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His name was Mike Taylor. He was a neighbor kid, a couple of years older than me and big for his age. He had the IQ of a kumquat, I’m sure, but when you are 11 and he is 13, that really doesn’t matter. What did matter is that he was a bully and all of the kids in the neighborhood were afraid of him, including yours truly.

One day we were walking home from school, my sister and I, a couple of friends, and Mike Taylor and his buddies were walking behind us. He was calling everyone in our little group names, especially my sister. He kept calling her “Twiggy,” maybe a clever pop-culture reference to a famous model of that era, but more likely, a comment on my sister’s body shape. Now in all fairness, Charlotta was 8 years old a Twiggy was a pretty accurate description. I kept reminding the group that we were Christians. Christians did not return an eye for an eye. Christians stayed above the fray. Christians turned the other cheek.

I was spectacular in my calm reasoning, my spiritual superiority. I kept the little band together, facing straight ahead, ignoring the bully, and marching toward home. Until bully Mike Taylor said, “And your brother is a four-eyed sissy.” Again, in fairness, I was four-eyed, having worn glasses since the I was little. And I was probably a little bit of a sissy, especially with the bully pack breathing down my neck. But Mike Taylor had gone too far. This was a matter of honor, (at least as much honor as a 11 year old can have.) He was besmirching our family name, and in the Name of Jesus, there will be no besmirching going on today.

I turned to face the enemy horde, blowed up my scrawny self, balled up my tiny fist, and said, in my most manly, squeaky voice, “Mike Taylor, you are a bully and we are not going to take this anymore.” Now, I really don’t know what WE meant because as soon as I turned around, my little band of compatriots put it in high gear and started sprinting for home. Well, it would be a wonderful story if on that day, I stood up to the bully Mike Taylor, he backed down, saw the error of his ways, gave his heart to Jesus, and we became life-long friends.

Actually, Mike Taylor and his friends laughed, and he proceeded to beat the stuffing out of me. You know that thing about not hitting a man with glasses? Doesn’t work. I tried to play that card but he just carefully took them off, handed them to a buddy, and then beat me like a second hand drum.

This fall, October 4-5 to be exact, we are taking Simply Free to Mt. Vernon, Ohio. Simply Free is a spiritual outbreak weekend where praise, worship, and powerful testimonies are brought to bear to unleash the power of God to “set His captives free.” Imagine the old fashioned Wednesday night testimony service, the rockin’ Christian concert, and a lay witness weekend all rolled into one. Simply Free is a vision that God gave my wife 12 years ago and He has used it many times since then to see miracles happen in the lives of those who attend and those who participate. The first year we did Simply Free we sent an email to some friends, had a room that would hold 40 people. 600 signed up. It has been AMAZING every year.

That’s Simply Free. What about the other elements in that equation? Mt. Vernon is a quaint, Norman Rockwellesque little town in Central Ohio. It happens to be the place where Doris and I really began a life of ministry in earnest. We were called to be on staff at a wonderful church in Mt. Vernon 38 years ago, and spent 5 of the most wonderful years of our lives there. It was the location of great spiritual development for us both. It was also the place of some heartbreaking decisions by me. What a God thing to be invited back to bring Simply Free to a community that we have loved for nearly 40 years.

But there is another character in this little drama, Mike Taylor, the bully. His name isn’t Mike Taylor now. It is Satan, or the devil, or Lucifer, or the enemy, but he is still present and he is still a bully. My guess is that he will, if he hasn’t already, begin to taunt, attack, call names, try to make us believe that this is a terrible idea, and we cannot win. One of our dear friends sent me an email a few days ago from Mt. Vernon and she said, “I really believe (we) are under attack. I’m so hopeful for this event, not just for our church but for Mt. Vernon. God is going to use (Simply Free) to change lives.”

In the 12th chapter of Revelation, John says that the bully is, “an accuser.” He says in verse 10, “He accuses then day and night.” Sound familiar? That voice that sits on your shoulder 24 hours a day and reminds you of all the times you have tried and failed before, of all the things you have done wrong so that you don’t deserve for God to act on your behalf? He is a bully and he taunts you continually, convincing you, or at least trying to convince you, that God will not come through. That Mike Taylor makes me so mad.
But THEN, Revelation 12:11 says, “And they overcame (the bully Mike Taylor) by the Blood of the Lamb and the Word of their Testimony. You know what that sounds like to me? Simply Free. Praising and worshipping the Lamb, and testifying to the mighty things that He has done in us and through us. Listen, we will win this battle and take back what the enemy has stolen. We will silence the accuser by praise and worship, and by our testimonies.

I read in my devotions this morning Deuteronomy 20. “When you go to war against your enemies and you see horses and chariots and armies that are bigger than yours, DON’T BE AFRAID OF THEM. The Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt (that’s a testimony) will be with you (that’s a praise.) ….The Lord your God goes with you, to fight for you against your enemies AND TO SAVE YOU.” (verses 1 & 5)

So here’s what we do. We start right now preparing for the battle. We need people to join us in prayer. We need people to start praising God for what He HAS done, what He IS doing, and what He WILL do. We need you to tell your stories, to everyone you can about how God has fought for you in the past and how He is going to come through on October 4-5. Over the next few months we will have a series of meetings in Mt. Vernon to prepare for Simply Free. If you live in that area, join us for those. Each one will be a time of praise, prayer and preparation. Above all, DO NOT LOSE HEART. The battle belongs to the Lord.

And, if you happen to see Mike Taylor, (he is an old man now,) carefully take his glasses off, hand them to a buddy, and slap the snot out of him. (I am still working on forgiveness.)

PS . Just 2 weeks after Simply Free in Mt. Vernon we will do Simply Free in Murfreesboro. October 25-26. All of the things we said about MV applies to the ‘Boro. It’s going to be AWESOME.

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Today is March 1, 2019. I started the year looking ahead to 2020 with an ambitious plan for discipline and self-improvement by the time that new year rolls around. I called it 20/20 Vision. My goals were fairly common, lose 25 pounds, read through the Bible, be nicer to my sister, stuff like that. I had all of the enthusiasm you can muster. I wrote out charts and graphs. I even bought a new set of colored markers for my Bible reading.

And then…well, then life happened, reality set in, gravity brought me back down to earth. Now, in my defense, I was really sick for a week, went to Israel for 10 days, had to build an ark in my backyard for the flood of 2019. All of that aside, I have just failed miserably so far this year at my industrious undertaking. I have gained 3 pounds. I went to the Holy Land and never opened my Bible, and my sister, well, she’s just hard to be nice to. So here I am, 60 days into 20/20 Vision, sitting like a couch potato in my office at home, wondering what happened.

This morning in my Bible reading, (9 days behind) I read Leviticus 23. By the way, nothing will get you off track from your goals like having to read through Leviticus. If I never read about another oozing sore or a crushed testicle it will be too soon. Anyway, in Leviticus 23, God lays out all of the feast days for the children of Israel. There is the Passover, the Feast of the First Harvest, count 50 days from that and the Feast of Weeks. On and on it goes, Trumpets, Shelters, Lightstands, it seems God had them feasting all of the time. I bet they weren’t successful at losing 25 pounds either. But what was that about, all of that feating and remembering and planning ahead?

I’m thinking there are some lessons for us here as we try to get back in the swing of the disciplined life. First, we need to not go too long between celebrations. I don’t know if Israel had ADHD but I’m pretty sure I do. I can’t plan too far ahead, or make my goals too long ranging. There is something to be said for short-term goals, easier wins, a closer focus. We need to work some victory parties in from time to time to keep us on the right path.

Maybe all of life is like that. Maybe I need to not look way down the road and be more intentional about smelling the roses right here and now. My grandson’s basketball game is just as important as the 5-year projection report I’m working on for Branches. Taking the time to go shopping with Doris (ugh) means more to her than the well thought out retirement scenario I have put in place. I’m just saying that, while the long-range stuff really matters, I will lose my way if I don’t enjoy and celebrate the moments that God puts in front of me.

Which leads me to the second lesson, this is more about God than it is about me. The problem with my 20/20 Vision plan was that it focused on what I need to do, what I want to accomplish, what I thought was important. God says to Israel, “Have a bunch of feasts along the way to remind you that it ALL comes from me.” Every feast was a reminder of what God did, was doing and would do. It reminds me of our guide in Israel that described the feats this way. He said every Jewish celebration begins with, “Our enemies tried to kill us. They are gone. We are still here. Let’s eat.” Not a bad outlook on life.

My goals are important. I want to be more disciplined. I want to make more of an impact. But you know what? Anything and everything I have ever accomplished had been in spite of the devil and because of the Lord. I haven’t managed to do too much in life but, my enemy is defeated. I’m still here. Let’s eat.

So, I’m getting back to my 20/20 self. I still am focused on being more disciplined, preparing myself to be used by God, making a statement for Him. But that is not the most important thing. The important thing is that I take notice of what He is doing in the moment, and I celebrate Him along the way. Let’s get started again. Read your Bible every day. Start a little exercise plan. Pray 12 minutes a a day. (I’ll teach you how next week.) But don’t forget to have a God party many times along the way. And, if you see my sister, be nice to her!

(Here’s my plan for week 1 of March. Read 5 chapters from the Bible each day. Start one book for March, I’ve chosen I Declare War by Levi Lusko. Walk or run 6 miles this week. Pray 12 minutes a day. Write down and track of all of my spending this month. And finish one small project I have lying around. I’ll see you next Friday.)

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Sorry I missed yesterday. I have been writing these blogs on my IPad and after 10 days my battery finally ran down. (and my IPad was out of juice too.)

I have been blessed for the last four days to wake up to the sun rising over the Golan Heights on the other side of the Sea of Galilee. Each morning I slip out on our patio, careful not to wake Doris (I may be crazy but I’m not insane.) and spend a minute or two watching the sun fully embrace this beautiful part of the world. It is as if God bends down to His favorite part of the globe and kisses it a good morning.

The Galilee is a surprisingly beautiful part of this little country. I imagine Israel to be a dry wilderness, something akin to Lawrence of Arabia movies. Certainly it is that, in the south, the region of the Negev, down by the Dead Sea. But here, in the north, the countryside is lush, green, think Orlando, Florida, without the theme parks and a lot of steep hills. I love this part of the Israeli geography.

Today was our last day in Israel. We spent it in the Galilee. We began the day at the Church of the Beatitudes. Seated in a small amphitheater, with the green hillside behind us and the Sea of Galilee in front of us, Governor Huckabee walked through the “blessed art thou” part of the Bible. This is a great place to say that the Huckabees, Governor Mike and his wife, Janet, are great hosts. They are gracious, kind, focused on every detail. We are so grateful to them and to Chonda for making this trip possible. The Governor took the statements of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount and commented briefly on each step. sitting there, close to the place where Jesus must have taught, I found myself introspective. Do I really hunger and thirst for righteousness? Does that “pure in heart” stuff have anything to do with me?

From the Church of the Beatitudes, we went to the walk along the beach at the Church of the Primacy of St. Peter. There, our guide told us of his conversion to Christianity and what it was like to be a believer in a Jewish school and community. We visited a boat, pulled from the bottom of the Sea of Galilee that dates to the time of Jesus. We ended the day taking a boat ride, not on the 2000 year old one. We watched the sun go down on the other side of the Sea of Galilee, setting behind the hills of Nazareth. We started the day and ended it in the same way, watching God place His stamp of approval on this incredible piece of real estate. What a way to end our trip to Israel, to spend our last day in the Galilee, this way. We said our goodbyes, shed a tear or two, exchanged email addresses, snapped the last pictures, and then boarded the buses for the two-hour drive to Tel Aviv.

It made me think about the last day that Jesus walked here. Although He was raised in Nazareth, just over the hill to our east, He spent most of His short adult years here in the Galilee. Capernaum, Magdala, Tiberias, these were the villages that Jesus frequented, where He taught, healed the sick, fed the thousands, and changed lives. From here He walked a couple of weeks to Jerusalem and paid His respects to His Jewish roots. One of those days, I don’t know which one, was His last day in the Galilee. One of those days, as He walked with the water lapping at His feet and the gorgeous, green hillside providing His backdrop, He knew that this was His last visit to this place, at least it this purely, earthly form.

Jesus was here when He received word that Lazarus, His dear friend was sick, deathly sick. We know from the story in the Gospel of John that He waited a few days before He started that two-week journey to Bethany. Perhaps part of that was that He hated to leave this place for the last time. Remember on the other side of Bethany was Jerusalem, the Triumphal Entry, the Last Supper, the betrayal by Judas Iscariot, the trial, torture, crucifixion, and death of Jesus. I mean, He IS Jesus. He sees all of that coming. Don’t you imagine He lingered for one more sunset, one more fish dinner, one more night of hearing the seagulls screech from the darkness over the Sea? This was His last day in the Galilee. Don’t you think He wanted to make it last?

Perhaps, you are facing a hard decision. Not even a decision, a change, a movement in life that you know is inevitable. The die is already cast, the thing has already been set in motion. But you stand, waiting, hoping beyond hope that maybe things will turn out differently. You are facing your last day in the Galilee and you are either, dreading for this chapter to end, or afraid to take the next step.

Fifteen years ago, I was sitting alone in an apartment in Orlando, Florida. My wife had left me (and rightly so), my sons wanted nothing to do with me (and rightly so). I knew what I needed to do. Seek help. Find a counselor. Tell the truth. Start the healing process. But I sat there, paralyzed with fear, immobilized by a broken heart, immersed in shame. I was hoping this day would just stop and I would not have to face the consequences, endure the pain. I just wanted to pull the cover over my head and hide there forever in my Galilee. Have you had, or are you having those moments? You know you have to confront your spouse. You have to tell your kids about the diagnosis. You know this ministry has come to an end. You know it is time to enter a treatment program. Whatever the details, most of us have spent the last day in Galilee at one time or another, unable or unwilling to move forward.

Here are some things I learned about facing those hard. hard moments from Jesus.

First, reluctant obedience is better than not moving at all. Jesus is slow to go to Bethany, perhaps because of what lies ahead, but He goes. Remember the parable He told about the two sons who are ordered to do something by their father. One says no, goes away and thinks about it, and then does what His father asked. The other quickly, flippantly says yea, but never really follows His father’s wishes. Listen, your heavenly Father made you. He knows how hard this next step is for you. He waits patiently for you to “come to your senses” and return home.

Second, grief is not a bad thing. We try to sidestep grief too often. Or at least cut it too short. The loss of a dream, the death of a hope, the final chapter of a season of life, is painful. It is not only alright but important to grieve those moments. I often say, the only problem with pain is that it hurts. Some of life’s most meaningful lessons come when we acknowledge the grief, live with it, and let God let us work through it. Jesus comes to Bethany, where Mary, Martha, and Lazarus live, and when He sees the grave of His friend Lazarus, He weeps. Again, this is Jesus. Do you think He doesn’t know what He is getting ready to do? But He says to us, “It is okay to grieve.” Mourning is not a bad thing. Hanging out in the Galilee for a little while as you process your pain, is not a bad thing.

One of the most difficult efforts, as a counselor, or as an individual, is knowing how much grief is enough. We can become stuck in our grief. We can mourn the loss or the change so long that reluctance becomes disobedience. God does not want you to stay stuck in the Galilee for too long. But the good news is, He will tell you when it is time to move on. There are no books that say, “you can miss an old friend this long and no longer. You have this long to get over the loss of a child and not a day more. You can long for your old job for this many days and then you HAVE to move on.” Jesus knew when it was time to leave the Galilee for the last time and head for Bethany. He knows that for you as well.

And here is the last lesson when you are facing those fearful, frightful, paralyzingly painful next steps, remember that God is on the other side of your decision, your situation. And God ALWAYS has your best interest in His heart. Jesus leaves the Galilee and turns His face to Bethany, Jerusalem, the Cross. And on the other side of that THE RESURRECTION. I left the apartment in Orlando and headed for a treatment center. On the other side of that was reconciliation with my precious wife, restoration with my amazing sons, and frankly, the most wonderful last chapter of my life that I could imagine. God is standing on the other side of your decision. I promise you that. He knows “the plans He has for you.” He knows how to “make everything work out for good.” He knows the beginning from the end and He knows what you need both, to get through this difficult time, and on the other side of it. Job. Marriage. Relationship. Health issue. There is NO deal that is so big that He cannot see through it. And He will take you there when you are ready.

We spent the last day in the Galilee. The sunset was gorgeous. The fellowship was rich. The fish dinner was magnificent. The hummus, well, after 10 days, it was hummus. We hated to get on the bus. We hated for the day to end. We hated to leave the Galilee. But we know that, on the other side of this trip, God has some incredible, serendipitous moments for us. Shoot, I’m going to get to see my grandkids. I have clients waiting for me tomorrow. I have the life that God has laid out for me, and at some point, I have to leave the last day in the Galilee and move on. And it will be good…

Thank you for taking this journey with me. Feel free to hook up with www.branchesblog.com and read any days you have missed or frankly about 15 years of my storytelling. And also remember… next year in Jerusalem.

Mike

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Yeasterday was Sunday in Israel. Since Shabbat ended Saturday at sundown, we were back to a full day of visiting some amazing sights. We have been in the north for several days, staying each night in Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee, and touring the Galilee area.

This trip is different from any other time I’ve been here. We usually started outside of Jerusalem and ended there. This trip we spent 4 days in the Holy City, then went south to Masada, the Kumran Valley, and to the Dead Sea. Since then we have been here in the north seeing Nazareth, Megdala, Capernaum, and today, the Golan Heights.

It may sound almost sacrilegious to say but Israel is so much more than just the Biblical places. To see only those is to do an injustice to this magnificent, vitally important, historical little strip of land. There are ancient cities and landmarks that are only vague references in scrpture at best. There are the miraculous modern accomplishments from a people that must, somehow, be blessed by God. And there are the places where we stand and recount the headlines of the last 70 years, even the last 7 days.

Today was one of those days. We sat early in the cold, morning air, and looked across a mine field, from the strategic location high atop the Golan Heights, into Syria, which occupies much of our geopolitical attention today because of the brutal civil war and the ramifications of the upheaval there. If we looked north of that we could just make out the mountains of Lebanon, south is Jordan, beyond it, Iran and Iraq. Sitting here helps put the news stories in perspective. This high cliff top, that Israel won back when it was attacked on 4 fronts during the Six Day War in 1967, is as strategic and vital a piece of real estate as you could imagine. Whoever controls this narrow ridge has the ability to shoot missiles down into the entire northern half of Israel, basically controls the water supply for the country, and holds the key to the gate to the north for any group that wants to come through. When we read in the papers that Israel would be able to live in peace if it would just give up the Golan Hights, it is like saying, “I could get along with my neighbors better if I would just allow them to park their car in my front door.” It is a truly complicated situation, but there are some solutions that we blindly offer that frankly, are just impossible for the Israeli people to allow.

One of the most moving moments of the day, maybe of the week, was our tour guide standing in front of us this morning, there overlooking Syria. Two burned out tanks were just to the left of us. He told us his personal story of defending his beloved nation.

Military service is mandatory for all Israeli young people. Boys and girls go into the military at 18, boys for 3 years,and girls for 2. After that, most of them stay in the reserves for another couple of decades, ready at a moments notice to take up arms and defend their country. Moshe was 11 and just leaving church, (He is a Christian believer), when the sirens blew in 1973, signaling the surprise attack from Egypt to the south, Jordan and Syria to the east, and Lebanon to the north. He told us how he remembered his father kissing his mother, his brothers, and himself, then running out the door, and for 2 weeks they did not know if their father was dead or alive. His father came home and held his boys and prayed that they would never have to face war.

Moshe was 21 and a tank commander when he was caught in a firefight in Lebanon. He told us of the scars that it places on your soul to k:ow that you are directly responsible for taking another human life, even when you know it is completely self defense, and absolutely morally justified. He remembers holding his two young sons and praying that they would never have to face the same thing.

They are both in their late 20’s today. They both have.

I was most moved when he said, “It is not wrong to kill your enemies when they leave you no other choice. What is wrong, is to do that with any kind of pleasure.” On a much lesser scale I thought of our own country today, our own political system, even our own social media. We so casually, so frivolously, even gleefully attack those that we disagree with. We tell our political jokes and post our funny memes. We destroy and kill in print and in conversation, with great pleasure, even we who call ourselves Christ followers. I wonder if it doesn’t scar our souls.

We ended the morning up there, somber, introspective. The last thing that Moshe said to us was, “We do not want to be at war. Please do what the Bible says. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.” (Psalm 122:6). I am going to do that.

(I am not so arrogant to believe that my blogs are read by all that many but just to be safe I changed the name of our guide.)

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I have been to Israel 3 times. Each time I have enjoyed  especially the visit to Nazareth, the hometown of Jesus. This time Doris and I were amazed at the changes from our last visit 15 years ago. Then, the Nazareth Village was just a fledging idea. It is a plot of land, not very big, in the middle of Nazareth, where an authentic,1st century community was going to be recreated. The last time we were here that was basically a dirt hilltop with a few small sites, a shepherd dressed as he might have been in Jesus’s day, herding a few sheep into a makeshift pen, a young woman dressed like Mary, sitting by a small fire pit, kneading dough for baking.

This time the village is full grown into an amazing re-enactment of a day in the life af Nazareth about the time that Jesus was a young boy. We met Hannah, sitting in a tiny hut, making string from raw wool and weaving it into a beautiful shawl. We saw Ephraim tending the sheep flock, replete with the cutest, week old, perfect, spotless lambs. We even met an old, weathered carpenter named Joseph who was hewing a vessel out of a rough block of wood.

I was most moved my the visit to the olive press. Our guide showed us an authentic rebuilt 1st century, working press. The olives were gathered into large baskets, about the size of a bushel basket, but flexible, collapsible. They were poured out under a mill stone where a donkey was hooked to the stone. It walked round and round, turning the stone, and the olives were ground into a pulp. The pulp was then scooped up by hand and placed back in the baskets.

Here’s where they got me. The baskets of olive pulp were place in an ingenious contraption, a stone trough, with a large beam, attached to a fulcrum, sitting over it. On one end of the beam is a large flat surface. In the middle of the beam are huge, heavy stones, situated in a way that the weight of them could be added to the beam as needed. The olive pulp was placed under the flat part of the beam, some weight added until the beam pressed down and the oil was squeezed from the pulp.

This first squeezing is the virgin oil, reserved for the priest and the synagogue. More weight was added and the pulp was pressed again. More oil. This second squeezing was for the family. This oil was perfect for cooking, for mixing with a perfume and anointing, anything the family wanted to do with oil. But, the pulp was always squeezed a third time. More weight added, the huge beam pressed down again until every last drop of worth and value was drained from the pulp. This oil was not as clean, by now it had bits of the olive pits in it, debris from the whole process. You might even say it was bloody. This oil was used to light the lamps, to keep the dark at bay in the homes and gathering places of these early, early people..

Our young guide was a really cool kid, an American Young Life worker from Virginia, that has been in Nazareth for 4 years, working with kids, as he said, “from the high school that Jesus went to.” He volunteers a couple of days a week at the Nazareth Village. His name was Zach. He explained the fascinating process of the olive press, The he asked almost innocently, “By the way do you remember the Hebrew word for olive press? Shemini. And the word for place. Gat. Do you remember the Garden you visited in Jerusalem, the “place of the olive press,” gat shemini, Gethsemane?” Wow!

Then it hit me. Three olive pressings. Each one getting deeper, heavier, until the olives bleed out their last bit of value. Three prayers of Our Lord in the Garden, each one getting deeper, heavier, until He sweat “great drops of blood,” and went back to His disciples and said, “Go ahead and sleep. I’m ready.” The visual of that gripped me until I wept there in the cold, little, stone hut that housed the olive press. Don’t you know that Jesus, as a young boy, Jon-Mical’s age, sat and watched that pressing process and somehow knew that He would end up in Gat Shemini, in the Garden?

i don’t know that I can add anything to that. As David Tal, our tour guide has said a lot, “Just let that sink in.” Doris an I love you. See you soon.

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Branches Blog | Learning Recovery - Livi.. by Dr. Mike Courtney - 5M ago

I had the privilege of speaking and then leading communion for 400 pilgrims tonight at The Garden Tomb. Before that we prayed at the Wailing Wall. I prayed for my friend Derek. Here are my thoughts at commuinion.

I am amazed at the layers. Jerusalem is a city of layers. We stood at the Western Wall of the Temple Platform today and saw the massive, 1st century, Herodian stones at the base of the wall, above that were Roman era stones, then Byzantine, and on some of the structures, even medieval period additions, hundreds of years of layers, every where you look. Not just architecturally, but geo-politically. We all believe that God promised this land to Abraham and his descendants. The famine drives the people away to Egypt and for 400 years the land belongs to the Cannanites. Moses brings the people out of captivity. Joshua reclaims the land. The Babylonians overthrow them and destroy the Temple and take them into exile. Zerubbabel and Nehemiah bring them back to rebuild. The Romans conquer them, the Turks take over, the British until 1948. In 1948 David Ben-Gurion establishes the nation state of Israel, but not all of Jerusalem. The Six Day War wins all of Jerusalem but the Jews allow the Muslims to stay on the Temple Mount. Do you see the layers?

Early today we walked through the Old City, through the Muslim Quarter, past the Armenian Quarter, shopped in the Christian Quarter, and ended up in the Jewish Quarter. All of that was a few city blocks. Layers. Sometimes layers upon layers. We went to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. I looked down on the stone that may have been the floor of the Tomb where Jesus was buried. It is covered by an ornate shrine to protect it. That room is inside a massive 4th century church that is controlled by the Greek Othodox but shared with the Roman Catholic, the Armenians, the Coptic Orthodox, the Syrian Othodox. It is overshadowed by the way, in its courtyard, by the minaret of a huge mosque. Layers upon layers.

Tonight as we celebrated communion I though of the layers of even that act. It began as a celebration of the exodus of the people from Egyptian captivity in the days of Moses. God said, “Eat unleavened bread, sprinkle the blood of an innocent lamb on your doorposts, and I will deliver you from Panroah.” For 1200 years the Jews retained that meaning but “on the night that Jesus was betrayed” He changed the Supper forever by adding a layer and saying, “This is my Body. This is my Blood.” Paul comes along 55 years later and adds a layer in 1 Corinthians 11 by making this a sacrament for the church. Everything has layers.

Here’s another layer. In the 15th century, Andrei Rublev painted what became a fomous icon, The Visitation of Abraham. What he really depicted was the Triune Godhead, reclined at the communion table. God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit breaking bread together. A few hundred years later, when the painting was being restored, artists discovered a small patch of dried glue in the center of the painting, right at the end of the table, on the original canvas. They believe that Rublev attaches a small mirror there so that anyone who viewed the painting saw their own face included at this table with the Trinity.

Do you get that’s? That is an incredible layer. When I take communion I am connecting with 4000 years of Jewish history, and God’s love for His Chosen people. I am participating in the Passion of the Christ and His amazing act of love to redeem me. I am joining multiple millions of believers, over centuries in the Church that have come together a billion times to hear the words, “Do this in remembrance of me.” AND, I am coming to the table of reconciliation and relationship with the very Godhead Himself. Wow, talk about layers.

So here’s the deal. When I prayed at The Wailing Wall today I wept and prayed for reconciliation. I prayed for reconciliation in the City of Jerusalem. I prayed for healing for the Nation of Israel. I prayed for reconciliation for my own fractured country. I even prayed for reconciliation for those families that are separated by layers of hurt, and woundednes, and misunderstanding. Now, I don’t know how to fix all of that. Shoot, I don’t know how to fix any of that.  But I do know that Jesus said, “When you come to the altar, and you remember that reconciliation is needed, go do it.” (Yes, that is my loose translation of Matthew 5!) Every time I take communion I am sitting at the table of reconciliation with God, and Jesus, and the Holy Spirit. That seems to change my place in the layers of the reconciliation process. As my daddy used to say, “You can be part of the problem AND part of the solution”

This blog got a little bit too layered I realize. What can I say? It 2am in Jerusalem. Can I ask you to do this? Google Rublev’s Visitation of Abraham and sit and picture yourself at the Table for a little while. What would you want to take care of as you sat with the Holy Triune Godhead? Next, pray for the peace of Israel today. You can do that much to bring about reconciliation. Finally, ask God to open the door for you to initiate the reconciliation you need with that person or persons that you have been “layered” from for too long.

Look, you have been touring Israel for free for the last three days. It’s about time I put a little pressure on you. And speaking of pressure, it Valentine’s  Day in Israel. Does anybody know where I can buy a card?

if you are interested, I’ll try to upload the video of my short talk tonight. And I’ll try to include a link to Rublev’s painting. (I think it’s at the top)

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Today we started at a place that not many tour groups see. On the southern slopes of Mount Zion is a Catholic Cemetery that houses the grave of Oskar Schindler, the Polish factory owner during the time of Nazi Germany that was depicted and made famous in the 1993 movie, Schindler’s List. Much of what I say next comes from a powerful story that Govenor Huckabee told as we stood in the cool early  morning air around that grave.

In the movie, Liam Neeson portrays Oskar Schindler as a fairly decent business man who, after some misgivings, began to use his position and possessions to save many Jews from the horrors of the Auswich concentration camp and extermination at the hands of his fellow Nazis. While the end of the movie seems fairly accurate, Govenor Huckabee told us that the first part was anything but. Schindler was not good, or noble, or righteous in any way. He was a cheat, an adulterer, a ruthless business owner whose only interest in the Jews was as a source of slave labor to fuel his factory and line his pockets with profits from making pots and pans for the Nazi war effort. He lied and stole and harshly treated the Jews, along with his compatriots, until some inexplicable change of heart did turn him into the most unlikely of saviors for 1100 Jewish people who would otherwise have surely died in the gas chambers   If you remember the movie, that change of heart eventually cost him everything and Schindler lost his wealth, his prestige, and very nearly, his life, giving every last penny to try and save just one more Jew.  He died a pauper, never able to reamass the money that he once had.

And yet, today he is buried in, recognized by,  and even revered by the people of Israel as a national hero and a savior. His grave is a constant destination for Jews from around the world. The direct descendants of his “Schindler Jews,” the 1100 that he rescued, are leading citizens in Israel, prominent business people, physicians, members of the Knesset, the Israeli governing body. The entire nation pays homage to the righteousness of this man who was anything but that for most of his life. The last acts of his life more than erased the terrible mistakes of his earlier days.

While the Govenor was talking I thought of a lot of other people who blew it big time but later found a place of redemption and re-righteousness. On the other side of Mount Zion we visited the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu, literally “cock’s crow,” named after the horrible rejection of Jesus by Peter. I say old Pete turned that around pretty well. We saw the Road to Damascus, where murdering Saul had his name, and his heart changed. He did alright in the rigeouness arena in his latter years. We even went out of the city and rode camels and talked about Abraham, who scattered a fair amount of real bonehead moves in among his times of being righteous. In other words, history is replete with people who start out, or at least spend some time, on the wrong side of righteousness, but who find a way, a God given way, to reinvent their stories and become heroes for God.

Can I be honest? I was thinking about another real loser while we were at Schindler’s Grave. I was thinking about a guy that really messed up, nearly destroyed his family, his life, and every thing he held dear and was about as far from righteous as you could get. Let’s call him, oh, I don’t know…Mike. Man I can identify with ole Oskar. I certainly lived that selfish, sinful, self-centered life. If they ever made a movie about my life and Liam Neeson plays me, I hope he would be pretty inaccurate about the first half. (Who am I kidding? I want him to be inaccurate about the last half too. I want him to show me kicking the crap out of people and taking with a husky, Scottish accent.)

I’m not saying that we have to, or even can, make up for the terrible choices we have made in life. I have wounded people, hurt God, messed up in ways that can never be undone.  I am saying,  by the wonderful grace of God that all of us have the chance to change our story and finish well. We all have the opportunity to be the hero to somebody who desperately needs us still.  We are “saved by grace and not by works.” We are forgiven, not because of what we do, but because of what Christ did. We are righteous, not because of our actions or activities, but because God DECLARES it to be so. We don’t need to, nor can we, work our way back into favor with God.

However, I believe, and I am going to try, to live the last of my days in such a way that God allows my story to be completely different than what it might have otherwise been. God loves us so much that He lets us rewrite the script and have the movie take a twist that no one saw coming. We all get to be the heroes of our own stories.

So here are four simple statements, observations really, that I make after a day reflecting on the way Oskar Schindler finished:

1. It is never too late to turn things around.

2. There is always someone or some ones that need your help.

3. You cannot save everyone but you can save someone.

4. No price is too great to pay for a chance to be “righteous.”

That’s it. Nofunny stories. No clever endings. Just a challenge that you think about what they will say standing around your grave in the early morning hours. And if they make a movie of your life, who will play the lead? I get Liam Neeson.

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There are a lot of fun people on this trip. One of them is Brian White, the former Nazarene teen heart throb. (I’m not sure if he is a former Nazarene or a former teen heart throb.) We have been friends for a long time and he and his wife Karyn are traveling with Chonda, Doris and I, on this Holy Land adventure. It’s Brian’s first time here and today, while we were walking, he said, “It blows my mind how close everything is to one another.” We started the day on the Mount of Olives. Our first stop was a spot on the edge of the Kidron Valley with the Garden of Gethsemene behind us and the eastern wall of the Temple Platform in front of us. It must have been a 20 or 30 minute walk for Jesus and the disciples when He walked these hills.

The Pool of Siloam, where the blind man was healed is in the shadow of the Temple. The house of Caiphas, where Jesus was taken after His arrest is  couple of blocks from the western wall where He might of preached the day before. When you read the Gospels everything seems spread out, but here it is in such close proximity. Just a few steps, or at most, miles apart.

Proximity is the word I kept thinking of all day. Everything is in close proximity to everything else.  Here’s another way that that is true. We drive through the unbelievably busy, and crowded streets of Jerusalem, (talk about proximity), and the Eastern City and the Western City intermingles in your windshield,  the Jewish part of Jerusalem and the Arab part of Jerusalem are not divided by miles of desert, or even blocks of “downtown.” They are literally right on top of each other. Some places the street itself was the dividing line, one side a more manicured, organized, western, or Jewish side, the other, chaos, and squalor of the Arab side. We walked past Arab vendors, protected by young Israeli soldiers, to go into Christian sacred sites. All dwelling within steps of each other.

And speaking of steps, we ended the day on the Southern Steps of the Temple Platform. We took part in a worship service complete with sound system and Victory In Jesus, and then a super message by Governor Mike Huckabee. That, sitting on the steps with our backs leaning against the base of the huge Al Aqsa Mosque that now sets atop the Temple Mount. I mean, the kids in the windows of the mosque could have spat on us as we worshipped. (They didn’t, by the way.) it is just hard to fathom the close proximity of people, religious sites, and political differences here in Jerusalem.

Sometimes I feel that at home. I walk out of church and the car won’t start. I finish my devotions and the phone rings with a problem at Branches. I would like a little distance, a little space between my holy moments and the time when all hell breaks loose. But they are all in such close proximity.

Even with the good stuff, the kids are buying a house, Doris is speaking for a women’s event, Jon-Mical won the math thing at school, Chonda has invited us to go to Israel. Everything runs together and I don’t even have time to breath, much less seek God’s face and direction about all of the happenings of life. Doctor’s reports, appointment with the accountant, grandparents day at school, it all runs together and I am overwhelmed by the proximity.

Heck, I’m writing this sitting on the toilet in the David Citadel Hotel, so I don’t wake up Doris who is sleeping just a few feet away, Talk about proximity. (I probably pushed that visual image just a little too far didn’t I?)

So how do we handle it when all of life comes crashing together and the schedule and the budget and the day to day crises are on top of us? What do I do when my enemies are so close I can hear them whisper threats? When my loneliness is so near my blessed times that I can’t enjoy the latter because the former is banging on my hearts door? I need a little quiet space. I need a holy moment. I need His Presence, not proximity.

Govenor Huckabee told us today there are a lot of traditional sites in Israel where people celebrate the things that Jesus did, but they probably are not all that accurate. There are some archeological places where there is a good chance that Jesus was, at least, near there. But the Southern Steps of the Temple Platform was the main entrance to the Temple for the common people in Jesus’s day. In the last week before the Passion of Christ, the Bible tells us He came there everyday to walk the steps and preach to the crowds that were gathered. In other words, this IS the place where Jesus walked, really. (I drank from a coke machine today that He may very well have drank from.) To quote an old song, “I walked today where Jesus walked.” We had a worship service right there.

But you know what, we do that every day! When the kids are sick, and the bills aren’t paid, when the boss calls me into his office, or the nurse says, “The doctor wants to talk to you about that,” when the hard times of life are in close proximity, I remember that The writer of Hebrews says, “For we don’t have a great high priest who cannot sympathize with all of our weaknesses, but One who was tested in every way like we are.” The he says, “So let’s hold unswervingly to our faith and approach the Throne of Grace with BOLDNESS.” (Hebrews 4) That solves the proximity problem. Wherever you are, whatever you are going through, Jesus has already been there. You are walking today where Jesus already walked. In the words of that famous theologian, MC Hammer, “Can’t touch this” enemy. God has got my back, (and my front). Jesus has walked these steps before me. He and I will get through all of this together, no matter how close it is or how fast it comes.  Wow! That’s a good Word. So whatever YOU face today, remember the lesson of proximity. He is not far away. He is not distant  He is not unaware. He is in close proximity.

Now, back to Brian White and that heart throb thing….

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