Friday, December 29, 2017

Appreciating the Trials

One of the greatest lessons I have learned in life has to do when things do not go my way.  Not only have I learned the importance of enduring the trial but maybe I am finally learning to appreciate it.  God has always had a way of taking what we believe is bad and turning it into something good – even better than we ever imagined.   I think we tend to get bogged down in the details while God is orchestrating our lives from a completely different vantage point and maybe even a different purpose.

Edward A. Goddard
We can see this incredible picture more clearly when we look back. Sometimes we may have to look back further than we think.  I learned recently that maybe the biggest trial of my life came about eighty nine years before I was born.  April 20, 1865 to be exact and it was the day Macon Georgia fell into Union hands and about 11 days after General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox.

My great grandfather, Edward Aldrich Goddard, was in Macon that day among those Confederate troops.  I’m quite certain that was a difficult day for my 23 year old future great grandfather.  In fact, I would venture to say it was the worst day of his life.  For almost four years, he had fought for the Confederacy.  The fact that he had lived most of his life north of the Mason Dixon in Ohio with his grandparents and then later in Massachusetts had to weigh on his mind.   Not sure if you have read about what it was like to fight in the Civil War but if not, you should do it sometimes.  It had to be over the top crazy difficult.  Here is a little snapshot:

The life of a soldier during the civil war wasn't easy. Not only did soldiers face the possibility of getting killed in battle, their daily lives were full of hardships. They had to deal with hunger, bad weather, poor clothing, and even boredom between battles. The soldiers of the civil war had to deal with terrible medical conditions. Doctors didn't know about infections. They didn't even bother to wash their hands! Many soldiers died from infections and disease. Even a small wound could end up infected and cause a soldier to die. The soldiers of the Civil War were often hungry. They mostly ate hard crackers made from flour, water, and salt called hardtack. Sometimes they would get salt pork or corn meal to eat. To supplement their meals, soldiers would forage from the land around them. They would hunt game and collect fruits, berries, and nuts whenever they could. By the end of the war, many soldiers in the Confederate army were on the verge of starvation.  From American Civil War - Life as a Soldier in the Civil War.

Ed Goddard enlisted in the Confederate Army in Arkansas where he would join Company H of the Sixth Arkansas Infantry Regiment.  After he finished school, Ed had moved from Massachusetts to Arkansas to work for his older brother.  Incredibly he would spend the next almost four years of his life as an infantryman camping in all kinds of horrific conditions, hiking no telling how many miles, fighting many battles and losing many of his friends and comrades along the way.  For you Civil War buffs - and to make a point, he fought in the Battle of Shiloh, Perryville, Murfreesboro, Chickamauga, Missionary Ridge, Ringgold Gap and was on the Sherman and Johnson Campaign from Dallas to Atlanta. He also participated in several days of fighting around Atlanta before the war ended.   Somehow Ed found himself in Macon and was with the troops when they were forced to give up when the City of Macon surrendered to the Union forces in 1865. 

I cannot even begin to imagine what he and all the others went through in that war – on both sides.   The fact that Ed Goddard eventually ended up in Macon was not an accident though. It was part of the plan.  Not the plan young Ed could see at the time, but the one God was orchestrating from that different vantage point.  I am fairly confident when Ed signed on to join the confederacy, he had no idea he would end up in Macon Georgia.  In fact I am very confident he had no way of knowing that.

To understand the bigger plan, there is more to the story.

Ed’s father, James, was one of the early settlers of Macon.  James and his younger brother Bailey moved from Athol MA to Macon GA in the early 1820’s, well before any hint of a Civil War. James (Captain Goddard as was called) did really well in Macon and had many business interests including being a founder and president of an insurance company.  He made his fortune, however, owning and operating a line of boats on the Ocmulgee River before the onset of the railroad. When you read about the Macon Train Depot being dedicated in the early 1840’s, James was there - even though he knew the railroad would eventually put him out of the boating business.   The railroad disrupting the boating business would not be the only problem James faced.   His eleven year old son drowned in the Ocmulgee River.  James had a difficult time getting over that and his wife, Sophronia, never did get over it. James (Captain Goddard) died suddenly at 46 years old on a trip back to Massachusetts.  The citizens of Macon erected a monument in James Goddard’s memory and it still stands today in the Goddard lot in Rose Hill Cemetery.  Although we don’t know what caused James’ death, we do know that his young daughter had a premonition that he would die on that trip.

My future great grandfather was only five years old when his dad died.  His mother was not well and would eventually be institutionalized or the vernacular of that day, put in an insane asylum.  Ed’s maternal grandfather moved him to Perryville Ohio to live with him.  He went to elementary school there before moving to Massachusetts to finish school – likely because family on the Goddard side lived there.   As I have written, Ed later moved to Arkansas to work for his brother - and you have already read about his Civil War story.

The fact is Edward A. Goddard had a rough life for his first twenty three years.  Any way you look at it, life was not easy for him.   He lost both parents before he could ever have known them.  He was sent off to Ohio to live with his grandfather in Ohio who either eventually passed away or could not look after him.  He was then sent to Massachusetts to live with other relatives he could not have known.  He finished school and moved all the way to Arkansas to work for his older brother, who I am sure felt sorry for him but he could not have known him well.  Then after a short time there, he joined an army fighting for a cause he probably wasn’t sure about against his own friends and relatives in the north who talked more like him than the soldiers he fought beside.

When I wrote earlier that I would venture to say the day the Confederacy surrendered was the worst day of Ed’s life, I meant it.  He had experienced many bad days but this had to be the icing on the cake for him. Defeated.  Completely worn out.  Sick enough that he had to be hospitalized. 

Except there was a bigger story.  There is always a bigger story.  No matter what you are going through there is a bigger story being written that is seen from a different and better vantage point.

When the war ended for Ed, he would have only 50 cents to his name.  But he was in Macon Georgia, the place of his birth.  Although he could not have many memories, if any, of his young life there, people knew him because of the trail his dad blazed a couple of decades earlier.  

Somehow and someway, Ed pulled himself together.  He took his 50 cents in capital and began to trade. He bought a few cakes and make corn beer.  Soon his business grew and demanded a larger store.  He had been working out of a closet in the old Floyd House Building in Macon.  Ed formed a partnership with the son of his dad’s good friend and their business (called Hines – Goddard) grew and they soon opened a branch store in Butler GA –some sixty miles away.   After a short time, they moved the business from Butler to Reynolds.  Ed bought out his business partner and married the partner’s sister.  Ed Goddard’s business in Reynolds prospered and he became a successful businessman. Ed ended up owning not only the original business that included a funeral business but many residences in Reynolds and a modern (at the time) motion picture theater.  He operated this business in Reynolds for almost 60 years until his death at 84 years of age in 1924.   Three more generations of Goddard’s would follow his footsteps in that business in Reynolds.  

I was the fourth generation owner and operator.  I sold the business in 1997 after 131 consecutive years of business in Reynolds.  In the last twenty years, it has been my good fortune to operate funeral homes and cemeteries all over the country.  And more importantly, an opportunity to leverage the business principles and life principles that were passed down by my great grandfather to my grandfather, my father and my older brother and eventually to me

Interestingly, our youngest son and his family have moved back to Macon and are very involved in the community there.  We now have come full circle.  In fact, their third child was born in 2013 in Macon.  His name is none other than... Hines Goddard.  

From any human perspective, Edward A Goddard had a very tough life for the first 23 years of it.  In light of his first 23 years, I can’t even begin to imagine what was going through his mind on April 20, 1865 when the troops surrendered to the Union Forces.  

From my perspective 153 years later, Ed was in the right place at the right time.  What had to seem overwhelming and incomprehensible to him then - only makes me smile today.  Of all the places for him to be with the war ended but in Macon GA.  The only place on earth where a path had been made years earlier. 

One thing is for sure – if it wasn’t for the most difficult place of his life and the providence of God bringing him back to Macon, I would not be here today.

I will repeat what I stated in the first paragraph:

God has always had a way of taking what we believe is bad and turning it into something good – even better than we ever imagined.  I think we tend to get bogged down in the details while God is orchestrating our lives from a completely different vantage point and maybe even a different purpose.

The lesson for all of us is a simple one.  Although we may feel helpless and hopeless about whatever situation we face, the truth is we are not writing our story.  God is not only our Creator but He is the great orchestrator of life.  Only when we understand there is a bigger and better perspective will we be able to appreciate the current trial we face.

Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Chill Bump Moments in Israel 6 of 6

View of Jerusalem from Mt of Olives
Words would never do justice to our last day in Jerusalem.  We began in the morning on the Mount of Olives with an incredible view of the Dome of the Rock, overlooking the KIdron Valley.  The Dome of the Rock sits on Mt Moriah, at the place where Abraham took his son Isaac to sacrifice. It is also the place where King David bought the threshing floor and built an altar to the Lord  (2 Sam 24).  It was also the place of Solomon's Temple that was eventually destroyed by King Nebuchadnezzar and rebuilt by the Jews following their Babylon captivity. And it was the place of the temple that Jesus cleansed. Overwhelming to even think about all that.

 The Kidron Valley was the place through which King David fled during the rebellion of Absalom. The same valley that  Jesus crossed so many times when he left Jerusalem to go to the Mount of Olives and Bethany.  The same KIdron Valley where blood flowed from the lamb sacrifices at the Holy Temple above it.  And we thought about what it actually meant that Jesus, the Lamb of God, waded through the blood as he made his last trip through that valley before coming back to the city to be the ultimate sacrifice.    Although the temple now is a mosque, we know there will come a day when a new temple will be built there. We know the Mount of Olives was where Jesus stood when he wept over Jerusalem and He had to be referring to all the whitewashed tombs you can see from that mountain when he compared the hypocrites to those tombs in Matthew 23.   The Mount of Olives is also the place where Jesus began his triumphal entry to Jerusalem riding a donkey - and also the place, according to Luke 24, where Jesus ascended to heaven after the resurrection.  There are no words or description of chill bumps that can describe being there.

Garden of Gethsamene
We walked down from the Mount of Olives, past the cemetery and into the Garden of Gethsemane. As we gathered our wits and attempted to control our emotions, we learned about olive trees that are still standing after thousands of years.  We know that the olive tree brings rich imagery to the Bible. Its very deep root system and its ability to live in very rocky terrain is not just a fact but symbolically astounding when you think of it in Biblical terms.  The many shoots that spring continually from the root system are compared to the children of God ensuring that the family of God will never die.  Job compared human beings to the olive tree noting that it did not die when it was cut down but sprang again to new life.  The Bible is an amazing book.  No man could have made all this fit together, that is for sure.  We looked at those trees that were very likely there when Jesus went with his disciples to pray before his crucifixion.  It was in this garden that the disciples slept while Jesus prayed and where Judas betrayed Jesus by bringing in a “detachment of soldiers and some officials of the chief priests and the Pharisees. “( John 18:3.)  And where Peter cut off the ear of Malchus, the servant of the high priest. Again, we were amazed to even think we were standing in the place where all this happened.  I have no idea how to write about what we experienced there.  Chill bumps are as prominent as olives in Israel, that is for sure.

The Garden Tomb
We then walked the Via Delorosa, which is the way of the cross. Although that road is not the original road Jesus walked with the cross (the original has to be below it), it was still an incredible experience to walk that path and even to think about what Jesus went through in His final hours.  The Via Dolorosa is full of shops on both sides and is very commercialized  but we were reminded that when Jesus walked that path it probably was much like that. They would have paraded him through the streets for all to see.  We finally arrived at The Church of the Holy Sepulcher that was built in the 4th century and contains the traditional places of the two holiest sites in Christianity - the site where Jesus of Nazareth was crucified at a place called Golgotha or Calvary and Jesus’ empty tomb.    Although maybe it was a little of a let down to see how this was all presented, it was all rectified when I saw my wife and her sister both with tears in their eyes as they kneeled and touched the stone that is said to be the place they laid Jesus’ body after they took Him off the cross.  

Afterwards we then began the most emotional and moving time of the entire trip.   We visited another place that fits all the Biblical descriptions of Golgotha, the Place of the Skull.   It is just “without the gate” that is now called the Damascus gate. It is a rocky, quite bare hill about 50 feet high and a distance of 500 feet from the city wall and is over 100 feet higher than the sacred Rock of the Temple. When you look up at the hill, the skull is plainly seen.   In the 1800s it was discovered that a Jewish Tomb existed on a smaller knoll to the west. The fact that this tomb is so close to that hill and so far from other tombs has led many experts to believe this is the where the crucifixion and resurrection actually took place.

Either way, I really don’t know.  And i suppose it does’t matter.  But what I do know, when I looked at that hill, I could hardly speak.  And when I entered the tomb a few minutes later, I was almost overwhelmed.  When I heard the different Christian groups scattered throughout that place singing and worshiping from all across the world, even as we began to do the same - well there are no chill bumps that could do that justice.  Our time visiting,  worshiping and taking  communion in the place of the Garden Tomb was one powerful moment in my life.

I left Israel very tired but believing still with all that is within me that what t I have been taught all my life is really true.  I have been asked since I got home,  "Did going there increase your faith?"  My answer is, "It surely didn't decrease it - that is for sure!"   I am convinced that the stories I have read in the Bible really happened and that book is indeed the inspired Word of God.  It all just fits together like a symphony.

 I can also say that the culmination of God’s grace and provision for all of us can be found at that Garden Tomb.  I can also tell you with 100% certainty that He is not there.   Because of HIs death and resurrection I will live forever.

 And because of that truth,  I want to love well and finish well here.

"Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.  And love your neighbor as yourself."

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Chill Bump Moments in Israel (Article 5 of 6)

On top of Mount Carmel
We stood on top of Mt Carmel, where we were reminded of the story from 1 Kings 18,  “Now summon the people from all over Israel to meet me on Mount Carmel. And bring the four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal and four hundred prophets of Asherah, who eat at Jezebel’s table.”  How can I even begin to explain actually standing on top of Mount Carmel where Elijah took on the false prophets and actually taunted them. It was on top of that mountain where Elijah proclaimed those famous words, “How long will you waver between two opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.”  The realization that those words are as pertinent today as they were thousands of years ago got my undivided attention.  It was also on Mt Carmel where Elijah built the altar with the twelve stones, representing the twelve tribes descended from Jacob.  And after digging the trenches and soaking it all with water, it was on the top of this mountain that the fire of the Lord fell and burned it all. And the crowd all fell prostrate and cried, vs 39 “The Lord, He is God! The Lord - He is God.”  And as the chill bumps come as i type this, I wonder what He thinks when we still waver between two opinions. 

Co-travelers at the Western Wall
I really can’t describe my thoughts when we first saw the walls of Jerusalem, I think we were all overwhelmed with just the history of this ancient city and its importance in God’s Word.   My mind also immediately went to the last two chapters of Revelation where John describes the new Jerusalem and the walls and the gates and I thought of what is to come.  We spent time at the Western Wall, which is a sacred place because it is the closest physical place to the Holy of Holies, that housed the Arc of the Convenant which represented the presence of God Himself.  I had several people that knew I was going to Jerusalem ask me to say a prayer of them and put their name in that wall.  I heard them and really didn’t commit, but I made a note of each.  The night before we went to the wall, I wrote each of those names (and a few more who did not ask) on a strip of paper.  I really don’t think God hears prayers more at the wall than he does at my house, because I know that veil has been torn, but I can tell you I said a prayer for about 10 people and placed their individual names in that wall.  Just in case.   

In Jerusalem we knew we had to go under the current streets to get to the streets of the ancient city we read about in the Bible.  We started our journey down when we entered the City of David.  The good news is that is not nearly as hot under the city than it is on top of it, but we had to work to get under it.  As we started that journey, I was immediately stunned when Boaz told us we were looking at what archeologists strongly believe is the ruins of King David’s palace.  We were told in all likelihood, this would have been the place where David saw Bathsheba, the wife of his general Uriah.  We all know how that story ended and all the lies that followed,  But the lesson and the chill bump moment came when we were reminded that, in spite of all the lies and sin- Jesus was a descendent of David and Bathsheba.  This  is an incredible illustration of the grace of God and proof that God has always had the ability to turn the bad into good and take the ugly and turn it to beauty. Because of that eternal truth, there is hope for all of us.
King David's Palace

We traveled even deeper under the city.  I won’t tell you about the unfriendly claustrophobic tunnels we were in coming and going - but we did make it to the Pool of Siloam that was only discovered in 2004.  We were reminded it was Jesus who asked the man who had been blind since birth to wash the mud off his eyes in this pool.  It was surreal sitting on the steps of that pool and listening to that story there.   But the chill bump moment came as we began to walk through the tunnel to get out and we were told, with 100% certainty, Jesus walked on these stones.  This would happen again later that day when we walked through another tunnel under the Western Wall.   To walk in Jesus steps in the United States in 2017 is not an easy task.  To literally put your feet where He walked physically, is an overwhelming moment in one’s life.  And one I will never forget.

Southern Steps
 We also gathered at the steps of the southern end of Temple Mount outside the walls of the city.  These were also known as the “Rabbi Steps” and it is believed that Jesus would frequently teach on these steps right outside the wall of Jerusalem. As Boaz and Andy were teaching, they told us about the places of ceremonial washings or “mikvahs” that we could easily see behind them.  To say there were many mikvahs  would be another understatement.  If we didn’t already have enough chill bumps sitting in that heat on those steps thinking that Jesus taught there, more child bumps were about to form on top of chill bumps again.  In Acts 2 we read that Pentecost happened in Jerusalem.. v5 “Now they were staying in Jerusalem God-fearing Jews from every nation under heaven. …. and each one heard their own language spoken.”  We also read in Acts that sermon Peter preached  and v41 “those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day.”  Where else could 3,000 people be baptized except in all the mikvahs we were seeing in front of us?  I did not hear the blowing of a violent wind and I did not see tongues of fire, but I can tell you chill bumps formed on top of other chill bumps when I realized what could very well have happened right where we were sitting.

Monday, September 25, 2017

Chill Bump Moments in Israel (Article 4 of 6)

Large Synagogue in Capernaum

To walk upon the ruins of Capernaum, the adopted home town of Jesus, where Jesus spent so much of his time teaching and doing miracles was another scene I will never forget.   When we saw the ruins of Peter’s house, I thought about the story I have heard since I was a child of Jesus healing Peter’s mother in law. Mark 1:29-30 tells us , “After leaving the synagogue, Jesus, James and John when home with Simon and Andrew.  Simon’s mother in law was in bed, sick with a fever, and they told Jesus about her at once. He went to her, took her by the hand and raised her up. The fever left her, and she served them.”  Just for your information, I can tell you that they had a very short walk from the synagogue to Peter’s house.  However my chill bump moment had come earlier when we visited the synagogue in that village.  We learned that the synagogue in Capernaum is by far the largest synagogue in Galilee. We learned that there can be only one logical explanation for that - and that is because Jesus taught there so often and drew large crowds.  I do not think there is archeological proof of the ministry of Jesus, but the synagogue in Capernaum is pretty close to it.  And it is more proof than I will ever need.

The Cardo in Beit She'an
In complete contrast to Capernaum, where life completely revolved around the synagogue located in the middle of the village, there was the Greek city of Beit She'an.  We learned that Saul and Jonathan's bodies were hung in this city on the public square.  (2 Samuel 21: 12) but we also learned that during Jesus' time, Beit She'an was a city where life centered on pagan worship and extravagance, with public bathhouses, prostitutes and a large theater. The Decapolis, by the way, was made up of 10 cities that were the center of Greek and Roman culture and we know Jesus visited the cities of the Decapolis (Mark 7:31).   When the Bible speaks of Jesus getting in the boat and traveling to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, he was headed to that pagan culture.  For example the story of Jesus casting the demons out of the men into the herd of pigs happened on the "other" side of the lake.  "When He arrived at the other side in the region of the Gadarenes, two demon- possessed men met Him."  (Matthew 8:28).  There is no doubt He visited the pagan city of Beit She'an -  probably often since it was close to him and  the only Decapolis city west of the Jordan River.  I was very hot and tired when we arrived at the ruins of that city.  If there was ever a place where I was set up to miss the chill bump moment, it would have been at Beit She'an.  The verse assigned was from the Sermon on the Mount. "Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction and many enter through it.  But small is the gate and narrow is the road that leads to life, and only a few find it. (Matthew 7:13-14).  There is no doubt Jesus was talking about the wide gates and huge north-south roads (the Cardo) with ornate columns in pagan cities like Beit She'an when He was talking about the wide and narrow gates. His disciples would have understood HIs imagery.   It was obvious that the purpose of these Greek cities' wide gates and roads was to make a statement to the glory of their culture and to lure others into their extravagant pagan lifestyle and to convince others that their way of life was superior to all others.  Jesus knew that many unsuspecting people walking through those gates on a regular basis were walking into a life of futility.  Maybe Jesus was comparing the Cardo to the much smaller and more narrow East - West gates and roads in those cities that only a few utilized. But for me, the chill bumps came when I compared this wide and what would have been a very attractive road to the narrow and treacherous unattractive road we had just walked on through the mountains between Jerusalem and Jericho.  One thing is for sure. The Christian walk is much more like the Jericho Road than it is the Cardo in Beit She'an. 

Jordan River
Although the Jordan River was more narrow that I expected and we were at a commercialized part of it,  the impact of being there will forever be in my mind… and heart.  I thought of John the Baptist, the wild looking man from the wilderness who was filled with the Holy Spirit even before he was born, baptizing in that river and remembering his words in Luke 3:16, “I baptize you with water. But one more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirt.”  And I thought about Jesus being baptized in that river and the Holy Spirit descending on him in bodily form. And it dawned on me that His earthly ministry started right here.  What a thought. So it was very moving to watch the pastors in our group baptize those who wanted to be baptized in that sacred place.  I stood knee deep in the edge of the river and took pictures and videos of each one - which was difficult to do with  tears in my eyes.

"A city on a hill cannot be hidden."
If one chill bump moment can be greater than others, then our experience at the Sea of Galilee would rank in that category.  We had been on the shores for a couple of days.  I had been asked to tag team with Andy a couple of nights earlier as we quoted the Sermon on the Mount on the same shores Jesus delivered that ageless sermon originally over 2000 years ago.   It was evening and Andy pointed at the lighted city of Tiberias (that could be clearly seen) that sits very prominently on the hill on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, as he quoted these words in Mathew 5, “You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden.  Neither do people light a lamp an put in under a bowl. Instead they put it on a stand so it gives light to everyone in the house.”  Although those words have been engrafted in me for many years, for the first time I heard it in the context of which Jesus said it.  What an incredible teacher He was.  We also had Sunday morning worship service on the shores of the lake.  We sang and then Pastor Jerry preached and related one of Jesus’s stories on that lake and made life application to it.  The fact that we were looking at the lake that was behind him as he preached was an incredible sight and moment in time.  And then there was the boat ride. Obviously none of us had ever physically been on the boat with Jesus, but our imagination in the moment seemed like we were pretty close to it.  It was emotional for all of us.  And we got a lesson  by a Jewish fisherman who was on the boat with us in how they “casted nets.”  Then there was the quick lesson in a jewish dance and that’s all it took.  In almost a moment, the boat began rocking as our group began dancing, laughing and  celebrating on the boat.  It was beautiful and very appropriate.  It was so very hot but that did not stop the chill bumps that came on us like it was a winters day.

Kathy and I with Armageddon in background.
We stood on the top of Mount Precipice overlooking Nazareth on one side and Armageddon, which is the physical place of end times prophesy, on the other side.  We were reminded that on this mountain that the furious Jews from Nazareth wanted to throw Jesus off the cliff after he taught in the synagogues. “They got up, drove him out of town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. But he walked right through the crowd and went on his way.”  (Luke 4:29 -30).  It was also in Nazareth that Jesus said those words, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town…”  - and He was frustrated that He could not do miracles there because of their lack of faith.  It was here that I was reminded that faith is a gift and is not something we can muster up but I did wonder how much do we really miss in life because we just choose not to believe.  Andy also delivered a stirring message here about Mary, the mother of Jesus.  We now understood the geography of the long journey she and Joseph made to Jerusalem when she was pregnant and the many more times they took that trip with their family. We were reminded that they came back to Nazareth to live and Jesus made a living as a carpenter before he began his public ministry.  The stirring part and the chill bumps came when we began to understand the ridicule she went through during those times because she was pregnant without a husband.  And the doubt and questions she must have had as she was ridiculed and humiliated. We were painfully reminded that Mary was in Jerusalem and was looking on when Jesus was crucified on the cross and wondered what she must have been thinking.  But we were also reminded that Jesus made sure it was his mother Mary who was at the tomb after He had risen.   What a story of God’s provision.  The good news is God’s provision is still ongoing and we were reminded of that as we looked on the other side of the mountain at Armageddon.  We have all read the end of the book.  We win.

Theater Uncovered at Ceasarea by the Sea
We read in the book of Acts that Paul was imprisoned in Caesarea.   Caesarea sits on the Mediterranean Sea and was incredibly beautiful. Another one of Herod’s elaborate fortresses has been uncovered there as well as a huge amphitheater.   We were all stunned as our fellow traveler, Joe, read words on a marker from Acts 25 at the place that is believed to be the place where Paul defended himself against Festus.   “I have done nothing wrong against the Jewish law or against the temple or against Caesar…. I am now standing before Caesar’s Court, where I ought to be tried. I have not done any wrong to the Jews and you yourself know very well.  If, however , I am guilty of doing anything deserving death, I do not refuse to die.  But if the charges brought against me by these Jews are not true, no one has the right to hand me over to them. I appeal to Casesar!”   We know that Paul was in prison here for two years and was then sent to Rome from that same port and eventually executed.   After hearing that passage standing in the incredible heat in the place this actually happened,  the chill bumps arrived again. 

Sunday, September 24, 2017

Chill Bump Moments in Israel (Article 3 of 6)

Burned ruins of Hazor
To be honest, I had heard of Hazor but there is no way I could have told you what happened there.   After being there and walking through the city gate and looking at the ruins, I can tell you as long as I live I will never forget the story now.   While we were there, Boaz asked us to look and take a picture of the wall near the foundation.  I looked at it and took the picture.  It was obvious the bottom of the wall was black as if it had been burned.  I still did not understand.  Then Andy asked me to read the first 15 verses of Joshua 11 to the group.  The story is about Joshua taking on all the enemies as they entered the promise land, as Moses commanded him to do.  When I got to verse 13, I could hardly read it.  “Yet Israel did not burn any of the cities built on their mounds - except Hazor, which Joshua burned.”   My chill bump moment in the midst of the unbearable heat was here again as it hit me we were standing in the middle of the place that Joshua burned.  These stories we have read about all our lives really happened.  They are not fairy tales but historical truth.  Again, we don’t have to see to believe but it sure is pretty cool to actually see it with your own eyes. 

Then there  was Ancient Dan which was one of the most beautiful places we saw during the entire trip.  The story we talked about was from 1 Kings 12:28-29.  “After seeking advice, the king made two golden calves.  He said to the people, ’It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem. Here are your Gods, Israel, who brought you up out of Egypt.’  One he set up in Bethel, and the other in Dan.”  I realized we were sitting directly in front of the ruins where the golden calf was worshiped.  The chill bump moment came when we begin to sing and worship the one true God at that sight - almost as if we were staring the enemy down.  I realized I need to be more  of a “staring the enemy down” type person.I will never forget that moment.
Ancient Dan

We then went to Bonias (also known as Caesarea Philippi -  and Paneas)  where the false god Pan was worshiped.  We learned that the pagan worshipers were attracted to what they considered “weird” things.  The fact that a spring came out of a cave on the side of the the mountain made them believe this was a god.  Their worship included killing babies and having orgies in front of their god at the mouth of that opening in the mountain that was called the “Gates of Hades.”  Incredibly one of the most famous stories of the New Testament came from Caesarea Philippi.  In Matthew 16 we learned that Jesus brought his disciples to this pagan Greek village. My first thought, and I had this thought several times during this tour, was that Jesus just did not happen to be walking by.  It was a long journey from Galilee to Caesarea Philippi.  We were reminded of the heart of Jesus’ ministry.  He consistently went to the most God forsaken places.  And He went to a lot of trouble to go to those places. It was in this  pagan place in the midst of so much evil and pagan worship where Jesus asked his disciples (v13)  “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”  And “Who do you say I am?”  Simon Peter’s famous answer was “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.”    And Jesus response included these words  (v18 ) “And I tell you that your are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.”  The terms “rock” and “Gates of Hades” took on new meaning in the context of this story.   The pagans were worshiping a rock at a place called the Gates of Hades.  For sure the disciples understood what he meant when Jesus made that statement.  My chill bump moment was when I understood it in that place and i understood better than ever before that much real ministry takes place completely outside the walls of our church.

Janet and Laura Dees after conquering Mt. Abel
We stood on top of Mt Arbel and understood the effort it took to climb that mountain.  Our Mt Arbel experience had a couple of options. Option A was to follow Andy and hike up that huge mountain in the intense heat.  Option B was to take the bus and make a stop on the way up to see the ruins of a first century synagogue.  I chose Option B along with about 20 of my fellow travelers.  The truth is it was not an easy hike even for us Option B folks in that heat to the synagogue and then to the top of the mountain from where we parked the bus.  For the Option A folks, it was more than brutal and turned out to be the most difficult hike of the trip.  My brother in law took Option A.  At one point, he seriously thought about texting me (he knew I had my phone on) to tell me to tell his wife Carol he loved her. He didn’t think he would make it.  We (Option B) were standing at the top of the mountain when the Option A hikers began their last climb to the top.  It was a sight to behold to see their exhilaration because they had made it.  That was a chill bump moment in itself.   But the real chill bump moment came when we were told that in all likelihood, when the Bible talks about Jesus escaping the crowds  to a mountain to get away to be alone with His Father, this would have been one of those mountains he would have climbed.   The lesson for us was the great effort Jesus went to to be alone with God.  And we thought about all the little things that get in our way for the most important part of our day as a Christian.   Andy asked us all to find a rock on the top of that mountain  (maybe like Jesus did) and pray.  I can tell you it may have been the most powerful moment I have ever spent in prayer. Ever. 

Magdala was only recently discovered within the last several years. Unlike most of the ruins we visited, this was not discovered by digging through the ruins of other villages or towns to get to it.  A private developer was building a hotel and hit something in the process.  Archeologists  discovered the city had been covered by mudslide probably caused by an earthquake centuries earlier.  Again, to think we were sitting in the midst of the ruins of Magdala was an overwhelming thought.   Magdala is not mentioned specifically as a place that Jesus visited, but the Bible does say he visited all the villages in the region so almost certainly He did.  We do know that Mary Magdalene came from there.  In that setting we heard the Biblical teaching about fringes: “Speak to the children of Israel.  Tell them to make tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put a blue thread in the tassels of the corners.” (Numbers 15).  Among other things, the hem or edge of a garment stood for the wearer’s authority.  It was not a superstitious thing to touch the hem of a garment but a belief that a person could experience the power of His person and authority.  It was in that setting that one of our female co-travelers emotionally quoted the passage from Luke 8 about the woman who had an issue of blood for twelve years and could not be healed.  “She came up behind him and touched the edge of his cloak, and immediately her bleeding stopped.” During that encounter, Jesus went on to say, “Daughter, your faith has healed you.  Go in peace.”  Listening to that scripture in that place was another incredibly powerful moment of the tour.  My chill bump moment came as I got just a glimpse of the pure faith of a very emotional Alisia who quoted the scripture. And because of that I got a glimpse of the pure faith of the woman with the issue of blood.  And even if only for a fleeting moment, I got a glimpse of the power of simple “hem touching” faith.

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Chill Bump Moments in Israel (Article 2 of 6)

Kathy and I at the place of the birth of the Christ
 Valley of Elah
Although the site of the birth of Christ in Bethlehem is now in a  huge church (Church of the Nativity)  and several groups celebrate His birthplace in different places there (they also fuss and fight over who controls what), I understood we were in the cave where it happened and had to be in close proximity to the actual place.  When my wife and I kneeled  down in front of the place they say Jesus was born, we both shed tears.  So did almost everyone else I saw that kneeled there. And we were swallowing hard when we saw the manger in which He was lain. To even be in proximity to the place where the original Christmas happened is almost incomprehensible.  I suspect our group singing Silent Night in that cave will be strongly in my mind and heart when I sing Silent Night next Christmas.. and all the Christmases to come.

I can tell you that the Valley of Elah where David killed Goliath as the story is told in 1 Samuel 17, is a real place.  The geographical description of where that happened in that passage is dead on accurate.  “The Philistines occupied one hill and the Israelites the other, with the valley between them” is clearly evident.  Obviously the lesson there is not just about a little boy with a rock fighting a giant but much more about a God who is bigger than any giant we could ever face in our life. I can tell you that truth was never more real to me as it was when I stood in that valley.

Israeli Flag on Masada
We stood on the top of Masada, which was seized by troops of the Roman Empire at the end of the first Jewish- Roman war - about 40 years after the resurrection of Christ and a couple of years after the fall of Jerusalem. The story there is not just about the mass suicide of 960 or so Jews who committed suicide instead of being taken prisoner by the Romans. And the story is much more than Romans taking over that fortress that Herod built and destroying all that was sacred to the Zealots who lived there and  claiming their victory.  But the real story is the fact that the Roman Empire is no more.  And today the Israeli flag flies high on that mountain. The Romans just thought they had won.   And the chill bump moment you get in the midst of 110 degree heat there comes when you realize God in you will never be defeated.  And when it seems sometimes in our lives that all is lost, don’t for one second believe it..  With the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob with us, it is not even close to being over.

Viewing the ruins of the Essenes at Qumran
About a mile north of the Dead Sea lies Qumran, the settlement near the caves where the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered first in 1946.  The texts they found have great historical significance because they include the second-oldest known surviving manuscripts of works later included in the Hebrew Bible.   We also learned that a Jewish sect called the Essenes occupied this settlement. This brotherhood was ostracized and persecuted. But the chill bump moment came with the realization that it is very plausible that John the Baptist came from this sect. It is in the wilderness and geographically close to the Jordan River.  This Essenes practiced rituals strongly associated with baptism (which can be plainly seen in the ruins)  and this could be why John came out of the wilderness baptizing with water.  It was quite a thought that this group in this place could be where Christianity was vaulted and the face of the world and the course of history would be forever changed.

We spent our second night at the Dead Sea or Salt Sea.  It  is not conducive for sustaining life and it is both dead and salty, that is for sure. More that ten times salty than any of the world's oceans and twice as salty as the Great Salt Lake in Utah. We were told if you drink two cups of it, you would die. Everyone in our group restrained from testing that premise. Biblically, the Dead Sea is the setting of some of the most important stories of the Bible, including David hiding from Saul in the Dead Sea region, which you will read about here.

Floating in Dead Sea
We also can read about the Dead Sea in Genesis 3 in the story of Abram and Lot v3  "All these latter kings joined forces in the Valley of Siddim (that is the Dead Sea Valley).  Ezekiel also prophesied that the Dead Sea will come alive again. Ezekiel 47:8  "This water flows toward the eastern region and goes down to Arabah, when it enters the dead sea, the salty water there becomes fresh. Swarms of living creatures will live wherever the river flows. There will be large numbers of fish, because the water flows there and makes the salt water fresh so where the river flows everything will live."  In the meantime, entrepreneurs are making big money there from the minerals that come from that sea.  People from all over the world float in the Dead Sea for medicinal purposes and purchase their products.  We floated just for the fun of it.  But it ain't over here either. What is dead will come alive again. Amazing how that theme plays over and over in God's Word.

Living Water of Ein Gedi
“When Saul returned from pursuing the Philistines, he was told ‘David is in the desert of Ein Gedi.’”  1 Sam 24:1.  When we arrived there, I was thinking of the story of David hiding in the caves while Saul and his 3,000 men were looking for him.  I have taught that lesson in Sunday school several times and have been the student more times than that.   It was incredibly hot but I can tell you with sweat pouring from my brow, I was looking at all the caves in those mountains as we hiked in.   We all know the story. Saul went into one of those caves to “relieve himself” and David and his men were hiding there.  David had the opportunity to kill him but instead chose only to cut only a corner off his robe because Saul was the Lord’s anointed.  David chose to leave vengeance to God.   I knew that story.  What I did not know is  Ein Gedi is an oasis in the middle of the desert.  David chose that place because of the water there.  We were all extremely hot and exhausted when we arrived at Ein Gedi and I understood the context of the story.  We hiked up that mountain and found the several water falls where David and his men most certainly found “life” many years ago.  I stood under one of those water falls (as did everyone else in our group I’m sure) and never felt better in my entire life.  All of a sudden I had an entire new perspective of “living water.”  And I wondered if that story would have changed if David had not been refreshed by that living water before he had the encounter with Saul.  And I wondered how our daily stories would change if we make it our business to be refreshed by the living water every day before we make all the decisions we make on a daily basis.

Hiking on the Jericho-Jerusalem Road
When Jesus began the story of the Good Samaritan by saying “ a man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho,” I never thought about the road he was actually talking about.   I have  a different perspective now.  We hiked for over 3 miles down the canyon and around the mountains back to Jericho on part of that ancient road.  It was treacherous, hot and brutal even for the younger folks.   When I had read that famous story in Luke 10, I thought the Samaritan just took him around the corner to get the man help.  About half way on that hike, we gathered together and had a worship service and Matt taught the story of the Good Samaritan.  For one thing, I thought about the depth of that story and the life application in so many ways.  But  I understood better why the Priest and the Levite passed the half dead man by in the context of where they were.  They had to be completely worn out and fearful they could not take care of themselves much less someone else.  It dawned on me that the Samaritan had to be very tired and weary when he saw the guy on the side of the road. Not only did he stop to help him but he went to great physical effort and personal inconvenience to help him. My chill bump moment in that over 100 degree heat was in thinking about the fact to seriously help our neighbor, it may not only be inconvenient but in the helping of others it could be necessary to have our lives completely disrupted.

Stacey Green Psalm 121
It was in the intense heat of that hike, as we were looking up at the enormous mountains all around us , that Andy called on Stacey, one of our fellow travelers, to read Psalm 121.  (He had assigned all of us passages to be read or quoted at different places we visited). Before she began, Andy reminded us how difficult it must have been for Mary and Joseph to travel when she was pregnant up and down that treacherous road in the extreme heat every time they went back and forth to Jerusalem - along with all the other parents traveling with their babies on that road.  We all understood, at that moment, what the Psalmist was talking about when he wrote such words as  “I lift up my eyes to the mountains - where does my help come from?…..He will not let your foot slip - he who watches over you will not slumber….. the Lord is your shade at your right hand; the sun will not harm you by day nor the moon by night…”  We were surrounded by huge mountains and understood and were experiencing the danger of our feet slipping and how the intense sun could harm you.  We were all guzzling large bottles of water to stay hydrated.   I can tell you there was not a dry eye in our group when Stacey quoted Psalm 121 in that place.   Stacey could hardly get through quoting that passage as the context of the scripture was unfolding before her… and all of us.  I also learned again that 100 degree temperature cannot begin to stop the chill bumps that come on like a wave over you when you experience the undeniable truth of scripture.  

Friday, September 22, 2017

Chill Bump Moments in Israel (1st Article of 6)

If there was ever a Bible verse that is the foundation of the Christian faith, it is 1 Corinthians 4:18 I memorized years ago; “ So we fix out eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, for what is seen is temporary and what is unseen is eternal.”  And there are other passages that make the same point; i.e. Hebrews 11:1 that says “Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see.”   And we could go on with many other verses of scripture  that make this very important foundational point of our faith.  Simply stated, our Christian journey is a faith walk and not a sight walk.  I get that really well.

But I will have to admit, it is pretty cool to actually see some of what you believed by faith for pretty much all your life.  My wife and I had that unforgettable opportunity recently as we traveled to Israel with a group of about 43 other similarly minded folks. It was a bucket list item for us.  It turned out to be more more than a  bucket's worth.

The trip we signed up for was led by Andy Cook, a long time friend and former pastor at Shirley Hills Baptist Church in Warner Robins, GA  who founded a ministry called Experience Israel Now.  Andy has been taking groups to Israel for almost 20 years. He also has a multi-media ministry where he travels in the United States to churches and other groups to take people to Israel who cannot go there physically.  His knowledge of God’s Word  and his ability to communicate and connect the dots between the Old Testament and New Testament with the the geography of where it actually took place is astonishing and very moving.  We also traveled with Boaz Shalgi,  a Jewish guide who joined us in Israel.  Between Boaz and Andy, we were in information  and emotional overload the entire trip.  And life change overload.  Additionally, this particular tour was sponsored by our church, Southside Baptist in Warner Robins, so we had our pastors, Jerry Walls and Matt Walls who led services, taught and preached along the way.  And one of our worship leaders from church, Greg Harris, came along to lead worship at all the sacred places.

Our Group of Travelers on the Mount of Olives

The tour was masterfully planned and took our group on an intentional journey, both physically and symbolically.  For the record, this was a “hiking” tour as opposed to what I guess would be a “traditional” tour.  In other words, we spent very little time visiting historical places where huge churches have been built over them and you stand in line to see what has been pretty much commercialized for centuries.  We worked very hard to see most of the places we saw.  For a 63 year old gray headed man who is not in the best of shape, maybe my greatest takeaway was that I was able to do what I physically thought was impossible for me.   According to my IPhone app, I hiked 48 miles during our 8 days in Israel. Some on our trip hiked more.  For the most part, it was mountain hiking in temperatures that were over 100 degrees.  We spent the first three days in the intense heat of the desert and then spent the next three days in what turned out to be the intense heat of the Galilee.  When we arrived at the Sea of Galilee, I think we all felt like the Israelites who had been wandering in the desert and all of a sudden saw the Promise Land.  Not kidding.  Seeing that famous lake from the window of the bus when we drove up, where so much of Jesus’ ministry took place, almost took my breath away.  The fact that we had been literally in the extreme conditions of the desert for three days when we drove up, I’m sure had something to do with the impact.   Oh yes, there is a lesson there for all of us -  only when we endure through the difficult times can we really appreciate the beauty of the wonderful times. Actually, we got no relief from the heat during our three days in Galilee and afterwards when we were in Jerusalem for the final three days.

But in spite of the heat - and right dab in the middle of it - we experienced many “chill bump” moments that had a way of cooling us off.

Boaz teaching at Herodium that towered over Bethlehem 
It is important to know that Israel is the archeological hotspot of the entire world.  Very smart people with great passion, using cutting edge technology and lots of hard labor, are uncovering more and more every year.  I learned that at Tel is a man-made mountain. There are many of those in Israel.   The illustration we were given is like putting a cap on your head, and adding another on top of that, another on top of that, another on top of that, etc.  Over the centuries, cities and civilizations have been built on top of each other.  The archeological digs are about moving one cap at a time , studying each civilization as they get to it, to eventually get to the first city.  In other words, when we arrived at a first century synagogue or amphitheater or palace - or whatever,  it was evident that an enormous amount of digging and archeological work had taken place or was still taking place there.  From my view,  the term “mind boggling”  would be an understatement.  A huge understatement. 

I certainly won’t forget the places we visited. From now on, when I read about them in the Bible or hear preachers or teachers talk of them, I will have a different perspective. Places like King Herod’s fortresses and elaborate palaces built all over Israel and an evil King who tormented his people.  When I read those verses in the New Testament that say “In the time of Herod King of Judea” I understand better the time in which Jesus was born.  Herod was one evil egotistical man who had all power and wealth.  He was hated by the Jews.  After seeing so many of his elaborate fortresses that towered over Judea, I can see much clearer why the Jews would have been excited that a potential new king had arrived.