Home again…

My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one can snatch them away from me,
‭John‬ ‭10‬:‭27-28‬ NLT

So it is 3:46am and I’ve been awake for a while now. I took melatonin, I did the things you are supposed to do to fend off jet lag, and still it got me.

That’s ok. It will take a few days to adjust, but I’ll be back to normal soon. In the meantime, I thought I’d use the extra “awake” hours to blog.

If you’ve been following me during the trip to Israel, you already know what a wonderful time we had. Our experiences exceeded every hope and expectation I had.

I knew that our group of pilgrims felt the same, but when several of them got up in church yesterday to share their “aha” moments, I was blown away. Many were moved to tears as they spoke (Regan ended her (beautiful!) words by gesturing at her heart, shaking her head and walking away from the microphone as she had lost the ability to keep speaking). The variety of things that people singled out as “aha” moments was great to hear.

It reminded me that the voice of God comes to us all in different ways. Some hear Him through the words of a friend or loved one, some here Him through the beauty of nature, some hear Him through the written word, some hear Him in song. Some hear Him in all of these ways and more.

The fact is that we all encounter God’s voice on different ways. And God – in his infinite generosity – provides a multitude of different messages in different mediums so that each of us can hear him in our own “language.”

May your heart/soul/mind always be open to the voice/sight/sound/touch of God. May you embrace the way He has made you to hear Him speak. May you hunger to follow Him always.

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Right beside…

I know the LORD is always with me. I will not be shaken, for he is right beside me.
‭Psalms‬ ‭16‬:‭8‬ NLT

Today was our free day in the city of Jerusalem. My dear friend Luke and I spent the day together. Sometimes we were with others from the tour group, and sometimes we were on our own. We shopped, ate and laughed our way through the Old City. Here are a few highlights.

We started the day dropping in on St. Andrew’s Scots Memorial Church with Regan and Geoff. Geoff introduced us at reception and we were told that the minister was present and would love to meet us. So we spent some time having a visit with their recently called minister, the Rev. Páraic Réamonn. He originates from Ireland, but spent a couple of decades in Switzerland before coming to Jerusalem. After a lovely chat, we headed upstairs to have a look at the sanctuary. Pictures were taken in the pulpit and among the pews.

By the time we left, we were significantly late to meet my folks’ and their good friends the Browns at the Jaffa Gate. So we walked there as fast as we possibly could. Once we arrived, we couldn’t see my parents anywhere. Geoff and Regan went one direction to try to find them and Luke and I went another.

While I was looking around on the street, a gentleman came up to me and said, “You are Canadian, yes? You are looking for your people? Four people? You are supposed to have others with you.” I was a little taken aback and I said, “um, yes, how did you know?” He said, “Your mother, she is this way. She showed me your picture.” (I was asking myself, “Is this even happening right now?!”) He continued, “You find your friends, then I show you where your mother is. First, you look at my father’s shop. It doesn’t cost you to look.” So sure enough, I found Luke and explained what was going on, we went into the gentleman’s shop, and then he brought us along to where my parents and the Browns were browsing in Vic’s Armenian Pottery shop.

We spent a couple of hours browsing and shopping with the folks’. Then we split up again. Luke and I wandered, got totally lost (Mom had taken the excellent map Geoff gave us), got caught up in a tide of muslim’s heading home from worship at the Dome of the Rock, and left the Old City through the Damascus Gate. We walked outside the Old City until we arrived at the New Gate. This put us in the Christian Quarter. We shopped for a bit there, too.

After deciding we were tired, we headed back to our hotel. In order to reach the Dan Boutique, we had to walk through the renovated train station (which is now a restaurants and shopping area). Who should we bump into while we were there? My parents and the Browns, of course. We sat and enjoyed lemonade while chatting about our experiences during the day.

In some ways today was the opposite of what most of the tour has been. Today was not focussed on the spiritual. At the same time, in Jerusalem, the spiritual is never far away. The day started with a visit to a church, the place we ate lunch at was beside the 5th station of the cross on the Via Dolorosa, the Muslims thronged the Old City streets as they returned from their worship.

That’s the way it should be – even as we go about “ordinary life” the extraordinary love of God should always be right beside beside us. May it be in your life, as I find it to be in Jerusalem – the presence of God, close enough to touch.

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Geoff and I with the Rev. Páraic Réamonn, minister of St. Andrew’s, Jerusalem.

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Standing in the sanctuary of St. Andrew’s, Jerusalem.

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Luke, Rosemarie Brown and Norm Brown, enjoying refreshments in the Old City.

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Dad, Mom and Norm, trying to figure out where we were in the Old City. That’s the excellent map that Mom never did give back to Luke and I.

Making our mark…

But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light. Once you were not a people, but now you are the people of God; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
‭1 Peter‬ ‭2‬:‭9-10‬ NIV

Today we saw the Scale Model of the ancient city of Jerusalem, visited the Shrine of the Book (Dead Sea scrolls), walked the Palm Sunday path to Gethsemane, paid a visit to Petrus Galicantu (Caiaphas’ house, where Jesus was imprisoned before the crucifixion), walked the Via Dolorosa (re way of sorrows, along which Jesus walked, carrying the cross on Good Friday) and ended the day at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

One of the things I love about the theologically significant places we have visited is the way that Christians leave their marks in these places. Wherever we have gone, we have seen crosses carved into stone, candles lit, and prayers written out.

At the church of the Holy Sepulcher we saw how Christians had pounded nails into the door. I love this need of people of faith to leave their mark on the site as Christ has left His mark on us.

The point of everything Geoff and I do at St. Andrews is life-change. That people would experience the overwhelming love of God in a way that makes them think, feel, and LIVE differently.

My prayer is that in Christ, God is leaving his mark on you and that because of his mark on you, you will leave your mark on the world.

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Together we journey…

Because God’s children are human beings—made of flesh and blood—the Son also became flesh and blood. For only as a human being could he die, and only by dying could he break the power of the devil, who had the power of death.
Hebrews‬ ‭2‬:‭14‬ NLT

Today we explored the City of David, visited the Temple steps, prayed at the Western Wall, trekked through the tunnel underneath the Western Wall, and paid our respects to the 6 million victims of the Holocaust as we visited Yad Vashem.

One of the things I love best about my faith is that our God was not satisfied to stay separate from us. That in sending the child born in Bethlehem, God chose to dwell among us as one of us. To “take on flesh and move into the neighborhood” as one of my favorite translations (The Message) of John 1:14 puts it.

Because of that, a trip like the one my fellow pilgrims and I are taking is possible.

Today we stood on the Temple steps – the same steps Jesus would have used to enter the temple. Scholars can argue about the authenticity of virtually every other significant Christian site in Israel, but they cannot argue about the Temple steps. Jesus was there. Repeatedly. Undoubtedly. In the flesh.

I remember being so excited by that on my last trip to the Holy Land. And one of my dreams for this trip was to get a photo of my Mom, Dad and I touching the steps. There are areas of the steps that have been restored and areas that have been left as they were found. For the three of us to lay our hands on the unrestored steps together is a symbol.

A symbol that speaks to the fact that my journey of faith has always been lead by my folks. They are my biological parents, but they are also my spiritual parents. They taught me from my earliest days what it means to love and follow Jesus. When I moved to Thunder Bay to attend Lakehead University, they came with me to check out the local Presbyterian churches during summer vacation, so i could choose where I would worship when school began. When I started lay preaching they encouraged me and prayed for me. When I attended seminary they wept with me during the tough times, celebrated with me during the good times and always spent time discussing the things I was learning with me. When I accepted the call to St. Luke’s in Oshawa, and then to St. Andrew’s in Brampton, they supported me every single step of the way.

So for the three of us to lay our hands down on the steps where Jesus walked, the steps where he would have sat and taught those who would listen, the steps he would have taken as a boy and as a man, speaks to the fact that my faith has always been a group effort with my folks.

I thank God for them (even when they drive me crazy, which is regularly!) and I thank God that we have had the opportunity to take this life changing trip together.

No matter who you are – God has provided people to surround you, support you and be with you on the journey. Name those people in your prayers this evening – tell God how much you appreciate being in community as you journey in faith.

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Hospitality…

“ ‘When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God. Leviticus‬ ‭19‬:‭33-34‬ NIV

Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.
Hebrews‬ ‭13‬:‭2‬ NIV

Today we scaled the heights of Masada (Herod’s Northern palace and the site of the last stronghold of Jewish rebels in 74AD), stopped at Wadi Kelt overlooking the ancient Jericho Road (the same one Jesus talked about in a certain parable – we got to sing “On the Jericho Road” while there…AMAZING!!), road camels and enjoyed the Bedouin hospitality at Genesisland and sung a Christmas Carol beside the manger in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

As has been true of each day on this trip, it was a day packed with amazing moments. We arrived at Masada as the first group of the day and got to do our tour with almost no one else around. We had a beautiful musical moment at Wadi Kelt. We had an emotional and beautiful time at the Church of the Nativity.

But the thing that blew me away was Genesisland. It sounds like a kitschy tourist trap. But it is actually the Old Testament version of Nazareth Village. Instead of a working farm using the methods that would have been used in Jesus’ day, this was an experience of Bedouin hospitality as it would have been in the time of Abraham.

After riding camels (real, live, honking CAMELS!!!) lead by the servant Eliezer, out to Abraham’s tent, we were warmly welcomed by Abraham, who poured refreshing water on our hands and invited us to recline at tables in the tent. After telling us about his life, Abraham called for us to be served lunch. We ate chicken and kebabs, salads and pitas, and drank lemonade.

Abraham took the time to explain how important hospitality is to him and his people. That in a desert place a lack of hospitality could mean death for the traveller. He made the point that it also means a slow spiritual death for the one who chooses not to offer the hospitality. For a lack of sharing makes the heart grow cold.

He thanked us for traveling such a long way to allow him to do the mitzvah (good deed) of hospitality. And asked that we think of all that we enjoyed today the next time we have the opportunity to extend hospitality to a stranger, and take the opportunity to share with them as he had shared with us.

Abraham said he wasn’t a preacher, but he did a good job of summarizing what Jesus would have to say about hospitality, as far as I was concerned. He spoke with passion, inspiring us as we listened to live lives of kindness and generosity. Is this not the call of Jesus to every believer?

As we sang today overlooking Wadi Kelt: “to be a neighbor, the master said (on the Jericho Road), is to show compassion as that man did, for even faith without works is dead (on the Jericho Road, on the Jericho Road)”

May you experience beautiful hospitality and may you be the one who gets to practice the mitzvah of hospitality towards others. Both are deep blessings in their own right.

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Masada – perfect day to explore this amazing place and hear the stories.

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Luke reading the parable of the Good Samaritan at Wadi Kelt, over looking the ancient Jericho Road.

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Riding a camel with Luke on our way to Abraham’s tent. It was terrifying and fun all at the same time!

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The wonderful spread Abraham had for us – this was just he first course!

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Abraham himself – a wonderful host, speaker and story teller.

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Riding a camel with my Dad on the way back from lunch. Dad was a trooper getting up there with me. Fulfilled one of my dreams for this trip!

Water in a desert place…

Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”

Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
John‬ ‭4‬:‭10, 13-14‬ NIV

Today we travelled to Qumran where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, baptized one of our pilgrims in the Jordan River at Qaser El Yahud – the place where John baptized Jesus, shopped at Ahava’s factory outlet and floated in the Dead Sea.

Tonite’s blog is going to be a short one friends – I’ve just about hit empty on the old energy tank.

Still – I couldn’t go to bed without sharing some thoughts about water in a desert place. Today was dubbed “the aquafecta” by Geoff who swam in the Sea of Galilee, waded in the Jordan and floated in the Dead Sea.

The amazing thing – other than getting to do all three in one day – is that we did this while traveling from a green and fertile land in the Galilee to a barren desert. As the bus headed south, we began to notice an abundance of rocks in the fields. Then within a few minutes we were aware that we were seeing a little scrub grass between the rocks. A short while later, the green was all but gone and we knew that we had entered the desert.

When God wants to bless the people of Israel, he promises them springs in the desert wasteland. When Jesus wants people to understand salvation, he speaks of offering them living water. This is because in the desert, nothing is as precious as water. Nothing marks the line between life and death so clearly as how much water you have.

What God offers us is a choice between life and death. The way of Jesus is a spring of living water – eternal life – that wells up in us when his Spirit dwells in us. Without him we are left to face the wages of sin: death. Whether spiritual, emotional or physical.

May you, my friends, choose life. May his Spirit well up in you, a fountain of living water, even in a desert place.

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Starting the morning on the shores of a very breezy Sea of Galilee.

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Baptizing Sankar Roopnarine in the Jordan River.

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The caves of Qumran in the background. Where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found.

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Floating in the Dead Sea.

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Mudded up at the Dead Sea – very good for the skin, the mud has essential nutrients that revive skin cells. So soft afterward!

The gates of hell…

When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” “But what about you?” he asked. “Who do you say I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” Jesus replied, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by flesh and blood, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.”
Matthew‬ ‭16‬:‭13-18‬ NIV

Today we strolled through the wilderness at Dan (another Tel – this one dating back 3000 years); stopped at the ruins of Caesarea Phillipi (where Jesus asked the disciples, “who do you say I am?” And Peter answered “you are the Christ, the Son of the Living God.”); explored the castle of Nimrod; ate at a Druze restaurant on the side of a volcano; stood on the Golan Heights hearing the sounds of gunfire in nearby Syria which is tearing itself apart in civil war; and toured an ecologically sound olive oil press.

As we wandered around Ceasarea Phillipi (which really is just a cliff and a few short walking trails), my Mother said to me, “it does make you wonder why Jesus brought the disciples here…I mean, other than a teachable moment, there’s nothing here.”

Sometimes, when someone asks me a spiritually significant question, I find myself answering with words that come to me seemingly from nowhere. It’s like I’m answering without quite knowing what I am going to say. Time and faith have taught me that the words aren’t coming from nowhere, that they are in fact coming from the Holy Spirit.

That’s what I believe happened when I gave her this answer: “But, Mom, it was one hell of a teachable moment. I mean, here is Jesus standing in front of what everybody in that day believed were the gates of Hell, and he’s saying to the disciples ‘upon you, I will build my church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.’ So – when I die, and it seems like the end, the gates of hell will not prevail against it. Or when you are imprisoned and beaten for your faith, the gates of hell will not prevail against it…” I had to stop talking then, because we had both choked up. And as we took shaky breaths, laughing a little at how quickly the tears had come upon us, I marveled again at our saviour, Jesus.

I marveled at his ability to use his surroundings to underscore his words. I marveled at this promise – that no matter what the world or the forces of evil could throw at those who believe in Jesus, they would not be overcome. Not while Jesus was with them (and we know he promised to be there to the end of time). I marveled at his reckless, beautiful, overwhelming conviction that the Gospel message was safe in the hands of a bunch of unschooled fishermen whose job it was to take this message to the world. I marveled that even now, two thousand years later, through all the scandals and failures over the years, the promise rings true.

If you believe in Jesus and live your life according to his teachings, you ARE the church. And the gates of hell will never prevail against you.

Be encouraged, I know I am.

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Geoff and our guide Aharon, with the ruins of Dan in the background.

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Standing in one of the empty alcoves where there used to be a stone “god.” Jesus stood in front of these statues as Peter declared him the Son of the Living God.

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Exploring the castle of Nimrod. Wow, I absolutely love castles. And got a great workout running up and down stairs. 🙂

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On the Golan Heights – dad and our guide, Aharon, looking out at Syria. Aharon served in the Yom Kippur war when he was 19 years old. His passion for his country showed as he told his story.

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Our tour guide at Olea Essence, Courtney, who happens to be from Ottawa. She did a great job of showing us around this ecologically sound producer of fine olive oils and skin products (it’s how they use the “waste” after pressing the oil out!).