Over the next 16 days, a tiny band of brave pilgrims will leave family and friends behind and embark on a daring journey to the center of the earth. Traveling deep into the core, we will revisit great mysteries of the past, immerse ourselves in the heat of the present, and be ever mindful of how the two forge what will become the future.
Okay…in reality our tiny band of pilgrims is actually forty tourists on a big bus, and while we won’t be sliding through volcanic tubes to view the earth’s molten core— a la the classic Jules Verne novel—we will travel the highways and byways, the dusty paths and Roman roads that traverse the land of promise. Though not the geographical center of Planet Earth per se, one could certainly describe the Middle East as ground zero spiritually speaking. I think, at least, there is a very real possibility God may see it that way.
In the Jules Verne novel, the journey commenced with Professor Otto’s nephew Axel reluctant and voicing numerous reservations about the trip, but for young Axel, it would be an adventure of a lifetime. And it would change him profoundly.
Our own version of Journey to the Center of the Earth, with our own anxieties both real and imagined, will change us too. We will no doubt drink too much strong coffee, eat a lot of really good cheese, ride a camel, hike the Snake Path to Masada, and slip a note in the Wailing Wall. We will sing praises to our God on a boat in the middle of the Sea of Galilee and stand on Mt. Carmel imagining fire raining down from heaven. We’ll take communion at the Garden Tomb and carefully contemplate the cost of the Place of the Skull.
But most importantly, we will meet the amazing people who live and work everyday to see His kingdom come to this place, who know no other way of life but “all-in” as they serve their Savior. We will encourage them, bless them, pray for them, and be changed by their stories. We will wonder at the peculiar people God called His own, weep over their wounds, and beg the God of Israel to remove the veil that blinds them…that they might see, turn to Him, and be healed.
We may be out of our minds, but the Master is taking us on an incredible adventure. With the center of the earth in as much turmoil as ever, my friends and I appreciate your prayers!
March 2, 2014 – Forgiveness Factor
The journey to the center of the earth proved to be quite long and very taxing. It involved a bus ride in torrential rain, two turbulent flights, a nearly missed connection (translation: runningthrough the airport in a most undignified fashion) and over 24 hours of travel.
Arriving in the late afternoon, our only stop for the day besides the hotel and bed was the ancient port city of Jaffa. It was here that Jonah bought boat passage in an attempt to run away from God’s call. Disobedience bought him three days and nights in the intestines of the fish, symbolizing his death. It was also here in Jaffa that another man, many centuries later, had a dream one night that would change the course of history for the church. Peter’s obedience to God’s call meant life for many.
The command to both men was to Go…Jonah to Nineveh and Peter to Caesarea. One said No, thank you, the other said Yes, Lord. Having established that disobedience brings death and obedience life, a question was posed: Haven’t we too been told to Go? How will we respond? Remember, it's a matter of life or death.
Our Sunday was full and focused on the events leading up to May 1948 and the birth of the state of Israel. By far the highlight of the day (not including Janet locking herself in the bathroom at our lunch stop and needing a rescue by local military personnel) was a stop in Ariel, a city nestled in the hills of Samaria—ancient hills studded with olive groves as far as the eye can see. Ariel means lion of God and was once the land of Joshua and Caleb and many other mighty men of valor. It was in Ariel that we met some modern-day lions of God: the Ortiz family.
Pastoring a small body of Messiah in the heart of what the media calls the West Bank, this congregation serves and loves their neighbors, handing out over 200 bags of food per month to hungry Palestinian families and sweeping the streets of their Jewish neighborhood regularly. But these guys do more than serve and love their neighbors. They forgive their enemies. And when I say they forgive, I mean they forgive like Jesus forgives.
Several years ago, their world was rocked when a bomb was left on their doorstep. The Jewish extremist who planted the bomb did not take kindly to their church, their Bible, or their love for Messiah, and he sought (unsuccessfully) to run them out of town. It was the Ortiz’s 15-year-old son who opened the package and very nearly lost his life. In those first agonizing hours in the hospital waiting room, not knowing if he would live or die, the Ortiz family took comfort in Psalm 36:
"Even on his bed he plots evil; he commits himself to a sinful course and does not reject what is wrong. But Your love, O LORD, reaches to the heavens, Your faithfulness to the skies."
As she read the psalm in its entirety over and over, Leah Ortiz heard the Spirit whisper to her heart: Forgiveness will bring glory to My name. It was then that David and Leah had an inkling of just what this was about. This was an opportunity—by extending forgiveness—to I (2 Corinthians 3:18). Our lives are a series of opportunities to be made more like Him, from one glory to the next. Forgiveness would not be easy, but it would bring glory to the Savior, transforming them more into His likeness. Forgiveness would untie the hands of God and allow Him to work powerfully in their lives, in their church, and in their community. And so, in His power, they forgave.
It would be five and a half months before their son would come home from the hospital, and fourteen surgeries later he is doing well and attending college. It was eighteen months before the authorities caught the perpetrator and throughout three long years of trial, of media coverage, interviews, and court testimonies, one thing was heard loud and clear here: the Ortiz family forgives because Jesus forgives.
This is what we found in Samaria today: Obedience. Service. Love. Forgiveness. Lions of God.
March 4, 2014 – A Modern-Day Cornelius
I don’t recall the brochure mentioning information overload, but at the end of Tuesday, I think we may have hit critical mass (at least, I think it’s Tuesday…I could be wrong). For some of us, this not the first time we have been on this tour with Hope For Israel. The great thing about repeating a tour like this one, especially one to a place as intense as the center of the earth, is that you get to hear the things you failed to process the first time or, let’s be honest, the parts of the tour you slept through. Some of us apparently slept through quite a lot last time. And I won’t lie; one of us is sleeping through a fair amount this time too. In her defense, the coffee stops are woefully few and far between.
I sat in the hippodrome of Caesarea Maritima and contemplated the cost of faith. Had we visited Herod the Great’s cosmopolitan port city in the second century, we would have had front row seats for the gladiatorial contests the Romans loved so dearly. But it was not just gladiators that fought to the death in this immense arena. Many people lost their lives here, mercilessly torn to pieces by hungry lions because they were followers of Jesus. I thought again about the Ortiz family in Ariel and what their faith has cost them.
Herod’s Caesarea was an engineering marvel. It was the port from which the Apostle Paul sailed away on three missionary journeys, taking the good news of the kingdom to the Gentiles. It was also the place where he was held under arrest for two years. But it was also where a certain Roman centurion heard from God. “Cornelius was devout and God-fearing; he gave generously to those in need and prayed to God regularly.” One day he saw an angel who told him, “Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God.” This God-fearing and generous man was singled out by the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob to be the first Gentile officially brought into the New Covenant. Soon, he would hear the good news from Peter and be grafted into the family of God. I wondered what it cost those early Jewish believers to accept this man. To call him brother? Perhaps it was not so different than what the believers in this land face as they come together in Messiah. In a place steeped in conflict and hate for millennia, can a Muslim accept a Jew and call him brother? Can the hated be loved and old enemies be forgiven? The answer is yes in Jesus. Yes, but in the center of the earth, faith does not come without cost.
As all of Israel has been enshrouded in dust the last two days, today's blue sky and crisp winter sunshine were welcomed by all. Nowhere was this change more appreciated than at the vista point at the top of Mt. Carmel. The views of the Jezreel Valley to the east and the Mediterranean Sea to the west were breathtaking. But Mt. Carmel is more than just a pretty view. Mt. Carmel is where the God of Israel showed up big and the prophets of Baal felt the full measure of His wrath for leading His people astray. A lion of God, the prophet Elijah, was here on this very mountain, demanding the people of God stop with the wishy-washy faith: either serve God or Baal.
God’s issue with His people was not that they had rejected Him. They did not. They sought to add Baal to their spiritual portfolio. They wanted a little Yahweh and a little Baal. They soon learned that there is no such thing as a little Yahweh. They could not serve both; a choice would be made and that choice would cost.
From one perspective, I wonder at how little things have changed for God's people. We want to add a little Jesus to our lives. Or maybe, we sign up for the All Jesus Plan at first, but we don’t understand there is cost to this faith, and as time passes we ask Him to make room for the other things we worship. Things like money and debt, food and dieting, work and education, control, fear, people, places, things. The list is endless. Elijah said it this way: "How long will you waver between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow Him, but if Baal is God, follow him.” God was calling His people to purify their faith, to stop worshipping their idols and give Him their whole hearts. It’s what He wants from us as well. It’s what He’s always wanted. But it didn’t cost Him nothing to save us. We shouldn’t think it will cost us nothing to serve Him. Shouldn’t it at least cost me my idols?
We ended a long day with an acute need for more caffeination. We would have dinner in a Druze village nestled in the shadow of Mt. Carmel instead. Moran Rosenblit, Executive Director for Hope For Israel, set the stage for an amazing homemade meal by telling us: “We show our love for our Creator when we love the people He loves.” He gave us an opportunity to do just that tonight at the home of a very dear family that lost their son in a terror attack in 1995. They fed us an amazing dinner, and our tour participants blessed the family of Anan with two big suitcases full of gifts. Abu Anan will give these everyday necessities to the many needy families he serves in his community. Something within Abu Anan, call it a divine impulse, drives him to help the poor. Hope For Israel partners with him in this endeavor, walking with him through the pain of losing a child, validating his divine impulse to give back, and seeking through an ongoing relationship to help him understand it.
I imagine Abu Anan, a devout and God-fearing man, is much like a modern day Cornelius. I have no doubt that his prayers and gifts to the poor have gone up as a memorial offering before God. I have no doubt that the God of heaven, high above Mt. Carmel, is listening. Our hope and prayer is that someday, Abu Anan, like Cornelius, will be welcomed into the family of the God. Let’s hope and pray it’s soon.
March 6, 2014 – Easy Street
We are having issues at the center of the Earth. There is not nearly enough coffee on this trip. Ice cream availability is sufficient, but coffee…um, no. More. Jacquelyn suggested that Joseph, the “excellent-superb-number-one driver” of our big red bus, install an espresso machine on this bus to both keep us awake and eliminate whining. The management of Hope For Israel should take this under advisement. Soon.
The Israelite tribe of Dan had some issues too, but not with lack of caffeination. The portion of inheritance God had given them in the Promised Land was rife with challenges. They bordered the troublesome Philistines and grew weary of the ongoing battles with them. Their enemy constantly harassed them, not exactly thrilled to have them in the neighborhood. Eventually, they decided to abandon their portion of the inheritance and move to another location, a place where they could easily conquer the local people and set up shop on easy street (well, we should note that “easy” is a relative term).
This quest for easy street paid off. They conquered the city of Laish in the north, a peaceful and unsuspecting people, and renamed the city Dan. We wandered the ruins of this once great city, now a nature preserve, following the river Dan (where the Jor-dan river begins) deep into the woods. After a bit of a walk we came to the “high place” of the area that was built by Jeroboam many generations later after Israel split into two kingdoms. It was at this high place that King Jeroboam built an altar, placed two golden calves (golden calf? Ironic, huh?) and told the people that here was their place of worship. And they worshipped the cows, calling them god and performing various sacrificial acts.
All of this gave me pause. I thought about the Danites growing weary of fighting for their land, weary of the enemy constantly seeking to harass and destroy them. I thought about them abandoning their inheritance in search of an easier way. I thought about how sometimes God’s way just seems too hard. Sometimes it’s hard to love my neighbor as myself. It can certainly be hard to forgive. It’s hard to treasure Jesus above all else. It’s hard to die to myself and not demand my way. It’s hard to live with the perspective of Matthew 6:33: The kingdom first; everything else second. It is hard and the longing for easy street is real. It’s easier to avoid my neighbor, withhold forgiveness, and treasure my stuff. It’s easier to put myself first and everything else second. Even God. I don’t think easy street is a place anyone intends to go. We just end up there. Or maybe we were born there.
For the Danites, the price for easy street was paid generations later when the sheer distance to Jerusalem (a hard journey) led Jeroboam to build the high place and substitute a golden cow for the mighty God of Israel. Instead of making the long and arduous journey to worship, they enjoyed the convenience of worshiping at the local high place. The problem was that what they were worshiping at the high place in Dan was not their God. It was a cheap and powerless imitation. Worse, what they did was an absolute abomination. But it was easier.
Ironically, most of us as American Christians have never known anything but a faith parked on easy street. Some of us have certainly gained that perspective on this journey to the center of the Earth. Life here in Israel can be hard for believers, just as it is in much of the world. The cost of faith is very real and it can be very high.
From Tel Dan our big red bus snaked its way up through the Golan Heights. On the barbed-wire fences that line either side of the windy road hang little yellow signs that read: Danger! Land Mines! We learned that occasionally in this area a cow will find a hole in a fence and, unable to read the little yellow signs, will come to an unfortunate end. We were careful, however, and stayed safely away from the land mines. Our destination was an observation point at the Israeli-Syrian border. We passed an active tank unit and the soldiers waved. Once at the top, we left our big red bus and I noticed that unlike the many other sites we had visited, our big red bus was the only bus. There was a very good reason for this. This was not a tourist stop. For this moment in time, we were not tourists.
We walked to the edge of the Valley of Tears and what is technically the edge of Israel. In the distance, beyond the UN-controlled “no-man’s land” we could see a large Syrian city. We were reminded of the human disaster going on across that border and especially in Damascus, a mere 45 miles from where we stood. Syrians of all stripes are suffering atrocities of war we cannot even begin to imagine. There on that ridge, with arms lifted high we prayed for the people of Syria. Elliot, one of our new Jewish friends, prayed, beginning in Hebrew. He prayed aloud for Israel’s enemies, prayed for peace, and prayed for the innocent and the guilty alike. Isaac, a dentist from Torrance, also prayed. He prayed for the protection of Israel during this time, surrounded by her enemies, hated by so many. He prayed for the veil to be lifted, that they would see their Messiah, and that they would find peace.
After the rest of us offered our silent prayers for the carnage and the suffering to stop, we returned to the bus, some of us desiring to quickly get out of there and drive our big red target away from the border and tanks and soldiers. Praying in that place was a very special privilege. At the edge of war, praying for peace in the name of the Prince of Peace is something we will not soon forget.
And just as a side note: two days ago, a couple of militants from Lebanon with weapons and intent to harm were captured at that border attempting to sneak into Israel. As one soldier described these types of things: They weren’t exactly coming to offer a peace agreement. Big red bus, drive on!
March 9, 2014 – Lies That Bind
The Dead Sea greeted our big red bus with pouring rain and a hotel without elevator usage due to some sort of electrical incident. Despite climbing four flights of stairs to our rooms and a stairwell that smelled suspiciously like fried electrical circuits, there is something quite breathtaking about a rainstorm in the desert. The air is clean and the light attempting to peek through the clouds is almost magical. A hotel room in the center of the Earth with lights flickering on and off…not so magical. It’s kinda creepy.
During our time in the region of Galilee, we visited a kibbutz, shared a Sabbath dinner with local families, rode a donkey, walked the ruins of Armageddon, worshiped with a local Lebanese church, and stood at the Gates of Hell in Caesarea Philippi. Best of all, on the Sea of Galilee we enjoyed an amazing morning of worship on a boat called Faith. Led in song by Daniel, the only believing boat captain in the area, on Faith we sat in the middle of the lake. On Faith we sang:
Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty
Who was and is and is to come.
With all creation I sing, praise to the King of Kings
You are my everything and I will adore You…
(And then, a little These Are the Days of Elijah… thrown in just for good measure.)
On the shores of this lake, Jesus healed. On this lake, He walked. And on these waters we again said goodbye to a dear friend. With worship music filling our ears and our hearts, we watched Lynette spread the ashes of her beloved on the lake where his Beloved spent so much time. Unable to hold back the tears, we all cried with her, giving glory to our God, knowing all is well with Rich’s soul.
A jumble of emotions, from Faith we headed to the other side of the lake. This was the region of the Gadarenes in Jesus’ time, and it was here that Jesus and His friends met Legion. This man, you may remember, was bound by many evil spirits, and it seems as though Jesus came looking for him for they really had no business on the Gentile side of the lake. Jesus quickly freed Legion from his bondage, a bondage that was destroying him.
Jesus, by His own admission, came to bring freedom. A question was posed: from what does Jesus set us free? The pat answers of sin and death would not do this time. We were challenged to go deeper. From what does Jesus want to set us free? What binds us? What really binds us? Fear. Shame. Guilt. Anger. Rejection. Insecurity. All these things are based on lies. Lies bind, but the Truth frees. He set Legion free. He has set us free as well; we just need to live like it.
You will know the truth and the truth will set you free…
We had to ask ourselves, how well do we know the Truth?
March 13, 2014 – A Sewer Tour and a Prayer Vigil
We left the lowest point on Earth behind and our big red bus climbed fifteen hundred feet of narrow, windy roads to the Negev desert. It’s a lonely land, populated only by sheep and camels, and their Bedouin herders. Though the desert is literally blooming near the city of Arad, the desolation of the area is still acute, and we stopped at Beer-Sheba to inspect a rather clever system of cisterns and wells. We were reminded yet again that water equals life. We were also thankful that our big red bus is a solo affair and that we are not part of a bigger tour as a caravan of seven tour buses converged on the site as we were leaving. Together they formed one mega-tour with color-coded nametags and bus assignments. You can imagine the line for the ladies room!
From the Tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron, we made our way through the mountains of Judea toward Bethlehem, imagining that somewhere on the ancient sheep trails that crisscross these hillsides, a shepherd boy tended his father’s sheep. That same boy would slay a giant, write most of the psalms, and eventually be crowned the King of Israel.
As the sun was setting and the temperature dropping, Big Red pulled into the southern overlook which gave us a breathtaking first view of the Holy City. The golden Dome of the Rock mosque on the temple mount glistened in the fading sunlight as dark clouds moved in. We began to shiver, but hardly noticed. As this will be the climax of our trip, it was a fitting and somewhat emotional beginning of the end.
On our first day in Jerusalem we dodged raindrops, but for the most part God blessed us with sunshine whenever we were outside. In stark contrast to the light of the sun, halfway through a tour of the tunnels under the City of David we were cast into the deepest darkness of despair when for 200 meters (sorry, everything is metric here) there was no almost no lighting. That we were told it was the ancient sewer we were trudging through by light of iphone might have had something to do with the depth of our dark despair. The claustrophobics in our group (we know who we are) were mildly traumatized and everybody bore a faint and interesting aroma for the rest of the day. However, we lived to tell about it and can now finally speak lightheartedly about “the sewer tour”…more or less…
Though I didn’t know it at the time, the sewer tour in the deep and odoriferous darkness beneath the ancient street was a good object lesson for me on blindness. The tunnel tour began without incident, well-lit and manageable, landing us at the Pool of Siloam. This is the place where Jesus sent the man born blind to wash the mud from his eyes and receive his sight. In John 9 we learn that this pool is called Sent. An added layer of meaning is uncovered when we consider that in Hebrew the place is called the Pool of Shiloah, which actually means the sent one. How fascinating that the Sent One, our Messiah, sent the man born blind to receive his sight at the Pool of the Sent One. The man who was blind was then sent to tell the story of the gift of his sight. He was brought out of darkness and into light.
As we sat at the pool, now full of rainwater, we were challenged to consider ourselves sent from this place to tell our stories. Not just our story, but God’s story of our lives. What has He done for us? How does He continue to work and weave our story together? Who needs to hear how He has given us spiritual sight? After considering this and then diving into the darkness as we did, I had a fresh perspective on the lost, those in spiritual darkness. All around us there are people groping through the sewer tour of life, needing light in order to reach the end of the tunnel. The Light of life has sent us to them.
Later in the evening, we followed another tunnel along the Western Wall, under the Muslim Quarter of the Old City. Along the way we passed a prayer vigil of Orthodox Jewish women who pray around the clock at a certain spot, deep within the tunnel. They believe that they are as close as anyone can get to where the revered and holy ark of the covenant last rested. Though it would have sat high above them on the temple mount, non-Muslims are not allowed to pray up there, so this is where they pray, day and night. To see such devotion to prayer was humbling, and I was even more humbled when later I hurried my prayer at the Wall, standing in the rain, my teeth chattering. I know that whenever and wherever I pray, God hears me, and praying at this sacred place doesn’t make my prayers any different. However, when I consider the dedication of the ladies praying in the tunnel, and my unwillingness to endure a small amount of time on a cold, wet night for the sake of prayer….again, I was humbled. Humbled and convicted. Let's just say that here in the center of the Earth, there is much to learn about devotion.
March 16, 2014 – Crushed
There was a lot of activity at the center of the Earth over the last two weeks. Apparently President Obama scheduled his tour to coincide with ours, and then we crossed paths with the British Prime Minister in Bethlehem as well. (His motorcade has nothing on Big Red.) A boatload of missiles was seized by the Israeli Navy, and 90 rockets were fired into southern Israel from the Gaza Strip. We had been near there just two days before. A busy two weeks…though probably not so unusual for this place. These types of things happen here.
On our last day, I sat in the Garden of Gethsemane (or Gat Shemanim in Hebrew, meaning olive press), studying the ancient olive trees. One in particular, its trunk a good three plus feet in diameter, held my attention. Was it this tree that stood sentry over the Savior that dark night two thousand years ago? As He sweat drops of blood, agonizing in prayer, did these old and gnarled branches reach and cover Him, like strong arms seeking to give comfort? Maybe. If the ancient trees in this garden could talk, think of the stories they would tell.
The squawk of sirens and barrage of honking horns on the other side of the garden wall crashed into my thoughts. It was a fitting reminder that life out there can be quite oblivious to the contemplation quietly happening among the olives. Life outside the garden goes on now just as it did on that night so long ago when everything changed for us. The world slept in peaceful oblivion, unaware that a cosmic battle for the eternal destiny of mankind was raging right within that olive grove. Soon, His enemies would crush Him, but not a moment before He would do it Himself—crush the will of self—here in the quiet of this garden.
It was here that the decision was made; here in the moonlit shadow of the Temple Mount. Here the cost was counted, and somewhere among these trees where olives were routinely crushed into a sweet, rich oil, He crushed His will. Somewhere near, He contemplated becoming sin, becoming vile and filthy, and He made an appeal in earnest: There must be another way! There must! If there is any other way…!
Heaven was silent. There was no other way. There was no other way to save the jewel in the crown of creation from the wicked hands of the evil one. No other way. And after hours of agonizing prayer, it was done. The decision was made. His will crushed by His love for the Father and His love for us, so that we might taste the sweet, rich oil of His Spirit. Here in this garden, He died to Himself that we might live.
The Muslim call to Friday prayers blasted from the other side of the garden wall, and a clattering of firecrackers quickened my pulse. Whether two millennia ago or today, life goes on out there, oblivious to the secrets of the ancient olive grove. Not everyone knows of the battle that was fought and won here or what it really means for us. As He died to Himself, crushing His will, so too we must die to ourselves as we follow Him. For the sweet rich oil of the Holy Spirit to flow from our lives and bless those around us, we must decide to be crushed that His will might be done in us and through us, and crushed beneath the weight of His great love.
Not everyone knows of this place in this way, but we know, and may we never forget what happened here in this garden called The Olive Press, right here in the center of the Earth.