Looking towards Bathsheba, Looking towards the Sea, or Looking towards the Holy

It’s telling what we look at with the most intent.

Now, 6 days in to my full immersion into the Holy Land, seeing things as they are—they no longer have to be imagined by how my mind backfills in the ideas of Scripture. When we haven’t seen the real thing, our mind tries to fill in the blanks so we have something to hang on to and make real. Until this visit to the actual experience of the many places the great stories of the Bible happened, I—like many of you–had to just imagine.

Now, seeing it with my own two eyes, I won’t be able to see them any other way than they actually are.

And three images are now indelible realities in my mind as they no longer have to be imagined or guessed at. The essential view from King David’s Palace. The alluring view from Tel Aviv. And the meaningful view from the closest point to the Temple’s Holy of Holies that any Faithful One has had in two millennia.

DAVID. THE PALACE. AND THE VIEW. The places we read about in our favorite books can be magical in our minds. They’re big and grand. The grainy film of our mind’s eye—when we ponder the images only words have painted for us—is more often romanticized than realistic. When I read the about City of David as a young boy and even as a 40-something pastor, I saw grand gates and palaces and parapets. And while the original footprint of the Eternal City, Jerusalem, had walls and a palace, they weren’t as big as the sky and as wide as the ocean. The original city sat on about 12 acres inside walls narrowly stretched down a tight and harrowingly steep hillside. Now, Jerusalem’s royal palace did sit above the whole citadel like any castle in a fairy tell might, so it meant King David could see almost everything he’d need to see and even see some things he didn’t need to see. 2 Samuel 11 says when David should’ve been at work, he stayed home instead. And when all the servants and guards cleared out of his way, he went up to the top of the palace and could look down on not only his entire city below, but also the entire ascending hill opposite the citadel to his left. It’s never been clear whether Uriah and his wife Bathsheba lived inside the city walls or outside, but we know that the house’s top was within David’s eye’s view. And that could have been very possible anywhere in the city. But, we know he did see her because he liked what he saw. Her. Unclothed. Washing. And he kept looking. Looking so long that he couldn’t not have her. So, he slept with who he was looking at. And the inevitable pain that is sure to follow whatever dumb things we look at too hard at . . . did, in fact, follow David. His eyes got him what he wanted but also what he didn’t want. We have to be careful what we look at.

TEL AVIV’S VIEW. For a few days of this trip, I’ve not only been in Jerusalem, but also in Tel Aviv as a jumping off point for my day trips into the country. Now, if you’re not very familiar with modern-day Israel, Tel Aviv isn’t the capital, but it is the pulsing hub for Israel’s business life and entertainment culture. Tel Aviv is as modern as a city comes. Frankly, it appears to me that has quite a bit on our American cities. It sits on the Mediterranean Sea, so it has beaches and fun and surfers and nightlife. It’s got big buildings and all the modern buzz you’d want. It’s very young. And (and here’s the kicker), for how it really matters, it feels nothing like Jerusalem where all the religious expectations would cause some of Tel Aviv to reconsider its actions. I haven’t seen an Orthodox Jewish faithful person once in Tel Aviv. Nowhere to be seen. Here, they’re wearing American clothes, thumping base-y EDM at the beach, and acting like they’re all on an MTV show from the early 90s. Now, Tel Aviv isn’t ever found in the Bible because it wasn’t around then. But, the city that Tel Aviv was built around—Jaffa (pronounced sometimes Yafo or Joppa)—is in the Bible. Jaffa is most known for being the pushing off point into the sea for one infamous dude in the Old Testament: Jonah. It’s where Jonah began to take off for another fun beach opposite from the direction God had nodded him in. So, Jonah left from “Tel Aviv” to go to a silly town called Tarshish to get away from God’s religion. You probably remember how that story turned out.
“The difficulty of God’s calling and mission and lifestyle is easily avoided,” he thought. Avoid the religious stuff, go to Tel Aviv. Make a buck. Buy a tank top. Play some EDM. Find a girl on the beach. If that doesn’t work out, just travel! Just jump on a boat for the farthest place from Tel Aviv. “I can probably have fun there, too. Maybe there’ll be a job! But, I’m sure there’ll be a new beach with a new girl.” So, Jonah went where his eyes led him. But Tel Aviv never works for a heart that God wants to be whole more than the person who needs to be made whole. Tel Aviv’s never work for happiness. Just for doing something stupid and getting turned into fish food. Now that doesn’t mean we have to leave the big city to love and follow God. But, the big city’s gotta leave our heart so we can be looking clear-eyed for the right stuff.

The place along the Western Wall that is nearest to the place on the Temple Mount where the Holiest of Holies once sat.

One final place I’ve seen in the Holy Land: the place in the tunneling along the Western Wall of the ancient Temple Mount that is the nearest point on the Temple Mount (and the precise spot on Mount Moriah) upon which the original Holy of Holies was built around. Even though no Jew or Christian is able to access that physical point anymore where the Holy of Holies once sat (because Islam’s Dome of the Rock sits upon that place today), it doesn’t mean that that place doesn’t matter to the Faithful any more. As point of fact, the place you see in the picture is the closest spot to where the Faithful Jews say God’s Presence once resided in the Most Holy Place. Here, at this precise place, the Faithful now come to see it on this holy wall, to touch it, and pray to God above. They are looking for God even if the place He once lived is no longer there.

The stone nearest where the Temple’s Holy of Holies once sat 2000 years ago.

The good news is that God doesn’t live in buildings. He lives in hearts. He makes His home in those who look to Him for mercy, for hope, for direction, for conviction, for His calling and mission, and for invitation into His community and heritage.

Who or what are you looking at right now? Bathsheba? The boat out of town? Or the Beginning and the End . . . the Bright Morning Star?

It’s telling what we look at with the most intent.

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Jerusalem and Jericho: Days 3 and 4 in Pictures

Surprises in Jerusalem

There’s no replacement for actually going to a place and not just depending upon others’ pictures of it. Books can convey concepts, but they can’t capture smells, sounds, and just the raw scope of a thing. (As a resident of Colorado and so close to the incredible Rocky Mountains, we long ago learned how weak an understanding of these mountains a picture serves to reveal the magnitude and majesty of the Rockies with an iPhone—or even the best camera known to Man for that matter.)

An artistic rendering
of the ancient City of David.

The academics about Jerusalem pale in comparison to the actualities of Jerusalem. Yes, anyone on the internet can find an overhead map of the Old City and its ancient dimensions, for instance. But, you can’t capture the alleyways they call streets and their incredible bustle and color and spicy scents. Yes, you can draw a map of the walls of the original city of Jebus from 3800 years ago—the place the Jews now call the City of David—that would form the starting point of Jerusalem. But you can’t truly express how steep the walk up and down to the Kidron Valley is. Or the irony of the sounds of Islam echoing off of the hills from the chants coming from the al-Fakhariyya Minaret—one of four minarets on the Temple Mount alone. There’s no way to fully capture with picture or video how—down the Kidron Valley that so intimately borders the City of David on the east—ironic the sounds of the frequent chants of the Islamic azaan by the muezzin seem to the larger Jewish setting. This first chant from the high minaret precipitates other muezzin in a chain of minarets down the valley which fill the chants in the air—all while the Faithful of Judaism and Christianity traipse the immediate area admiring the ancient site of the City of David. You can’t possibly appreciate with pictures how the City of David—the place this whole thing called Jerusalem began from—is, in all actuality, an essential third-world experience . . . both around it and in it. It’s both stunning and devastating to think that every square inch is under dispute in this powder keg in the center of the home to the world’s three major religions.

The religious/cultural cauldron that is the City of David and the Muslim community immediately adjacent.

Jerusalem is a surprise to this guy—even a guy who’s spent the better part of his 47 years studying every word I could wrap my brain around about Her. My thoughts, my sermons, my writings . . . all have tried to paint a picture, but the Original makes everything else I’ve understood so much clearer now. So much richer.

Drawing of the Herod’s Temple—destroyed in 70 AD by the Romans. (Please note the small discoloration on the nearest wall. That shading constitutes what people see today as the Western Wall, but only represents 10% of what the wall once was.)

Now, just a 1/3 of a mile above the City of David, up Mount Moriah, sits the Western Wall of the Temple Mount (well, the stones that remain standing of the Western Wall, that is). In point of fact, only 10% of the old Western Wall of the Temple Mount (what people now refer to the Western Wall)—where 3.6 million come to pray each year. But, taking a deeper tour of the excavations of the old wall, you would see amazing and unanswerable things. In 70 A.D., along with killing thousands of Jews, the Roman Empire’s Titus desired to break the spirit of the Jewish People by tearing down the stones of their Temple. You will find many of these toppled stones stacked upon one another along where the Western Wall once stood, but one stone broke the breakers. Measuring 45′ (L) x 8′ (D) and 9′ (H), the Western Stone weighs nearly 600 tons. When Titus’ soldiers tried to the point of failing to push it from its perch, they just knew it wouldn’t happen and thus quit. This monolithic blocks sits there to this very day as testament to the power and humor of God.

The Western Stone of the Temple Mount. One of the largest building stones in human history.

The Western Stone surprised me—as did the incredible run below the city where these tunnels revealed 50 feet of depth below the place you see on the right. Herod’s Second Temple is still extraordinary to this day . . . and many would consider most of it lies in “ruins.”

Fallen stones on the southwestern-most portion of the Western Wall.

What’s the moral of this story? For many Christians, we have too thin and too thinning an experience of Scripture. And we should do something about that as our heritage is at risk when we treat it as if it’s unvital when it is so alive. Now, no, not everyone can enjoy the rich blessing I am able to—by traveling to the city where among all the things I’ve just shared, more importantly, our Savior would give his life on the Cross to reveal the love of the Father . . . not far from this place. But, our Total Story runs even deeper and more beautiful than we know.

Lastly, there are some who have made their mind up about the Christian Faith. Perhaps this is you. All I will say is, Christianity—for all its critics—is built on an incredible foundation. And it’s more than indisputable—much to its critics’ chagrin. It’s the richest story known to Human history and it launched from a place that was already mind-blowing and continues to be. Friend, God wants to make a Temple out of you and me . . . out of our fallenness and ruins. This story is more amazing than we know. But it’s just below the dirt, if we’ll let our dirt get turned up just enough to reveal it.

Weight of the World

Now, being smack dab in the middle of it all in this recent visit to Israel, I have to say that Israelis seem to have a weight on Them. There is a heaviness here that seems equal to the weight of the world. But, I don’t believe it’s a burden only current Jewish People carry. Through the Jewish advance through the ages, they haven’t just been prophetic at times. Or even only had to be a prophetic generation. The Jews have always been the Prophetic Civilization. This has marked them out as powerful people, but also as a People Persecutable.

Down through the millennia, as empires began to take shape with mutually-beneficial motivations, each civilization has offered different values to the world. The Roman Empire offered stability. The British Empire profit. American leadership has recently ushered comfort and ease into the world if you want to think of it as an advancement. But, the Jewish people have always done more than add. Their additions have more often been proddings. They bring morality. And that’s never an easy thing to shoehorn into the world.

Of course, we should give Israelis the A-grade they have earned for making the world a better place. Pound-for-pound, there’s likely no People that’s offered more to the world in advancements: they are second-to-none in irrigation technologies, their medical improvements are near-impossible to count, genetic engineering is just one in a long list of stuff that’s been on their to-do list, and they invented the world’s smallest camera—-to creepers-the-world-arounds’ delight. They’ve given all of us Einstein’s theoretical physics and even jeans and lipstick! They gave the world the atomic and thermonuclear bombs. My 4 kids have forever been changed by their flexistraw and every suburbanite in America uses appliances in stainless steal because of them. (There’s so much more, of course.) For goodness’ sake, over 20% of the Nobel Prizes awarded through the decades have been given to Jewish people—who only comprise 0.2% of the world’s population! These are not just above-average students. The Jewish People have always formed the Top of the Class in changing the world.

But, here’s the thing . . . all these advancements were mere handmaidens to the King they have most meaningfully revealed to us all. They haven’t just given Humanity monotheism, they have given us God. God! Not, mind you, a cheap version of a ‘god’ that a hack Comparative Religions course professor might foist upon us. Not a thin-sliced book telling us how superstitions have evolved “deities” into religions through the millennia. (Come on. Let’s grow up and get serious. The same “experts” also tell us that love is just synapses firing in the brain when all of us know it’s a thing deep in the soul and so much more than an evolutionary mechanism.) No.

The Jewish People have given every one of us the Living God. But, what a weight that must be. When you’d rather hold your tongue and mind your own business, the Jewish People have always had a Moses or a Deborah who realized they must say what needed to be said. They’ve been the Prophetic Civilization.

Christianity for our part has taken up from our Older Brother . . . a bit. Honestly, though, like a religious version of the Roman Empire, Christianity has almost always reflexively preferred to syncretize just to keep things stable. But, we’d do well to recognize that—like the Hebrew experience—we are a rebellion to the world . . . not a superstructure. We’re terrible as bureaucrats paving a second coat of asphalt on the highway of the World’s spirituality. We’re better at and offer so much more real value when we’re being prophetic to a World that desperately needs the wisdom our Older Brother passed on to us so long ago.

That said . . . the prophets often get stoned.

But it would be better to be stoned adding God to the world than be stone cold to the Human Condition and add only comfort and currency to one’s own bank account before the last synapse fires and we don’t get to take any of it into the next life.

We have brothers to bring into Eternity with us. Just like our Older Brother taught us.

Jerusalem: Days 1 and 2 in Pictures

‘Acquire More Limitations’: Religion’s Great Truth and Devastating Mistake

A sign warning about personal holiness in the entrance to the Western Wall holy site.

I didn’t have to ‘land’ in Jerusalem to get the religious spirit of the Land I was headed to.  Accompanying me for the 14-hour flight to Jerusalem was a 60-something seat mate named Saul—a devout practicer of Orthodox Judaism. He, like me, was headed to the Holy Land for nourishment of his faith . . . though this was far from his first trip.  He had long been a resident of Jerusalem, though now he lived in the States.

Saul was vivacious and, dare I say, even evangelical about his Judaism–which did not make him a little compelling and curious to me.  Along with giving me a primer on Israel, Saul offered much more than a peek into today’s Orthodox Judaism.  As I had decided I was coming to the Holy Land as more of a learner than a missionary (this time), I have decided to mostly listen and absorb.  And Saul did not disappoint.  At one point, Saul mentioned what is the defining view of the Orthodox Jewish belief:  if God’s People would be holy enough, Messiah would come.  (I recall in my study of the Torah, a long-spoken-of tradition of the Mishnah that said that if every Jewish family practiced the Sabbath on the same day, the Messiah would come. These two ideas reveal a similar heartbeat in the Orthodox Jewish faith: Messiah hasn’t come because of lack of holiness in God’s Chosen People.)  

After fourteen hours on the plane and a steady stream of this belief, I asked Saul a question that ought to confound and perplex every Faithful Practicer of Judaism (along with anyone religious, Jewish or not):  “If everyone had somehow already become good, why on earth would the Messiah need to come to ‘save’ anyone?  A Messiah is a Savior.  Who needs saving if everyone’s moral . . . enough?”  It occurred to me that Saul’s assumption of religion amounted to having the cart before the horse.  Religion tries to put things backwards.  Who personally needs God if they’re already good enough? And what world needs God if everyone’s moral . . . enough?  In Saul’s case, he looked at me puzzled and moved on to other ideas since there wasn’t an answer for that question. (And, as I’ve very rarely found someone religiously Jewish to be not certain, I had hit religious pay dirt with Saul.)

This conversation with my new friend would only give me a quick introduction to what I would see on full display during my first full day in Jerusalem. I walked the entire circumference of the Old City on Day 1, but the one place I just couldn’t get enough of in the Old City was the Western Wall–the holiest of sites to the Jewish Faith until the Temple gets rebuilt. (The Western Wall—sometimes also referred to as the Wailing Wall—forms the westernmost wall of the Temple Mount where the Jewish Temple once sat before the Romans ripped it down and Islam later placed a mosque on top of.)  Here, many people come to pray, but the prominent worshipers are the Orthodox Jewish–and, most notably, the rabbis. (It would be even easier to pick one of them out by their garb than it would be me as a tourist.)

The Western Wall

I knew praying at the Western Wall would be one of my primary delights on this trip, but I wasn’t aware of something I would end up stumbling upon in my visit. There is a synagogue to the immediate left of what most would see as the termination at the northernmost end of the Western Wall. There, in that incredibly holy place, the rabbis and the intense Jewish worshipers come to make their daily prayers, recite the Torah, and read the Hebrew Scriptures aloud.

Synagogue on the Western Wall

Due to its architecture, the slightly-arching wall in that synagogue leads you to hear the profoundly beautiful cacophony of many prayers at once. It’s inspiring to my devout spirit, but also strikes my soul with a strangeness. No one welcomes you into the synagogue—as it’s a place that people move in and out of after they make their public prayers. No one makes eye contact with you. Well, they kind of do. Wary eyes are more common than one should feel comfortable with in a place where God’s Presence is being prayed for. There, you don’t get a feeling of disinterest from the religiously-overzealous, but of somewhere more between disapproval and disgust. This impression you experience extends to the street experience of the highly-religious, too: “We can tell you are looking on curiously to what’s going on here, but you are impure. Unworthy to be here. You are not counted among the Faithful.” On more than a few occasions, I would notice a rabbi passing a non-Orthodox person and turn their head wincingly away. (More than one rabbi turned away from me, too—disturbed by, in his estimation, my non-Faithful presence. Sinners are part of the problem—in their belief. And, believe me, I’m a sinner. Just not sure if I’m wincingly-level horrible . . . but I do my best.)

Why do I mention this? Well, let me bring you back to my conversation with Saul on the plane. Refreshingly, he did not share the same sense of disgust at talking to a non-Orthodox person—even if he believed the same thing as them: “The world is sinful . . . and, frankly, repulsive to God.” And, as I mentioned at the start, it’s this Human sinful repulsiveness, they assume, that keeps the Messiah away. Because those of Orthodox Jewish faith missed Jesus as the Messiah—He who was without sin and whose sacrificial death obliterated this Human problem with sin—they are certain that holiness is the only way to bring it about the arrival of Messiah.

Now, here’s how Saul worded it. “We must be holy. We must leave the stench of the world’s ways. For Messiah to finally come, we must ACQUIRE MORE LIMITATIONS.” Wow. We need to deny ourselves so that we get all God wants for us in this life. Saul was 100% right and fully wrong at the same time. But, the valuable and redemptive part of this kind of morality he was introducing struck me hard. If I am going to acquire anything as I grow in this life, it should be to need less. I need to acquire the need for less. I was blown away by the partial wisdom of my new friend, Saul . . . even if he believed it was the whole religious enchilada.

Small notes of prayer stuck into the Western Wall

But, the problem is that no one can ever limit themselves into perfection. So if human righteousness is the only thing that brings about the Messiah—as Judaism’s foundational belief holds—the most knee-buckling truth to render upon how Saul meant what he said was this: even if we could become perfect by wanting less of the material world, why then would we ever need the Messiah to come and change us with His salvation? He’d, what, save us from being too good? You catch me? As Messiah Jesus taught: “the Son of Man came to seek and save those who are LOST.” Our sense of humble lostness and a hope to see our Human brokenness healed is the thing that brings the Messiah to us—not a self-acquired righteousness.

But, I would like to take the shells of Saul’s amazing ideas and reorder his core thoughts back into a better sequence: When God’s love does find me and I let Him in, it should transform me and my worldview and my lifestyle. When God gets a hold of a sinner, He changes how that sinner sees the world. They begin to see God and the world in more “righteous” ways—like Saul so sweetly taught me (backwards in order as it may have been). Our greatest acquisition in life will be to become men and women who only covet the joy of God in others. We will need less and less artificial pleasures—as sin and the material world always offer but painfully under-deliver. The only indulgence we’ll need to allow for would be a coveting that others can have more and more of our generous God that they discover in us. The only way we begin to understand our need to acquire less is when we’ve, first, experienced all of the Messiah’s forgiveness.

And that’s been offered to each of us in Jesus if we (1) humbly ask for His grace and (2) stop trying to be good enough. The first places us only one simple decision away from God’s Kingdom. The latter is religiously futile. Jerusalem is proof perfect of this on global display.

The Approach to Jerusalem: Song of the Ascents

There are a number of psalms that the People of Israel would sing as they made their way up to Jerusalem—on their way to celebrate God (during the Festivals God outlined for the Hebrews in the Torah). These special psalms designed around this approach to the great city are called the Songs of Ascent. (As you might imagine, this is a particularly poignant name in my estimation—as a pastor at ASCENT Church.)

As I write this, I am moments away from boarding my plane to fly into Tel Aviv, Israel—where I will immediately be transported to my hotel near the Old City in Jerusalem. I now join the Faithful of the Generations in making my way to this holy place singing my own song of ascent. In the coming minutes, I will be ascending the skies so I can then ascend the road to Jerusalem. For the first time.

What a rich privilege to be able to near the city in which the Savior, Jesus, came to love and redeem the whole world. To approach Her gives me the opportunity to approach Him in a fresh new way. It helps in my own ascending.

I’ve been meditating on what might be the best way to approach God on this ascent. Psalm 131:1-2—one of these songs of ascent—helps me answer this question: Lord, my heart is not proud; my eyes are not haughty. I don’t concern myself with matters too great or too awesome for me to grasp. Instead, I have calmed and quieted myself . . .