A City Perplexed

In the story of Esther, Haman receives permission from King Xerxes to destroy all the Jews, young and old, and to take their possessions as spoil. Historically, Xerxes was a notoriously wicked king, ruling his domain with brute force and cruelty. He had banished his wife and queen and spawned a nation-wide beauty pageant for the woman who would bring him the most pleasure, spending the night with an impressed contestant, then casting her off for the next one in the morning. History records that a grieving father came to him, begging that his only remaining son be allowed to stay home from the war. Xerxes commanded that the father's son be cut in two, and he marched his army between the body as the distressed and heartbroken father looked on.

So after a hard day's work of ordering the apartheid and annihilation of an entire people group, of sending out the command by post in every language of the land, royal resources directed to accomplish this nefarious act, and of organizing the logistics of a mass slaughter, the king and Haman sat down to drink--perhaps relaxing after a stressful day at the office. The wheels had been set in motion, momentum was gaining, and they had only to sit back and watch a nation carry out their directives. All in a day's work.

But the capital of Shushan, Esther chapter 3 records, was perplexed. When the righteous rule, the city rejoices. But at the seemingly random rulings that come down from wicked rulers, that are rooted in pride, liberality, and self-satisfaction, the city is perplexed. There are many correlations to modern-day democracy and government.

The book of Esther is an interesting study n authority. Mordecai, Esther's cousin, sat in the king's gate, and overheard a plot to kill the king. Maybe the instigators were the good guys. Maybe they were starry-eyed idealists who dreamed of a better world, where girls weren't wrenched from their homes forever for the pleasure of one man, where old men's sons weren't brutally murdered before their eyes, and where entire nations weren't wiped out at the whim of a debauched ruler. It makes me wonder whether Bigthan and Teresh, the chamberlains plotting the affair, had the better of intentions.

And yet, Mordecai reported the news to his queen, Esther, who in turn informed the kin g, who promptly executed the two disgruntled chamberlains. End of story, or so we think. God uses all the "coincidences" to tie together into one of the most dramatic narratives in Scripture. And it started with one girl staying under the authority of her God-given guardian, even when she moved away from home and was elevated to be his authority instead. It was helped along by one man who continued to honor the position of the king, rather than viewing the king as a man and the king in his position of authority as combined.

The rest, as they say, is history: it is a challenge to me to recognize that God works through authority, even when it seems that the authority is incapable of responding to God's Spirit. Even when a city is perplexed because of the wicked rulings of its leaders, God has the last Word. And He speaks it, most often, through people who are yielded to Him, committed to His glory--and under His authority.


A Unified Church

Suppose, for a moment, that a Christian wholeheartedly believes that the successful and blessed Christian life must include a particular type of music, these types of friends, this genre of books, this outreach of ministry, this type of clothing . . . the list goes on and on. Additionally, suppose that, in this person's eyes, a right relationship with God requires the adherence to these beliefs, and any person not in compliance with this particular set of standards is on the slippery slope to perdition--or, at the very least, isn't able to hear from God at the same acute level. Now, multiply this scenario by the amount of denominations, sects, and creeds that hold to the Bible as their sacred text and to God as their Father, and we begin to get an idea of the current state of the universal Church.

To assume that one set of convictions is "the most excellent way" which incurs the most favor from God also communicates that God only blesses and works through that same set of circumstances. So many denominations and individuals decry themselves as the best, implying that God is incapable of working His redemption and salvation in the church across the street or around the corner to the same extent. Families judgmentally look down on those with looser--or stricter--convictions, focusing more on rote than relationship, and more on God's hand than His face.

This perspective has incurred a terrible toll on the church today. To condemn fellow believers because they believe differently than we do, even when the beliefs of both parties are based on Scripture, does more than harm the body of Christ and alienate believer and nonbeliever alike. It limits God by seeking to define Him and confine Him to boundaries which are too narrow. It implies that God is not capable of working personally, both physically and spiritually, in the hearts and lives of others in different places. It reduces the King of the universe down to a formula to be followed. Above and beyond the ramifications that this belief has on the unity of the Church, this sad fact is the greatest tragedy of all.

The early church had the same problem: "Now, I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you: but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment . . . Now this I say, that every one of you saith, I am of Paul; and I am of Apollos; and I am of Cephas; and I am of Christ. Is Christ divided?" (1 Corinthians 1:10-13).

Does the modern-day Bride of Christ endeavor to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace? Are we one, even as Christ and His Father are one? More often, I hear, "I am of John Wesley," "I am of Martin Luther," "I am of the Baptists," "I am of the Presbyterians," "I am of Billy Graham," "I am of John Piper" . . . and the fighting goes on.

"There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all" (Ephesians 4:4-6).

Biblically, little debate can go on if it falls into one of the seven categories above. God has established clear direction for these tenets. This writing, however, is a call to unity in the body of Christ, in the categories that Paul wrote above, and in interactions with other believers as well. Let us major on the majors, and minor on the minors. And let us say together, "I am of Christ."


An Everything God

Basing all actions and outlooks on Scripture is not only possible, but is absolutely necessary. Every decision, every activity, can be firmly rooted in the belief that God not only cares about that decision or activity, but desires to direct it and be involved in it on a personal level.

Our outlook and perspective on the principles and convictions of everyday life define our outlook and perspective of God Himself. So many times, Christians draw a nice little box that holds all their beliefs and tenets: Saturday or Sunday? Sprinkling or dunking? Wine or grape juice? Piano or a cappella? Culture or convent? The debates rage, with believers drawing their lines in the sand and staunchly declaring, "This, and no other."

I firmly believe that Biblically based living is necessary and vital. If I do not and cannot live my life according to God's work of redemption in me, it ceases to have substantive significance in my life.

The moment, however, that I draw a line in the sand and state that this particular set of convictions are based on Scripture, and that every other perspective falls outside the realm of Biblical basis, I confine my estimation of God to the same lines in the sand.

Part of this discussion, I suppose, boils down to a definition of terms and an application of those terms to daily life. There are the commands of Scripture: the "Thou Shalts" and the "Thou Shalt Nots"; the ones that amount to "This, and none other" from the mouth of God Himself. These commands are more than lines drawn in the sand. They are the immovable walls of the Bible, built on the bedrock foundation of Christ Himself. Conversely, there are the convictions based on Scripture: The working of God in and through the individual life of a believer, revealing an aspect of Himself through the application of that conviction. To say that one size fits all goes against the nature and wildness--the awesome greatness--of God.

The best illustration that comes to mind is C.S. Lewis's "The Chronicles of Narnia" series. When describing the great lion Aslan, Beaver declared that Aslan was not a time lion. He went on to say, " 'Course he isn't safe. But he's good."

Not a tame lion. Neither is our King of the Universe measurable, definable, or understandable. My outlook on God and His place in the world is communicated through my personal culture. Conversely, my personal culture is a reflection of my relationship with God and how I understand HIm to be at work in the world.

As I stop and evaluate my own little lines in the sand, I realize that I, too, fall into the trap of viewing life from my set of convictions and beliefs and background in my little corner of the world, rather than trying to see it from God's perspective. Have you created a god that fits in your own little box, or do you passionately believe--and order your life by the belief--that our God is an awesome God?

"For the Lord Most High excites terror, awe, and dread; He is a great King over all the earth. . .Let them confess and praise Your great name, awesome and reverence inspiring! It is holy, and holy is He!" (Psalm 47:2, 99:3, Amplified)


The Power of Pretending

This evening found me at a costume party in celebration of Valentine's Day. My sister Gina and I went together as Mrs. and Miss Bates from Jane Austen's Emma.

Please understand how very monumental this piece of trivia is. Emma happens to be my sister's favorite movie, for which she is derided by every member of our household. To me, the writing of Jane Austen is trite and repetitive, and relegated to the small world of matchmaking and handwork. Not to imply that there is no redeeming quality in the works of fiction, nor that I could write any better were I pressed, but simply that any and all of Austen's works fail to speak to my soul or cause me to ponder.

That said, when it was my idea to go to the costume party as Mrs. Bates, with Gina as Miss Bates, my entire family was surprised, and all endeavored to pull together the most tremendously atrocious outfit possible. It was a hit, I believe, and good times were had by all. I just had to stand there, hunched over, with pursed lips and raised eyebrows, while Gina prattled on and on about the weather and the sermon and the letter she received from Bath on Tuesday last. At least, until we both started laughing.

This evening has started me musing, however: Why do people like costume parties? What is it about pretending to be someone else that carries such innate appeal? Is it because you get to take on the persona of another life, with the freedom of knowing you won't have to live with it tomorrow? Is it because, for once, you can pretend to be the person you always wanted to be?

As a child, I rarely played dress-up. But I very much lived in my own little world, surrounded by my dreams and fantasies and make-believe. Wars were waged in our little creek bed. Battles were fought in the fort and next to the old hammock, one day against the neighbor kids and the next day on their side. We ran away from orphanages and cruel taskmasters, forged our own on the wild prairie, and built a castle in the sky. To the casual observer, it was just a shed with a loft, or a trampoline, or a bedroom. But to me, it was my fortress, my castle, and my home.

No matter how bad the day became in my inexperienced life, there was always an escape in a book or a flight to the fort. I could always pretend.

Some of those tendencies carry over, you know. In the face of conflict, I would still rather flee to my own safe haven than face the stern reality of damaged relationships or unhappy experiences. I would still rather disappear in a book, reliving another person's life or creation, than face the challenge of conversation. I would still rather live and play with the few kids on the block who know me well and accept me for who I am, rather than seek the position of "most popular" or "most outgoing."

Back to costume parties, however, and the power of pretending. Each person at he party, whether it was Cleopatra or the mob boss or a cowgirl, had the freedom to take on the personality of the individual they were impersonating. For one night, they were whomever they wanted to be.

Perhaps that is the power of pretending--you can take on a foreign personality or persona, with no regrets. . . or can you? As I ponder the evening and the costume party, the night was a challenge for me to live sincerely--whether it is with my family, with someone I respect and admire, or with someone I barely know.

In reality, we go to costume parties every day. When you put your game face on, do you become a different person? When you walk out the door to wherever you are going, do you begin to see life through different colored glasses? I know I do sometimes.

Costume parties are fun . . . but they are a reminder that life is better lived in the open, sharing the joys and pains of life. So be the real you--the you God created you to be, and the you He loves passionately. I want to meet that special someone inside of you, and share a bit of me as well!

"Dance like nobody's watching; love like you've never been hurt.
Sing like nobody's listening; live like it's heaven on earth." --Mark Twain


02.05.06. Where Jesus Walked

The steps leading from Caiphas' house in Jerusalem, where Christ more than likely walked after His trial by the High Priest.

As I ride the bumpy van to the Tel Aviv Airport, I am so grateful for the ten days I was able to spend here in Israel. It had been a desire of my heart to visit this wonderful and colorful land once again, and God granted its fulfillment. Between myself, Ben, Katie, and Heidi, we made lots of memories and covered big chunks of this little country God loves.

This land is so colorful: the vibrant scarves and shawls and blankets hawked by vendors, the multiplicity of beliefs, the glowing sunrises and blazing sunsets. To walk where Jesus walked is an experience that I do not take lightly. As I have "halacheled" with Jesus this past week and a half (the Hebrew word for walking beside as a companion and experiencing deep, rich fellowship), I have come to understand more that His Name is wonderful. He is my Creator, Savior, and Friend. He is the Almighty God, King of the Universe, and Good Shepherd. He is El Shaddai, El Elyon, Johovah, and Adonai. And He is my King, and I am His. Oh, how I want to know Him more!

This morning, my last glimpse of the Mount of Olives on the way out of the city brought tears to my eyes. Someday soon, the Yeshua that some trust in, some disregard, and some scorn will set His pierced feet on that mountain in all of His glory, and that hill will split in two. He will walk through the Kidron Valley, triumphant over the death that fills those hills. And every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. Even so come quickly, Lord Jesus!

The song echoing through my heart these past several days is "Nearer, Still Nearer." It is my prayer and plea: Nearer, still nearer, close to Thy heart draw me, my Savior, so precious Thou art! Fold me, oh fold me close to Thy breast. Shelter me safe in that Haven of Rest. Near, still nearer—nothing I bring, naught as an offering to Jesus my King. Only my sinful, now-contrite heart; grant me the cleansing Thy blood doth impart.

Nearer, still nearer, Lord, to be Thine! Sin with its follies I gladly resign. All of its pleasures, pomp and its pride: give me but Jesus, my Lord crucified. Nearer, still nearer, while life shall last, till safe in glory my anchor is cast. Through endless ages ever to be nearer, my Savior, still nearer to Thee. Nearer, my Savior, still nearer to Thee!


02.03.06. Pictures

The Roman Aquaducts at Ceasarea Maritime, south of Haifa.

The view off a pier at the Crusader city of Acco.

Wow. So much has happened since the last time we were anywhere close to an Internet connection! Below are short updates of wht we have done each day.

Driving in Israel. A very wise man on the flight over, when learning that we would be renting a car and driving around the country, advised: "Driving in Israel is crazy. Just pretend that you're driving a tank, and everything will be all right." He was correct. Katie doesn't have gray hair quite yet, so we think she's handling the stress OK.
We have rented a Nissan, and Katie has done an awesome job navigating the roads. Ben has ascended to the role of Chief Navigator. I navigated for all of an afternoon, Heidi does a pretty good job, but Ben got us from Korazin to Cana to Nazareth to Meggido to Ein Harod to Mount Tabor to Haifa without one U-turn. Pretty amazing.

Jerusalem. I love the Old City: it's old walls, bustling streets, and ancient buildings are wonderful. Old and new are juxtaposed so wonderfully: a man peddling wares, an electronic store, an Internet cafe. But mostly it's just old. To quote Luisa Maude Montgomery, there is so much "scope for the imagination" in this little section of the world!

Western Wall.
On the rampart up to the Temple Mount, we captured our favorite Ha Kotel images of the Wall. The Wall functions as an outdoor synagogue for Jews and a stopping place for tourists.

Temple Mount.
Location of the "Abomination of the Desolation," as many have termed the Mosque of Omar and the many mosques that are located on the holy ground where countless Jews previously worshipped near the Holy of Holies. Because it it hallowed ground for three monotheistic religions, it is protected by extremely tight security. Going through security at the base, the guards decided that they didn't like my laptop in my backpack. So we had to go in shifts: Ben and Heidi went first, while Katie and I stayed back and photographed the busy square area. When it was Katie's and my turn, they decided they didn't like my 70-200mm lens, so we had to go back yet again. Devoid of anything except a backpack, a couple filters, and two lenses, and covered from head to toe with modest--yet unstylish--layers, we finally made it through security and and made our way up the ramp.

We decided it was worth the extra hassle, if only because we were able to shoot a perspective of the Western Wall that you can't get anywhere else. Mount Moriah contains amazing architecture and protective guards. We did not go in to any of the mosques.

In a courtyard, away from most of the people, are many column bases, lined up in rows, dating to the time of Herod. Tears came to my eyes as I saw that the crevices in these ornate columns are now being used as ash trays. The Arabs in control of the Temple Mount now seem to have little regard for certain artifacts, locations, and irreplaceable memorabilia.

I am grateful that we "ascended the mount" to where the Temple once stood, despite what it stands for now. It gave me a new appreciation for the location. So much happened at this place. Abraham ascended the mountain, willing to sacrifice his only son.God watched His only
Son ascend the mountain, sacrificing Himself for the salvation of the world--for my salvation.


Ein Gedi. Saul tried to kill David nine times. While running for his life, David retreated to an oasis that defies description. There's really no way to describe it: a slice of pure water flowing from a spring in the mountain, working its way down the hill. Everything else all around it is a barren wasteland: miles and miles of desert and rock on one side, with miles and miles of the Dead Sea on the other. Its desolate location gives even more value to the spring and caves surrounding it. It is a nice walk up to "David's Spring," and we got there late enough for the evening colors to begin.

Dead Sea. Wow. It was cold. But how many times in your life do you have a chance to float in the Dead Sea? I hope many, but you never know!

I need a t-shirt that says, "I climbed Masada." On second thought, I need one that says, "I crawled Masada at 5:30 in the morning, with a backpack and a tripod on my back." Yeah.

We stayed at a youth hostel that is actually at the foot of Masada, about 500 meters from the trail head going to the Snake Path. Two busses of elementary-aged children arrived just after us, so we braved the noises of stomping feet and a disco party that went until early in the morning.

Previously the bastion of Herod's summer palace, Masada served as the Jewish Revolt's last stand against the Roman empire. When it was finally breached by the Romans, there was enough water left in the cisterns to last for three years. To their shock, the Romans discovered the bodies of every single zealot: rather than fighting the Romans to the death or succumbing to defeat, the Jews committed mass suicide. It has become the Alamo of the Isreali world, and a symbol to freedom fighters and religious zealots alike.

The morning light streaming over the mountain was amazing, and well worth the strenuous ascent before any cable cars were moving.

From Masada, we made our way back to Jerusalem, found a parking garage, and called a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend, who just happens to be a taxi driver. Asherov arrived in the next three minutes, and we piled into his car for a trip to Bethlehem. The city of Christ's birth is now surrounded by a high security fence: no one goes in who does not pass the guard's screenings, and no one comes out who does not meet their satisfaction. Upon exiting the city later, there was an Israeli soldier posted at the intersection, making sure that no green Palestinian plates were leaving the city. The entire city is shrouded in high security.

Protestant, Armenian, and Catholic beliefs are represented in the Church of the Nativity. Our guide—who doubles as an employee at a souvenir shop—did an admirable job of explaining this crevice and that tapestry, and the significance of the structure that now covers the grotto that Helena identified as the birthplace of the Savior.

After a stop at his souvenir shop, and the obligatory purchase of a few items in exchange for his tour, we were on our way again. Next time I'm in Jerusalem, I will definitely call Asharov, our Arabic taxi friend, whenever I need to get somewhere via taxi!

Bet Shean
After a night at a youth hostel in Bet Shean (this one was 5 star: hot showers and breakfast!), we made our way to the ruins of Bet Shean, and the Biblical Tel Bet Shean.

Bet Alpha Synogogue

Ein Harod


Ancient Boat

Mount of Beatitudes



Yehudiya Nature Reserve


Golan Heights

Tel Ban


Mount Hermon

Nimrod's Fortress




Ein Harod

Mount Tabor


Mount Carmel

Mount Carmel
This morning found us at the Carmel Youth Hostel, at the foot of Mount Carmel, within sight of the Mediterranean ocean. Katie and I headed out the door at 6, in search of stellar sunrise shots. It definitely would have helped if we could have located a trail up Mount Carmel, but none offered themselves, so we blazed a trail up the side instead. It was incredibly hazy and the clouds had blown in from the ocean--so Katie got some cool flower pictures and I got some cool silhouettes. We will continue to pray for a clear sunrise.

I love this busy city. Nazareth and Acco are my two favorite locations for "people pictures"—candid photography opportunities at their best. It also contains Crusader ruins, bustling markets, and meandering tunnels.

The drive back down the coast through Haifa afforded a 20-second photo stop at the Bahai temple. It was 20 seconds because Katie pulled into the bus stop lane, and we happily snapped pictures at the beautiful architecture and sloped lawn until the next bus pulled in.

The incomparable building and well-manicured lawns serve as a facade for bogus beliefs and errant philosophies. In short, the Behai belief declares that any path to happiness and heaven is a good one. If it works for you, go for it.

Ceasarea Maritime
This afternoon has to have been the best time of shooting so far. Amazing view after amazing view afforded itself as we hustled through the crusader ruins and Roman remnants that hug the shore of the Mediterranean. It rained lightly as we went along, creating dark clouds and preparing for a moody sunset.

Roman Aquaducts
We timed our day so that we could shoot the sunset at the Roman Aquaducts in Ceasarea. There are two aquaducts running the length of the beach for miles, built a century apart.

We're back in Jerusalem, and on our way out for another day of adventure and shooting. Our goal is to experience a bit of the majesty of God in this awesome little city!

The streets are lined with busy markets and vendors hawking their wares.

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher

The Upper Room
01.28.06—Temple Mount, Mount of Olives, and Via Delorosa

We're off this morning to the Temple Mount. Heidi and Katie have a friend of a friend of a friend who visited the Temple Mount several years ago. When she bent over to remove her shoes, an Arab man caught sight of a glimpse of skin, and men had to hold him back so he couldn't attack her. That story provided enough motivation for us, so we have layer on layer of clothes, which serve two purposes: one is for warmth (it has been pretty chilly here), and the other is to keep such zealous muslims away.

This is probably the day I'm the most nervous about, as far as safety, and the most grateful that Ben is here. We're going to the Mount of Olives after our visit on the Temple Mount We spoke to the concierge about it last night, and asked for any recommendations he may have. He shared that it is "perfectly safe to walk around there, but take a copy of your passport and not the real thing. Oh, and only take the amount of money you can handle to get stolen." Right. You can't bring three friends to the other side of the globe, and not go see the Mount of Olives. So we're going, praying for safety and stellar pictures along the way.

Well, after all that, we had no problems at all on the Mount of Olives. Perhaps because it is not tourist season, or perhaps because we walked confidently, but everyone was helpful as we made our way down the mountain, from the Church of the Ascension, to Pater Noster Church, and on down the Jericho Road.


Pictures. 01.26.06.

The amazing people that I'm exploring Jerusalem with: Ben, Katie, and Heidi, after our rendezvous at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv.

The view from just inside the Jaffa Gate . . . after missing a bus ride, finding the right bus, taking a taxi, and finally finding our hostel, nestled in the Christian Quarter of the Old City. It was worth it!
So much has happened since the last time I slept in a bed! From almost not making the flight to Tel Aviv in New York, to almost getting on bus #947 to Haifa instead of #947 to Jerusalem, to lugging our suitcases up the steps and through the streets of the Arab marketplace in search of our hostel, it has been an amazing trip!

More updates to follow, but know this: all is well, the company is outstanding, and I can't wait to see what will happen!