jerusalem and the Temple.  It is a useful part of our trip because we can't see the city whole like this when in the modern-day version of it.  Next, we went to see the exhibit of the Dead Sea Scrolls at a place in the Israeli Museum called The Shrine of the Book.  Impressive.  We'll go to where all was discovered tomorrow.  Two versions of biblical books like Isaiah written by two different scribes in two different locations at two very different time periods starts to, as Ezra said, "remove question marks" about authenticity and reliability of the archaeological evidence for the Scriptures.

From the Israeli Museum we went to remember a time when people were "not quite alive, yet not quite dead."  An interesting observation was when we went into the museum the sky was blue, the sun was shining, and the weather reasonably warm.  We we exited the museum an hour and a half later, the sky was gray, a foggy-haze had settled in, and it was cold.  The weather fit our moods exiting the place.

Tonight is a free night.  I suspect all will go to bed early.  I know I will.


Saturday, February 9, 2013

Israel 2013 - Gethsemane, Hell, and Bethlehem

Day 6

It's me blogging today.  

Today started on the Mount of Olives.  We went to the to of top of the Mount of Olives at the Church of the Ascension where Jesus is said to have ascended into heaven and will return to earth there as well.  We read the Scripture of his ascension to heaven in Acts 1 and then sang "Praise God from whom all blessings flow..." What a great way to start our tour!  The voices echoed off of the walls and I'm sure could be heard well in the courtyard where other pilgrims awaited their turn inside.  

From there we went to the Church of the Pater Noster where Jesus is said to have instructed his disciples to pray with the words, "Our Father, who art in heaven..."  The traditional location there on the Mount of Olives is actually a cave.  Instead of saying the Lord's Prayer, we sang it. Like Cindy said yesterday about her!  Again, the sound echoed and the group of Spanish priests behind us could hear us well.  

Next, we travelled down the mountain to a church built at the place where Jesus looked out on Jerusalem and wept over it.  There was a seating area there, so our guide, Ezra, sat us down and talked at length about the history of Jerusalem.  What was great about it was the seating area was on the edge of the Mount of Olives overlooking a panoramic view of the Old City of Jerusalem.  Ezra would talk about something that took place in Jerusalem, then point to it.  "Look just above the Dome of the Rock at that building with the gray roof.  There is where it happened."  Talking about a living history and Bible lesson!  I was able to sort out a nagging question about the difference between "City of David," "Jebusite City" and "Jerusalem," which in my mind were all the same thing.  They are connected, but separate.  Ezra explained by pointing and telling stories from history. Amazing.

From there we went to the Garden of Gethsemane.  We had a private part of the Garden reserved and had a service of singing, brief message, and period of quiet to walk around the Garden.  In my message, I said that in the Garden of Gethsemane, the events of the final work of God in the mission in Jesus were set into motion.  The first question for all to ponder is what catalytic event needs to happen to set into motion God's larger mission in our lives.  I also said that Jesus literally walked through a cemetery to the south on his way to Gethesemane; he walked through death to get to this point that would ultimately lead to life.  The second question I asked was what needed to die or be set aside in our lives in order to live into the life God wants for us.  I also said that three separate times Jesus said or referred back to "not my will, but Yours."  Not his will, but the Father in heaven's will be done.  The third question was what area in your life have you been trying to make it all "my will" and need to make it "God's will."  We left the private garden and went through the public garden with the 2,000 year old olive trees.  Jesus would have seen those trees! 

Next was a walk through the Kidron Valley, which is the valley formed from the base of the Mount of Olives and the mountain on which Jerusalem sits.  We walked along the valley floor and had a biblical and historical lesson on prophets and kings who were buried or at least memorialized there.  

At the end of the Kidron Valley as we walked south, we made a sharp right turn straight into hell, or Gehenna.  "You are now in hell," Ezra said.  Not to often you can say that and actually mean it.  All of the imagery of the city dump in ancient days or places of human sacrifice or burning unclaimed bodies of dead criminals was associated with this place.  For Jesus to speak of better to have an eye plucked out than the whole body thrown into hell ("Gehenna") brought instantaneous connections to... this place.  Amazing. 

After that, we went to the birthplace of Jesus, or Bethlehem.  This city is located in the West Bank so our Israeli tour guide left the bus and our bus driver took us to Bethlehem where another tour guide, a Palestinian named Ramsey gave us the tour of Bethlehem.  We went to the oldest continually working church in Christendom, the Church of the Nativity.  We touched the place where legend says Jesus was born.  We went to the shepherds' fields and went into a cave typical of the kind of place they would have laid the baby Jesus in the manger.  We also went to the Church of the Angels there at the shepherds fields.  There we read Luke 2, the account of the birth of Jesus that includes the announcement to the shepherds.  And again, we sang.  This time, we sang Christmas Carols. 

One interesting thing about the fields around Bethlehem (photo above).  They are not smooth, easy, flowing stretches of land filled with warm, cuddly sheep.  This land is hard and rocky and rugged.  The life of a shepherd is not for the faint of heart.  These people were hearty and determined.  

After dinner, we had a presentation by Rev. Alex Awad of the Bethlehem Bible College.  He gave us, as Paul Harvey used to say, "the rest of the story" of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  It is long and complicated, but suffice it to say that neither of the two presenters on this trip who have talked about the issues - Ezra or Alex - seemed to provide many specifics on the complaints of the other.  Perhaps it is because we would be there all week.  This is complex and peace needs to be negotiated as has happened in the past.  We prayed for peace.  This place desperately needs peace.  None are overly optimistic, but all trust that nothing is impossible with God. 

Off to bed... shalom.

Israel 2013 - Mountain of Transfiguration and Jerusalem

Today's guest blogger is Cindy Stitcher.  I've looked over several times and seen Cindy with a handful of tissues in her hand.  I think she is having an awesome trip.  Here is what she said about yesterday.

Day 5

Our day was packed with WOW moments.  First we rode to the top of Mount Tabor.  It is also called the Mount of Transfiguration.  This is the place that Jesus went to pray before he went to Jerusalem to be crucified.  Luke describes the moment when the disciples that were with Jesus saw him talking to Moses and Elijah.  They were talking about what Jesus was getting ready to go through.   This got me thinking about the power of prayer.  Even Jesus used prayer to get strength for whatever he needed to do.

Our second moment was after we sang How great thou Art in the church on Mount Tabor.  Immediately after the church bells rang – it was a perfect moment.  From here we start our journey to Jerusalem.

Our next WOW moment was when we stopped at Bet She’an National Park.  There we saw an old Roman City from that was built in approximately 500 B.C.  Israel made the discovery when they were doing a routine fix on a road.  The size of the dig and the details still in tact were amazing.  You could literally walk through the city.  It did not take much imagination to see it as it was.

We continued to drive to Jerusalem.  On the way we drove through some of the West Bank.  To our left was the country of Jordan.  At some points the fence for the border was just on the other side of the street. 

Our last WOW moment for the day was when we stopped to get our first view of Jerusalem.  We read from Psalm 122.  Ezra spoke of the history surrounding the city and gave us an overview of where things are located.  He had us repeat a Hebrew blessing. Then he said, “Welcome home” and the emotion I felt was overwhelming.  I have now gone through three boxes of tissues.  WOW.

I am now looking forward to the rest of out time here and continuing on our spiritual journey. 


Friday, February 8, 2013

Israel 2013 - Around the Sea of Galilee

Today, Nathan Erickson is the guest blogger.  Nathan heard about this trip when he saw my post about it on Facebook.  We had not seen each other since 2000 when he graduated from Kenyon College.  I was doing college ministry and got to know this outstanding young man then.  Cile and I enjoyed having him into our home a number of times, including a memorable Thanksgiving when I had to take Cile the the Emergency Room for stitches and Nathan and our girls all finished cooking the meal.  He is a rock-solid Christ-follower and has this to say about our fourth day here in the land where Jesus lived.

Day 4

We saw so much today, it's hard to not take a casual approach to it. It seems like one of those busy days at home where you accomplished 5 or 6 things, except the 5 or 6 things here are witnessing the places Jesus became famous. We started out viewing the "Ancient Boat" also called the Jesus boat. It is housed in a museum right next to where we're staying. About 25 years ago the Sea of Galilee receded significantly, revealing part of the shoreline that hadn't been seen. Some locals were digging around the shoreline and happened upon this boat, which after analysis dated back to the time of Jesus. Thankfully they took great care to remove the boat, which had been protected by the mud. You can now see this boat nearly intact in the museum. Whether or not it was a boat Jesus used, it was a boat used during that time. A phenomenal sight to put so many Sea of Galilee trips in context. More on that later.
Following the boat we set out for our own trip on the Sea of Galilee. We headed out to the middle of the lake and just stopped, taking in the surrounding towns and putting pictures to words of the size of the lake (it really is a lake), as well as the region of Jesus' ministry outside of Jerusalem. To be able to now picture, literally, Nazereth, Capernaum, the region of the Gaderenes, the Sermon on the Mount, feeding the 5,000, is inexplicible. I don't know how I really pictured it before, but you can see that God chose a very specific area for a very specific reason. Perhaps the most moving for me was imagining Jesus' encounter with Peter and the other disciples after his resurrection in John 21. I have spent time studying this passage, specifically Peter and his personal experience. Peter spent most of his time with Jesus trying to prove himself. He would state his case many times why he was the greatest, and why he deserved Jesus' highest honors. Peter's last experience with Jesus prior to His death was denying Him three times, an event Jesus knew would occur and told Peter about it. Peter, so full of pride, assured Jesus that he would NEVER deny Him. In John 21 they are by the Sea of Galilee and I can imagine Peter reflecting on the last few days. He went from being certain of His devotion to Jesus and full of ambition for the King, to denying Him and watching Him die on a cross. All that Peter had known and based his life on shattered before his eyes. Not only that, he had to deal with the shame and guilt of his last experience with Jesus being one of denial. In shame and self-doubt, without direction, I can imagine him thinking to himself "what now?", and just deciding to go back to life before Jesus: "I'm going fishing". For him fishing wasn't just something to do, it was giving up on all that brought hope and meaning to his life, enveloped in the realization that he had let down Jesus.
So I imagine the joy he felt after realizing it was Jesus on the shore, throwing on his tunic and racing back. Just to see Jesus again must have restored life to his dreams, but with some resignation. He had denied Jesus, remember? Would Jesus reject him, be angry with him, scorn him? No, even Jesus returning to the shoreline and cooking them breakfast was a sign of His grace. Peter needed to be humbled, to realize that to follow Jesus meant servanthood (feed my sheep), not greatness. Peter was restored, and to be able to visualize that from the Sea of Galilee and the shoreline was incredibly meaningful to me.
I've described two things, and we're not even to lunchtime! It was almost too much to take in. After returning to the shore we went to where Jesus fed the 5,000. Like most places in Israel, from the 3rd and 4th Century various denominations have put churches over these holy sites, to protect and memorialize them. It challenges you to use your imagination a little more, but you can understand why. As Pastor John's wife Cile pointed out, even Peter wanted to erect monuments to Jesus, Elijah, and Moses on the Mount of Transfiguration.
From there we went to the Mount of Beatitudes, where Jesus delivered the sermon on the mount. Again, another church, and here is where I started to get frustrated with the crowds and tourists. It is hard to picture such an historic event occuring when there are people pushing their way through the site, taking picture after picture, and talking loudly where there should be quiet. All I wanted to do was find a quiet place to sit and read through the sermon on the mount, but it couldn't be done. Then it was like the Holy Spirit spoke to me "do you think it was quiet and peaceful when Jesus delivered this message?". I suddenly realized that the environment I was in was probably just like the sermon on the mount, at least at the beginning. A lot of people were probably there just to see this "novelty" of Jesus, there were likely hundreds of side conversations, people being distracted while Jesus spoke. So it was interesting to not only be able to picture the site but the experience.
Following that we went to Korazin, a place Jesus cursed along with two others for not following Him despite the miracles He performed there. It was amazing to see so much of the village intact in terms of forms and outlines. Even more impressive was the synagogue and the history Ezra could share with us around the structure and layout. He showed us the kitchen as well, with a visualization of how people ate in those days and what a table really looked like. He was able to put the Last Supper in context, so much different than how we think of it based on how Da Vinci pictured it.
For the sake of length, I am rushing through the rest, but there was so much to learn. We had lunch after Korazin, a fish meal at a place called St. Peter's fish. We then went to Capernaum, where Jesus spent most of His time. We saw Peter's mother's house, where Jesus healed her and where He likely stayed in Capernaum. There we saw another temple/synagogue, and Ezra put into context Capernaum of that time. Interestingly He cursed Capernaum too for not following Him despite the miracles He performed there. Capernaum was a wealthy city with many people passing through on their way to someone else. Many people were probably quite comfortable and didn't see a "need" for Jesus (sound familiar?). It made me think that after all I've seen in Israel, I don't want to go back and get so comfortable with my life that the significance of Jesus or what He's done is lost.
After Capernaum we went to the region of the Gaderenes, where Jesus healed the demon possessed man. You could see the hill the pigs went down into the Sea of Galilee. It was actually a very beautiful place, one of my favorites. Partly because there wasn't anyone else there! One of the benefits of a guide like Ezra is he takes you to all the places you know you want to see (just like everyone else), and then to places you didn't know you wanted to see, but so glad you did.
We ended the day at Yardenit, the mouth of the Jordan River that feeds the Sea of Galilee, where it is believed John the Baptist baptized Jesus. In my mind this was a river bank you would have to wade down to, quiet and serene. However such a monumental place deserves a great monument... and gift shop, stairs and ramps leading down to the river, restrooms, etc. etc. It was hard not to be frustrated again by the commercialization of such an historic place, but again the Holy Spirit reminded me that when John the Baptist was baptizing people, crowds gathered, some just to see what all the fuss was about, and with crowds came merchants to take advantage of it! So baptism at the Jordan River today was probably a lot like it was 2,000 years ago. And just as it was a life changing experience then, I could see many people who chose this time and place to get baptized because it would be a life changing experience now. Had I not already been baptized, I would have definitely done it as well.
So that ended our day! Today we will go to Mt. Tabor, or the Mount of Transfiguration, Beth She'an, and then Jerusalem for the rest of the trip. I feel like we've covered so much of Jesus' life, and yet we haven't even been to Jerusalem! As Pastor John says, you will never read the Bible the same again and I am already experiencing it. Most of all, when you see these places and hear the stories, it only solidifies your faith. God is real, and He is awesome.

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Israel 2013 - Mt. Carmel, Megiddo, Nazareth, and Cana

I liked having Cile post for the first few days of our travel.  I've invited another on our team to post about our third day of the trip.  This is from Pastor Karen Kier.  She is a pastor at Oak Grove Church of God and we have served together on Via de Cristo spiritual retreat weekends.  She and her husband, Scott, have made this trip part of their 30th wedding anniversary present to each other.  Here is what Pastor Karen had to say about today... - John

Day 3

Our tour guide graciously allowed a late start (10:30 a.m.) today.  Ten hours of sleep made for much greater engagement with the experiences of day 3 J.  We started our day with the bus ride to Mt. Carmel and along the way, received an interesting and informative history lesson about the nation of Israel and the very complicated issues involved in the turmoil that has been a part of life in this region for so long.  Our tour guide was very careful to avoid passing judgment or proposing solutions, but it did inspire me to go back and read the history of this area with added perspective.

Standing on Mt. Carmel we looked over the Valley of Jezreel where so many biblical connections came to mind.  It is the place where Elijah confronted Baal worship by challenging the prophets of Baal to a contest—their god against the God of Israel (1 Kings 18).  Of course God proved Himself to be the true God and Elijah had the prophets of Baal seized and killed them at the brook of Kishon—which we saw from where we stood on Mt. Carmel!  I remarked to our tour guide, Ezra, that is seemed so small.  His answer, “Well, after all, it is only a brook!”  Part of this adventure for me is looking at the epic stories of the Bible from the level of human experience—something that is much easier to do when you’re standing right in the place where those events unfolded!

We learned that the word Carmel is a combination of two Hebrew words, Karem (Vinyard) and El (a name for God).  God’s vineyard is an appropriate name for the view from Mt. Carmel down across the Valley of Jezreel.  We traveled through the lush, green Valley of Jezreel to arrive at Meggido, the Hebrew name of which is Har-Magedon.  It was hard for me to image that this beautiful valley is the place of the final battle of Armageddon spoken of in Revelation 16:16.  Many battles have been fought on that field, but none matches the scope or significance of the ultimate battle between good and evil!

Meggido itself was amazing for so many reasons.  It has been fought over many times in history because of its important location.  The tel on which it is located is literally made of layer upon layer of civilization as each conquering nation built on top of the one before it.  We saw original entryways into the city, the chariot entrance, ruins of palaces, greeneries, and stables.  So many windows into the world of powerful rulers  like Kings Solomon and Ahab!  Perhaps the most impressive feature was the waterworks, constructed during the reign of King Ahab, which supplied Meggido with water from a spring outside the city.  Two sets of workers dug, one from the spring and one from inside the city, until the two met, creating a means for the inhabitants of the city to have an uninterrupted water supply, even if an enemy besieged the city.  Everything in Megiddo seemed to be very strategically planned and masterfully engineered.  Looking across the valley from Megiddo, we saw the city of Jezreel where much more of the story of Ahab and Jezebel took place.

From Megiddo we traveled to Nazareth, now a city of around 170,000 people.  We passed by the place on a hillside in Nazareth where an angry mob threatened to toss Jesus off.  We toured the captivating Church of the Enunciation, close to where Mary would have received the angelic visit that announced she would bear the Messiah.  Ezra pointed out the distance Mary would have traveled early in her pregnancy to visit with Elizabeth and then again to go to Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth—traveling on a donkey with all the supplies needed for a trip of 100 miles. The Church was amazingly beautiful, covered with artwork from many different countries depicting Mary the baby Jesus.  Every rendering of Mary and Jesus had the features of the countries what sent the artwork, probably making the depiction less accurate, but so very meaningful.  Jesus came for all people and the idea of every country having their own vision of Jesus caused John 3:16 to ring in that glorious setting: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.”

We ended the day in Cana, the place where Jesus performed his first miracle, turning water to wine at a wedding feast.  The site is now home to a beautiful church, built over the home in which it is strongly believed that Jesus himself, at the request of his mother, turned the water of the unfortunate host family into wine of the highest quality!  This miracle caused the disciples to put their faith in him, but just as important, it accomplished what Jesus did, and still does so freely for us.  He acted with compassion, to transform what was a very difficult and anxious situation into one where people were blessed and God was glorified.

I’m typing this from our hotel room (Kibbutz) in Tiberius on the Sea of Galilee where we were served a delicious variety of Mediterranean food.  We’ll be going to sleep tonight spiritually enriched, inspired and so very aware and forever transformed by the fact that we have walked in the footsteps of our Savior.


Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Israel 2013 - Thoughts from Cile

I thought it might be good to hear from others on this trip, so tonight I've asked Cile to give her thoughts on the trip so far.  - John

Well, John asked if I’d write my reactions to our travels for days 1 and 2.  So far, I feel a great deal better now that I’ve showered and had dinner!  Yesterday morning began our journey of relatively uneventful traveling from Tampa to Newark to Tel Aviv.  It was, for me, a time of adjusting to the reality of what we’re doing…going to the Holy Land! Is this real? Am I really doing something I never even imagined I’d WANT to do?! Quite frankly, I’d never entertained the idea of going to the Holy Land because of all the conflict and safety issues associated with Israel-and I definitely never wanted to be a part of that kind of action!

The reality is that we’re safe and there’s no sense of danger here.  We landed at Ben Gurion airport and then went to Joppa along the coast. Joppa sort of reminded me of a much older St. Augustine, with its narrow alleyways, stone architecture, and a sense of history that can be felt.  As our tour guide, Ezra, said, “This is where heaven and earth touch.”  This is where Peter raised Tabitha from the dead and received the vision from God at Simon the Tanner’s house to share the gospel with the Gentiles - that’s you and me.  The Gentiles were the “unclean” ones to whom the Jews were to share the good news of Jesus Christ. So as I’m sitting here typing, I’m thinking, “who are the ‘unclean’ that I must share the gospel with?” Is there anyone that I’ve marginalized or am prejudiced against that needs the redemptive love of Christ? “Don’t call unclean what I have called clean,” God told Peter. “Don’t dismiss someone simply because they’re different from you,” God told me.  The love of Christ is far-reaching and powerful, I must not negate or minimalize it because of my preconceptions or biases.

From Joppa we went to Caesarea. At Caesarea, the grandeur of architecture built at the command of one who had deep pockets, inspired me to research ancient architecture and building methods when I get back home. Scale of the ruins, transportation of building materials, and architecture plans of this magnitude were awe-inspiring and thought provoking. And we also stood in the place where Paul made his appeal to go to Rome.  It’s a lot to take in.  Oh, and we drove by the Roman aquaduct (pictured), which is another amazing piece of ancient engineering.  Fascinating.

We are now back at Tel Aviv to spend the night.  As I reflect on the day, my words seem paltry and insufficient in comparison to my actual impressions.  They don’t adequately express what I was feeling and thinking earlier in the day and now as I try to share them with you.  I don’t have photos because I used up nearly all my cell phone battery playing spider solitaire on the plane coming over. Suffice it to say that tomorrow my phone will be fully charged and no games will be played so that I can take photos to upload and share with you.