an earthquake of a new years day

REFLECTIONS ON ISRAEL || an earthquake of a new years day
[January 1st, 2011]

1st daylight view of the Sea of Galilee from just outside our small villa

The sunrise came. We opened the door of our small seaside villas to a fog-covered Sea of Galilee. It was almost just as I imagined it. That story in John 21 when Jesus restored Peter. Breakfast on the beach. The tall reeds. The wall of mountains. The gentle breeze, for the moment.

It was almost midnight back in Orlando. I texted Jen to wish her Happy New Year. She was about to watch the ball drop. Our group all had an uneventful new year’s eve as far as I could tell. There was a small, noisy party for some locals in the lower level of the lobby the night before. Other than some wifi-seekers, though, our crew had gone to bed fairly early. This morning, there were those eating a quick breakfast to come over to the lobby to communicate with home and to catch up on Bowl Game scores.

Jen came down with the same crud that I was sick with before we left for Israel. Which stinks. Having sick kids is one thing, and three of our five had gotten it. But having to take care of sick kids while sick is no good at all. And I hated it for her. She had a positive attitude about it, continuing to be so supportive of this special father-sons trip, even though we had a 9-week old newborn at home to go with those sick kids. She is amazing.

Dad led the entire group in a study of 1st Peter each morning while we were in Israel. His first installment, which would have been beside the Sea that is so dear to his heart, got moved inside because of sprinkles. He had led the morning before on the bus north from Mispeh Ramon. He was teaching it as though Peter. Great stuff.

@ the latrine

Our first sight-seeing stop of the day was Beit Shean. A very ancient city with modern fame. Much of it has been excavated in the last 30 years. What has been uncovered reveals that there was likely an earthquake at night in the 700s. Unlike Vesuvius as a comparative excavation, people weren’t scattering in the daylight of a volcano-filled sky. They were still. Asleep. Remnants left alone. Markets empty. Most likely a nighttime shaker that destroyed a major metropolis of the Roman Empire. Biblically, Saul and his sons were hung on the wall by the enemy Philistines here after their dead bodies were recovered in battle (1st Samuel 31). Fast forward to Alex the Great. He conquered the city and made it “duty free,” which increased its commerce and significance. Romans made it a glorious stop along one their many well-paved roadways. Government, gladiators, and guilds of actors must have been part of the bustling society under Romand rule, even though its setting was right in the middle of Israel. There was a working public latrine, whose ruins Erik and I wanted to literally use. There were public bathhouses and a theater and a large market and a large space for political and diplomatic happenings. I mentioned a “modern fame” for this city. The hill that dominated almost every view had on top a peculiarly dead tree. In the movie “Jesus Christ Superstar” Judas was hung there. Getting hung there seems like a recurring theme, so we left.

a panoramic view of Beit Shean

a second-rate Mosaic

Beit Alfa was our next stop. It contained the ruins of a 6th century synagogue well-known for its syncretistic mosaic floor done by some poor quality artist. The mosaic floor was a mix of Roman mythology and Jewish religious symbols. Based on the captivating mosaics we had just seen in the ruins of Beit Shean, and based on a cheesy but informative film that we saw there, the artist certainly must have been second-rate and all the leaders there could afford. The floor was still an amazing relic.

Gideon's Spring

On to the Spring of Gideon, we walked up to the spot where many believe Gideon’s troops were cut to 300. One of my professors from Seminary who is a renown archaeologist (which I gather is about like being a renown aardvark dentist since there are so few of them and they get such little media coverage) told me once in Seminary his theory of why God chose the 300 and let the rest go. Judges 7:5-7 reads:

5 So Gideon took the troops down to the stream. God said to Gideon: “Everyone who laps with his tongue, the way a dog laps, set on one side. And everyone who kneels to drink, drinking with his face to the water, set to the other side.” 6 Three hundred lapped with their tongues from their cupped hands. All the rest knelt to drink. 7 God said to Gideon: “I’ll use the three hundred men who lapped at the stream to save you and give Midian into your hands. All the rest may go home.”

the view to Moreh

Dr. Ortiz told us he reasons that God told Gideon to keep the ones who lapped the water from their hands because they would stay alert and focused on the mission. You see, the enemy Midianites were encamped near the Hill of Moreh on the other side of the vast plain that the stream borders. Gideon’s men were most certainly thirsty and wanted a chance to gather their thoughts as they mentally struggled with the task of defeating the countless Midianites. When they came upon the stream, the enemy was in view. The enemy camp was just across the plain, and because of their large number would most certainly have been noticeable to Gideon’s men. Thus, the men who did not give in to the out-of-control indulgence of quenching their thirst by sticking their faces in the water were fit for battle. They were able to stay focused on the mission at hand, which was especially important if they were going to trust this extremely unique battle plan. Dr. Ortiz’s hypothesis is mere speculation, but good reasoning. And it makes the story more real. Seeing the location and the view firsthand made it more real, as well.

the top of Megiddo

After lunch, we arrived at the Hill of Megiddo – aka “Har Megiddo,” aka Armageddon, aka Jezreel Valley.  It is an out-of-place rock that stands high above one of the most expansive valleys I had every seen. The ruins there were captivating, representing 25 layers of civilization. The overlook to the vast Jezreel Valley coupled with the remains of settlements 25 times conquered  and 25 times rebuilt was breathtaking. It dated from 4500 BC forward. It has been a place of so much conquest because of its strategic location and formidable height along what was the main road from Mesopotamia to Egypt. It is in this valley and from this hill that some interpreters of Revelation 16 say that the battle to end the ages will be fought. Regardless of my viewpoint or yours, it is still a magical place where many conquests and battles have occurred.

the valley of Megiddo (Jezreel Valley)

One other note about Megiddo. King Ahab used it as a stronghold. He had elaborate cisterns built to supply the place with water in case of a long siege. We walked down over a hundred steps into the base of the water hole. Coming out, we were all walking down a path when one of the men noticed what looked to him to be a piece of pottery lodged into the dirt mound beside us. After a little digging, three pieces of what probably was an ancient pitcher were uncovered. One of the professors with us identified it as likely being a 6th or 7th century BC piece, based upon the layer of the hill where it was found. I was skeptical, since I had recently bought one just like it at Old Time Pottery (just kidding). It was pretty neat.

an evening view from the cliff edge at Nazareth

Our last stop of the day was Nazareth. It is now a city of 100,000 Muslims, Jews, and Christians all dwelling tensely together. Jesus’ hometown was likely very small. It was very likely a settlement for the families of mason workers who were commissioned in to build Tiberius. If that is the case, Joseph was possibly not a wood carpenter but a mason. That screws up The Passion movie, though, so forget I said that. Jesus was certainly not welcomed in his hometown (Luke 4). There was great hatred toward Him at the slightest variance from the customs and traditions of their culture, especially since some of them there had likely wiped his runny nose when he was a kid. We stood on the only cliff edge of the city, likely where they would have thrown Jesus from if He had not escaped. Our guide, Gilla told us of the heavy angst and even of a bit of persecution toward Christians in this area today. “They are leaving in droves. But Islam is a religion of peace, you know. Wherever they arrive to live everyone else leaves and then there’s peace.” She was funny and insightful.

Each night, Dr. Warren led us through an abridged study of Acts. On this night, we gathered and read the text where those gathered of the early church prayed and the place shook (Acts 4):

31 While they were praying, the place where they were meeting trembled and shook. They were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak God’s Word with fearless confidence.

Immediately at that moment, and I am not exaggerating here, the room above the lobby where we were shook. It was like an earthquake, lasted for about 10 seconds, and then calmed. When we came down into the lobby after our study, the front desk folks told us there had been an earthquake just a few moments ago in Beit Shean, where we had been earlier that day. 4.2 on the richter scale. Crazy!!!

As if the trip wasn’t already unique enough.

Next post – more from around the region of Galilee…

a tale of two seas and some baggy pants

REFLECTIONS ON ISRAEL || a tale of two seas and some baggy pants
[December 29th to 31st]

passport control

A 4:00ish, December 29th flight to Atlanta from New Orleans was followed by a 10:55 flight that went 12 hours on into Tel Aviv and ended with a relieved and excited group of 45 people. The night of December 30th came and went quickly with both the long flight and a 7 hour advance in time (from the east coast timezone). After experiencing “Passport Control,” we boarded a bus at the Ben Gurion airport.

Avner was our driver. Gilla was our guide. She is a longtime friend of Clay and my dad. My mom actually came twice with Dad I believe. She and Gilla hit it off. Mom used to talk so fondly of her. To finally meet her, this historically-educated, heart-felt, humorous, highly devoted Jewish woman, was a real treat and will be an ongoing joy thanks to Facebook.

It was about 8:00pm local time, and we had a two hour bus ride south to Mispeh Ramon to spend the night near the Negev Dessert and the Egyptian border at the Ramon Inn. We were given a late-night, delicious introduction to Israeli food and sent to our beds for a jet-lagged night of sleep in preparation for our fast-paced but thorough sight-seeing tour that began the following morning.

Breakfast was yummy. The orange juice was actually better than home. Later I found out that Israel, even with all of its long-standing water supply issues, is the largest supplier of citrus for European countries. I witnessed firsthand why.

the canyon

I have not been to the Grand Canyon in America, but I can now say I have been to Israel’s. Walking distance from the Ramon Inn was one of Israel’s 63 National Parks. This one commemorated a crater with depth that cannot be captured by camera. The experience was breath-taking in two ways. Both because of the view and the temperature. It was cold. Not just for a Florida-resident either. We didn’t stay there long as a result.

North up the road we stopped at Avdad, the home to 4th Century church buildings and a settlement that dates back much farther. This hilltop village not only was a key community along one of the major trade routes of antiquity, it was also believed to be a stop for the Magi from the east as they neared Jerusalem following a new star. One of the gifts they carried, perfume, was a significant component of the commerce of that region. Thus, Casablanca often visited and bought perfume and its ingredients from there. There was a huge wine press. There were ruins with inscriptions that labeled one section as a “northern church” and one as a “southern church.” Maybe the evidence of an early church split? More likely used for different purposes. But I thought it interesting, with the state of the “church” of the southern United States, that such an impressive relic would be called “The Southern Church.” I pray we will be and keep becoming so much more than a relic as “the southern church” in America.

relics of the Southern Church

Abraham's Well

Our next stop was Beer-Sheva. You may well recognize the name, either from reading the Bible or from studying history. In the Scriptures, Abraham built a well there when he made an oath of peace with Abimilech (Genesis 21). Thus, the name Beer Sheva, which means “Well Oath.” One of the men in our group, his name JP, told us a personal story while we were there of the medical struggles he and his wife have had with their two and 1/2 year old daughter. Much like Hagar, he said, when she wept and cried out hurting as her son lay dying of hunger not too far from where we were standing (also Genesis 21), he and his wife had experienced that despair. And much like God opened Hagar’s eyes and blessed her, God had opened their eyes to trust him thru the pain and see the blessing of her continued progress. In the setting of that ancient well and in the context of hearing that story, I prayed, “Lord, please open up my eyes to know you as the Living Water that sustains.”

the Mediterranean Sea

We loaded the bus, bypassed Jerusalem to the west (we would spend our final 3 days there), and headed up the Mediterranean Coast to Caesarea Maritime, or Caesarea “by the sea.” This was a well-known Roman outpost and port. Pilate most likely lived there or at least had a residence. Paul came before King Agrippa there (Acts 26). There was a well-preserved theater along with a Hippodrome – a 12,000 seat oval-shaped stadium home to chariot races (aka the founding place of NASCAR). I have to say the most moving moment for me at this location, however, was the first time my eyes beheld the Mediterranean Sea. I can’t explain why this sea possesses such mystique to me, but it does. And to be on its eastern shores was breathtaking. The wind that day was fierce and the waves surfable, if not for the jagged rocks. Those rocks were the remains of a man-made lagoon and port that spanned some 40 acres and docked many boats doing international commerce or diplomacy of some kind. My friend Rob and I snuck off for a latte and some conversation as we looked out over the water toward the near-setting sun. Special memory.


Our next and final sight-seeing stop of the day was also very mystical to me. You may understand why when I tell you that it was Mt. Carmel. Elijah faithed down hundreds of prophets who stood against him. God answered Elijah’s trash-talking prayer and lapped up both his soaked sacrifices and the water-filled moat around the altar, demonstrating the fearful power of a God nearer than those prophets had anticipated (1st Kings 18). The sun was setting toward the Mediterranean Sea, almost in fire-like fashion, definitely enhancing the moment as one of the men in our group retold the story of Elijah and the false prophets. To the east, we could see the valley of Megiddo. It was my first time seeing it. Also the prophesied site of a great standoff that according to Revelation will be anti-climatic for those on the anti-God side. They will prepare for a great battle, armed and ready, and the Lion of Judah will simply speak, lapping them all up in a similarly consuming way as to what happened to the Elijah’s sacrifice. It was a bit overwhelming thinking about it as we looked over this vast expanse. A moving moment at this stop.

the sunset from Mt. Carmel

One funny or at least interesting note. The inhabitants of a small town there near the peak of Mt. Carmel are a people whose faith has one odd tenant. They supposedly believe that the Messiah has yet to come, and when he finally does he will be birthed miraculously through a man. The joke in the country is that this prophetic belief is the basis for the baggy pants that all the men wear among this unique group. And they do wear baggy pants. Interesting.

I was getting bus-sickness a bit as we curved our way over the next two mountains in the dark. We were on our way to the area that I had been most excited to see. Even in the dark, it was still intriguing. And we arrived at our hotel there on her southern shores, a cold wind struck us. It was the same type of wind that struck this sea many times and very suddenly. And we were finally there, after my long anticipation. The sunrise couldn’t come fast enough so that I could finally see the Sea of Galilee.

We spent the next four days there. I will tell you of our first day in that region in the next post…

my son, the movie director

Caleb is 9. He has been editing short clips and movies since he was 7. Here’s his most recent – a 20 minute video entitled “Daytona: the Last Race.” There is a special guest appearance in the video from Frank Wonder, cousin of Stevie Wonder, singing the National Anthem (played by me). It’s silly.

But the movie is not silly. I am really proud of him. Good stuff. Here’s the movie:

Reflections on Israel // an introduction

[an introduction]
I never imagined that I would be boarding a plane with my dad and my brother for a very long flight into Tel Aviv, Israel. But on December 29th, 2010, that’s exactly what I did.

Those who went on the trip came from all over the southeast. Dad and I started our journey from Orlando. Erik (my brother) began from near Tupelo, MS. One woman came from Palm Coast, FL. One couple came from western Missouri. Several women came from near Montgomery, AL. All of the rest came from New Orleans, LA, where we all converged to begin our journey. Our connection is the New Orleans Seminary. And our connector is Clay Corvin, assisted by JP Cox, who so generously and graciously put all these type of trips together for students and alumni and Seminary families to experience the lands of the Bible. Many, many thanks to Clay for giving me the opportunity to take such a significant journey with my dad and my brother.

Some of you probably realize that Jen and I have a newborn at home. This opportunity to go to Israel as a threesome came right before the time we knew little Noah was coming. Jen and I both felt the opportunity too special and unique to pass up. I am so thankful, as much as I missed her and the kids.

To say this was a spiritual highlight of my life would be an understatement. It actually came at a time when, quite honestly, I am feeling fatigued and am in real need of being reinvigorated as a follower, a husband, a dad, a son, a brother, a friend, and an equipper. As I write this first post in what will be a multi-post series reflecting on our trip, I am actually somewhere over North Carolina on a flight from JFK New York to Orlando International Airport. So, the jury is still out on whether the fullness of reinvigoration has or will take place. But it sure seems like it has.

I come home with more than a few trinkets from a commercialized Holy Land.

I come home ready to listen and obey to what I sense God is whispering.

I come home eager to make my wife feel more loved than ever before.

I come home excited to learn and live the ways of Jesus with my kids more deeply than ever, praying they recognize the call to be making disciples in their own relationships and strategizing about what it will take to sow for that outcome.

I come home with a very enriched relationship with my dad and brother, along with a few family friends who were on the trip, some with whom I had become disconnected and others with home our connection is deeper (one with which I am working on a book project which rocks the house).

I come home with a book recommendation list that catapults me into a 2011 during which I was already hoping to read 52 books.

I come home with 11 goals for 2011. I ask you to please pray for me to not just accomplish 11 tasks. Rather, I sense these are a matter of obedience. Please pray I will set my face resolutely toward obeying the given mission, much like my Savior did from the very location that I drove through just a few short days ago.

I come home wanting to obey the simplest and yet most impactful of Jesus’ commands. To love God and love my neighbor. To love others as Jesus has loved me. To grow to be one with the Father as He was one with the Father and thus transform my relationships to demonstrate the oneness that I have with Him. And to make disciples – learning and living the ways of Jesus. Specifically to disciple at least two people who are lost to become disciplers of Jesus themselves.

I come home having seen more than a few significant sights, religious relics, moving monuments, archeologized antiquity, and a very tense Temple Mount. I come home having seen firsthand at least the approximate location of the very places where God introduced Himself to His most precious creation and furthermore died to restore them before they even apologized for betraying Him. And that changes things. That changes me.

Over the course of the next 8 to 10 days, I hope to share those reflections and transformations with you. From continued skepticism to new insights to daily decals, these coming reflections will simply be my thoughts from our daily adventure in the land where Jesus was born, grew up, worked, worked miracles, died, and rose again.

I pray they will be meaningful to you as I share them. I pray God will burn what I learned and am learning in my heart and life as I share them with you.