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My sister Gwen broke her arm, her finger, and my life


Did you ever see the little girl name Dolly in the  comic strip “Family Circus”?  That was my sister Gwen.  She held the reins on the household brood with her childhood bossiness and know-it-all way that somehow put the brakes on our craziness.  She was a clone of Mom, and in Mom’s absence, Gwen ruled the roost.  The little half-dozen clutch of urchins known as the Zockoll kids were like a Russian nuclear facility,  running somewhat steadily but holding the potential to create disaster at any moment.  On one hand, we kiddies would angelically sing together at church Christmas cantatas.  On the other hand, we would be found guilty of completely wrecking a relative’s flimsy tree house.

Or conning the neighbor kids into unleashing the neighborhood dogs from their leash.

Or starting a free-for-all fight in a neighborhood Wiffle Ball game.

Yes, we were all elementary age and had the child-monster capability for mass community destruction.  Except that Gwen would hold us in check.

I haven’t been able to introduce you to my sister Gwen.  She was the kind of middle-school age girl who would play backyard mother hen, barking out orders while twirling her baton.

(May I add that she would attempt to throw and catch the spinning baton which inevitably would hit pre-schooler Brock in the head and send him into a fetal position, squalling and inert at second base in the middle of our kickball game.)

Gwen especially led the troops during our Volkswagen Bus Incarceration.  This was during the sixties, when kids were supposed to stay in the car while Mom shopped.  Gwen would lead us in singing “Dem Bones Gonna Rise Again” until we could get responses from passers-by, and amazingly, some of them were smiles and an occasional thumbs-up.  Even brother Bruce’s sarcastic remarks didn’t dissuade her; she was on a mission.  Once, when Dad went into the hospital’s maternity ward to see Mom and left us for over an hour in the Bus, Gwen led us in a litany of Christmas songs from the front to back of a paperback Yuletide Carol book she found wedged in the crack of the back seat.

In the back seat of our annual Thanksgiving road trip to Pittsburgh, she had Brent and I believing she could sleep with her eyes open, and set about to prove it.   While we poked and prodded her, she sat wide-eyed and gazing out the window, “snoring”.  You had to admire the theatrics.

When Dad would take us over to his school and work on some Saturday paperwork in his band director’s office, Gwen would march us into the huge band room and direct us as to which instrument to play.  We spend delightful hours honking away on french horns, slamming bass drums and bellowing into tubas while she swung her arms to the racket, directing a band that sounded like a trash truck that just ran over a herd of cats.  Once, some of the other teacher’s children wandered in and she commandeered them to play on the trombone and snare drums section.  I can’t begin to describe the noise but I do believe a janitor quit that day.

She was active in self-taught gymnastics, which resulted in her breaking her arm when she  cartwheeled over Lorianne Hersey in the back yard.

She broke her index finger when she caught it in the whirling blades of a blender while trying to make a Christmas cake for the holidays.

Our childhood melted into the adventurous and way-too-fast years of adolescence, and I truly was sad to see her leave for college.   At Christmastime she arrived back home to hugs and laughs and stories.

But there was something different about her.

She was… well, changed.  Not that she needed a transformation, nor was it a stunning reversal.  It was subtle … but in a big way to me.

Even as a teenager I was an early riser, and on one Saturday morning I padded down the front stairs to head to the kitchen.  I went by the television room and looked past the bookshelf and saw Gwen at the far couch.  On her knees with a Bible in front of her.  In deep prayer.

Alone and praying.

It made an impact on me.  I had recently made a decision to become a Christian, but it was more of a one-time get-things-right decision to cleanse my sins with the Savior and have a good standing with Him.   I really honestly didn’t understand a relationship with Jesus.

But seeing Gwen’s private communication with Christ opened the door to a new horizon of comprehension of what walking with the Son of God could really be.   It broke the stereotypical mold of social Christianity I had seen around me.

Gwen doesn’t know I am writing this.  She is now sixty years old, as consistent a Christian to this day as she was on that day on a quiet Saturday morning.

I continue to spend my quiet Saturday mornings – before anyone gets up – having a one-on-one reading of the Bible and a continual  exercise of this great, powerful, mysterious activity called prayer.  I had heard preachers exhort me to do so.  I had heard broadcasts of speakers explain its benefits.  I had heard onstage testimonies of people who encouraged its practice.

But it took an observation of a sincere and devoted sister to let me see how meaningful and wonderful it could be.   My quiet time with Jesus is undoubtedly my favorite time of the week.

And we don’t need anyone with a bass drum or tuba to emphasize it.



Definitely my worst speech ever

2I spoke in a teacher’s workshop for the Association of Christian Schools International, and the subject of speeches came up.   I’m a bit unusual in this subject because I do not teach separate classes of Speech and Bible;  I combine them both. In fact, tomorrow morning my Bible sophomores will be giving team speech presentations on the subjects of cults.

We have different types of speeches that the Bible student will endure present during the course of the year, with some being introductory speeches and others being a 30-second overview on a Bible doctrine. Students may present a verse commentary or a point of apologetics.  The classroom covers a wide range of orations.

But let me tell you about the most famous of Dr. Zockoll’s speeches.

The Distraction Speeches.

I strive to prepare my students for the later-years possibility of facing in-speech disturbances including hecklers, broken microphones, and crying babies.  And unruly teens in the back row.  Or a snoring senior citizen.  Or a hypochondriac with an unstoppable nosebleed.  You get the idea.

The Distraction Speech is a love/hate affair with students.  When it is your turn to give the speech and handle the distraction, it’s terribly nerve-wracking.  However, once you’ve finished, you find a great and dark delight in being part of the interference.

So, the question that comes back to me is: “Have you ever faced a distraction in your speaking career?”

And my scholarly answer of course is “Good grief, yes.  Dozens of times.”

Obviously, the next question is: “What was the worst distraction you’ve ever faced?”

Well, now, that runs a wide range of choices.

There was a college girl that went into a sneezing fit that wouldn’t stop.

I recall a trio of elementary kids who found delight in running and sliding down one rural church’s highly polished pews.  The parents pretended nothing was going on, and the kiddies ran and belly-slid down the long pine rows … while I was trying my best to expound on the book of Mark.

I remember a teen who unraveled a pen spring so that she could clean her fingernails while I spoke.  She slipped and rammed the wire through her thumb – and the wire couldn’t come out.  Blood and panic everywhere.

The there’s the sleeping six-year old child whose mid-nap flatulence filled the middle of a non-air-conditioned muggy country church auditorium on a sweltering summer night.  The kid must have eaten pure sulfur before falling asleep.  The stench was enough to melt mascara off of every woman’s face.

However, one stands out above all others.  Twenty years ago.  It was during a high school graduation dinner of 300 attendees in a Virginia academy’s auditorium.  The students were decked out in their finest:  full suits and bow ties, fine gowns and high heels.  The grads and friends looked great.  Even the parents put on a little extra flair to look nice for their children.

It was a church on a budget, but everybody pitched in to help.  The hall was nicely done with the money available:  crepe paper streamers, clean white paper tablecloths, tall candles nestled in glass candle-holders, and helium balloons of all colors tied to the edge of the stage.  The church wanted a nice graduation fete, but they also wanted to spend as little as possible.

No doubt that’s why they got me as a speaker.

Oh, the evening went along well enough.  The pastor had a stirring brief charge, two of the sophomores sang an enthusiastic if off-tune duet, the valedictorian gave a teary presentation of a poem she had written in a clunky iambic pentameter, a mom held a chocolate cake giveaway, three juniors performed a skit they had written that was fraught with inside jokes that very few people understood outside of a gang of seven teens who laughed uproariously while everyone else smiled in a confused way.

I felt uneasy when I notice that the evening was going on too long.  The program noted that the entire dinner and post-meal events would conclude by eight-thirty.  It was already a quarter past nine, and I had yet to speak.  Then some kid did a ventriloquist act.  His mom did most of the laughing.

It was past nine-thirty when it was my turn.

I rose to the stage and faced the students and noticed immediately that half of the audience members were half-lidded and yawning.  I was in trouble unless I really kicked things into gear.

I started off in an enthusiastic opening illustration, but it only partially woke the listeners.  I need to adjust, so I started moving across the stage.  I introduced some amazing stats about school graduates but saw a boy lay his head down on the table.  I was losing ground, and fast.   I needed a spark.

I got one, but not in the way I expected.

One of the less-social teens had moved to one of the tables to sit by himself and drift off into his own mental universe.  This included involving himself in whatever would occupy his freshman mind at the moment.

Now, I want you to review the description I gave you of the surroundings in the hall.  Included with the balloons and crepe paper were the worst two things you should ever put in front of the members of a teen banquet:

Candles and a paper tablecloth.  More specific, lit candles.

Lit with a flame.  Of real fire.

You guessed it.  The young Not-Yet-Common Sense youth pulled the foot-long candle from its perch and gazed at the flame intently.  Flames do wondrous things to the male species.

It makes them want to burn things.

But what to burn?  Oh, yes, something simple.  Like a paper tablecloth.

This he did.

I was into my second point when I noticed something in my peripheral vision:  a boy sitting stunned while a five foot high – mind you a five foot-high flame ripped down the tablecloth and increased by the second.  He was immobile, completely catatonic in the realization that he was virtually holding a bonfire in his lap.

Immediately every able-bodied adult grabbed his water glass and dashed for the table.  They started throwing their water in the direction of the flame, many so overly excited that they totally missed the flame and hit Senseless full in the face with water or some other nearby attendee.  There were shouts and chairs flying.  Someone tried to grab the tablecloth and roll it up; he got a face full of lemon water.

And I was standing there stunned.

It was all over in fifteen seconds, but I looked over and faced a section of people who were wet, angry, and breathing heavily.  They were stepping over broken glass, mopping their faces and looking at me expectantly.  How would I fix this mess?

I was groping for words.

“Well,” I gulped.  “I was always told that my speeches were fiery…”  I self-consciously giggled.

Nobody laughed.  Nobody.

I realized that I could go nowhere.  I closed the speech within the next thirty seconds, mumbled a “thank you” and slid back to the hotel to mull The Worst Speech Ever.

It was a miserable night.

And yet it was one of my best memories.

Why?  Because God taught me some great lessons that I have kept with me all these years.

The first thing I realized that there was nothing special about me that I couldn’t fall victim to an embarrassing and uncontrollable situation in a public setting.  These things happen to everybody.  I’m no exception, nor should I ever assume that I should be an exception.  The rain falls on the just and the unjust, you know…

Secondly , I also realized that I endured a profoundly humiliating experience and I lived through it.  It was a fantastic learning experience.  For example, if in the course of my public speaking career anyone should ever set  table on fire again, I will have a better punch line.

Thirdly – and this was most important – I realized that I could laugh at myself.  Look, I felt like a fool up there on stage with all of this nonsense going on, and for some reason I was made to blame for it.  In my pride I stomped around the hotel room that night in frustration for the first hour.  It wasn’t long, though, before I called my wife on the phone and joined her in a good deep laugh about the whole thing.

I looked stupid?  So what.

It wasn’t the first time, and – trust me on this – it certainly wasn’t the last.

Our great God gave us love, joy, peace, long suffering, and somewhere wedged within all those beautiful gifts is a sense of humor.  As in all the other gifts, we cannot enjoy them until we realized them and activate them in our lives.  This realization opens up a great relief to the Christian.

Oh, it was my worst speech. But I got so many things out of it.

Like being able to write a great story for you to read.



Some things were lost and some things were found while we were in the Holy Land.

j49Dr. Hudson and I are sitting at the breakfast benches in the Wombat Hostel in Munich and I have fifteen minutes before the throng comes downstairs to feed.  Last night we landed in the airport and took the Metro for forty minutes to get here before hiking through town to find the hostel.  We threw our stuff down, went across the street to stuff a slice of pizza in our face and then came back and fell into bed.  The students are weary  – although happy – from the entire week’s events.  Ethan was asleep on the floor of the airport.  Morgan kept blinking slowly as we glided along in the Metro.  Brooke kept nodding off and Simon kept answering all my questions very slowly.  But then again, Simon usually does that in class as well.

I’m kidding, Simon.

Dr. Hudson is nursing a coffee while he types away at his laptop.  He is tired, I can see, but he has never slowed down on this trip.  His passion was to show us the Holy Land, and brother, did he ever give us a tour.  Down to the exact minute or the precise location, he has been leading us and directing us all the way though the week, to this final day of travel.

The students are now shuffling in, yawning, and helping themselves to a breakfast table that gives them a selection of anything from Swiss Cheese to yogurt to oranges.  The week has not been with some things missing:  a ticket to Herod’s estate, suntan lotion left in a hostel, toothpaste left at the last hotel, sunglasses mislaid, a room key gone.  We are all fallible people.

We are all readying ourselves for the long flight back to Charlotte.  Even though many of us smell from wearing clothes we have rotated throughout the week without washing, (One student admitted that they had not bathed since Monday.  I will not say who.) we are still enjoying fresh memories of the Holy Land’s many sites.  Some of the group members opened up about some of the more powerful discoveries of the trip.

Emma shared with me that Masada had an impact on her.   “It’s a place of sadness, of great cruelty by the Romans.  I also thought that the people who lived in Masada may have thought at one point that they were invincible.  I came away with a lesson about pride.”

Simon told me that he was deeply touched by the Wailing Wall.  “I looked around and saw many people seeking so hard for answers, but many seemed to be involved in just, well, rituals.  It was sad, to me. And another memory was when I was able to share my beliefs about Jesus Christ with a total stranger who was swimming alongside me in the Mediterranean Sea. He was open and actually very interested, asking me a bunch of questions.

Linda thought for a moment and nodded.  “It has to be Magdala.  Magdala was special.  Knowing that we saw the very temple that Jesus taught in, that was amazing.”

And I myself found a special memory  – not of a site, but of a flight – in the Lufthansa journey yesterday.

Last night’s plane ride was a fitting end to the day.  A group of German tourists – all in their twenties and thirties – ended up sitting in the seats in front and beside me.  We got to chatting whenever they noticed my Steeler T-shirt and grinned; some were familiar with the team and liked them.  They were, for some reason, impressed that I was born in Pittsburgh.  Immediately to my left was Justin, a twenty-five year-old  who is studying to become a teacher.  His hometown is Steele, so he was delighted with my shirt.  When he found out I was a teacher, he immediately initiated a quick friendship.  “You should come to Germany,” he said.  “Teachers make a lot of money here.”  It sounded intriguing, but I am sure that Germany is not exactly yearning to get the talents of a fifty-eight year-old Bible teacher who is fighting nasal congestion and cannot speak the language.  All the same, the administrators of Grace Christian Academy should be put on notice:  Germany has made me a pitch.  I’m bringing up this fact whenever my contract renewal comes up.

But back to our little gathering on the Lufthansa flight…

Justin warmed up to me and nudged his seatmate, a young lady named Rosa.  She leaned in to listen, and her intensity, along with his, took me aback. They drilled me with questions and filled me with conversation!  He asked about our government (“…it is three branches, isn’t it?”), our school system (“In Germany, the school testing is very disjointed between states…”) and our way of life (“… the American football sports league and basketball, I don’t quite understand…”)

He spent a good portion of our three hour Tel Aviv-to-Munich flight asking about gun control.  “Why do you have so many guns?  Why can people just own guns and there are shootings?”  I assured him that it was not the Wild West but that we are saddened by the Las Vegas shootings as much as we were distraught over the Aurora, Colorado violence years ago.  “But I live in a nice neighborhood in Oak Ridge, Tennessee.  It is quiet and the neighbors all know each other.  We talk every evening as we stand in our yards, and some people across the street brought over cookies when we first moved in.  America has places like this all over.”

Two of his group leaned over from the front and listened to our conversation, facing us.  Justin nodded, but then tapped me on the arm.  “Then why not get rid of all the guns?  In Germany we have no National Guard, and the security forces do not have guns.   Get rid of the guns and you will have no more problems, so why not vote that in?  You see, we believe to get to the end of a problem you must go below the surface, and get to the root.”

I nodded.  “You have hit the exact point of America’s problem, Justin.  It is the root of the problem; the misuse of firearms is merely a symptom.  You see, we find it a puzzling problem that people want the safety and security of a nation protected by God but want nothing to do with living for Him or, really, with Him.  The principles of Christianity of peace, love, joy, sharing, caring are all want Americans want, but the thought of submitting to the God who can make all people come together is too much,”

“You teach Bible?” he asked.  I told him that I did.  He nodded and asked questions about our school and our direction as a private Christian Academy.  The others asked questions of how we faced the uncertain future in the face of so many challenges.  We became animated and energized but nobody became agitated.  It was a spirited conversation and I found it a great way to share my faith with some wonderful people who were taking everything in and incubating each thought with great gravity.  I found a renewed energy in sharing the blessed Gospel, something that I had hoped and prayed for at the beginning of this week.  It was a wonderful flight.  This has been a wonderful week.

Except that one of the hostels kept my driver’s license by mistake.

I hope I don’t get stopped on the way home from the airport.



We are off-balance in the Holy Land.

IMG_4521I am sitting in a back courtyard of our Haifa hostel and it is a little before 8 in the morning.  On my breakfast plate are two hardboiled eggs, a handful of fresh olives, a small ball of Lebanese cheese, slices of tomato and a dollop of tahina sauce.  My luggage is next to me;  as soon as the group assembles, we head to Megiddo and then over to Joffa today.

The courtyard is nestled in the back of the hostel and is hidden from the alleyway by numerous plants including what looks like a lime or lemon plant over seven feet tall.  It is quiet even though we are near an extremely busy intersection.  I am sipping a maddeningly delicious Turkish coffee that is black as night and is more powerful than anything I have tasted in the States.  This is not to say that I don’t appreciate a good Weigel’s House Coffee now and again, but I have just discovered that when you finish your drink and the grounds cover the bottom of your cup, well then, brother, you’ve had a seriously strong cup of java.

We’re preparing to go back to Tennessee, and we fly our first leg on Sunday.  We will be in Germany for a spell, and I’ll let you know how that goes.

It seems as if we have been gone for a month or two.  I look at the photos of our first days in the airport and I wonder why it seems so far back down the timeline.

Masada was a wondrous visit that gave us a lesson on heroism and the brevity of life before eternity.

Bethlehem let us know that, in the midst of a mob of people, we can have a quiet and private moment in a church that celebrates Jesus’ birth.

The Dead Sea let us know that no matter how much we eat, we can still float.

The Galilee Boat gave us a great reflection of the historical reality of the small fishing type of boat that carried Jesus around the waters, and that we can appreciate the fears of the disciples in the storm (that boat was small, man) and the wonder-working power of the God-Man.

The Akko stronghold showed us the struggle of men in their religious differences. It also showed us how you can make a really nice big castle with a lot of cool hallways.

The Bahai Gardens showed us a beautiful landscape as well as how to pretend you understand the Hebrew-speaking tour guide when the English-speaking tour gets cancelled.  We didn’t understand a word, but then again the scenery filled with flowers, fountains, sculptures and pillared architecture made up for the lack of comprehensible narrative.

Caesarea reminded us that no matter how powerful man and his monuments may be in his own time, everything returns to dust.  Herod may have caused fear and grudging admiration with his iron-fisted rule and ingenious architecture, but we walk among his ruins today.  Such is life when limited to man’s simple abilities.

Joffa, Haifa, Jersusalem, Megiddo, Capernaum and all our other visited places taught me that there is one common phrase given to me by any other tongue I’ve encountered, whether it was this week’s Hebrew, Arabic, French or Greek. The common phrase that everyone used was whenever I was parting: bye bye.  It seemed that any time I talked with someone in a queue, in a store, in the street or at a park, they always felt most comfortable with their favorite parting phrase:  bye bye.  It’s pronounced in rapid staccato – a quick friendly way to greet an American in parting.

And most of all, we have learned a refreshing course in being off-balance.  We are unsure, and that’s a good thing.  We have been eating strange food. We are unsure of the exchange rate of dollars to shekels. We are uneasy with new rooms and beds. We are not used to the stifling heat of the desert.  We are constantly trying to understand these new languages and the cultures of the vast numbers around us.  We are off-balance, and as I said, that’s a good thing.  It’s caused us to re-adjust.  This means spiritually.

We lost our complacency the minute we stepped into the Tel Aviv airport.  The spiritual chance started almost immediately.  We started getting new energy in this new territory.  Our outdoor-patio devotional time was a running conversation of “why?” and “why not?” when it came to bold steps in the Bible and reaching out to Jesus.  It wasn’t a standard lecture-type of Bible time;  it got roaring with questions and exchange of ideas and truths among the whole group of students.  Our visit to the Jordan River resulted in seven students getting baptized and finding a new thirst for Jesus.  The dinner and bus conversations have touched on reaching the students of our school in new and dynamic ways.  One of our students had a chance to witness to a Joffa stranger.  Others have stepped into deep meditative spiritual talks with me and the other sponsors of our trips while on the bus, at a meal,  or walking down the streets of a town.  We are seeking balance in Jesus in new ways.  We like this off-kilter feeling; it is making us squirm.

Yet it’s not just moving forward for the sake of being busy.  It comes from a special intimacy that I – and I believe the students – have developed as the week has progressed.  This next story might help explain.

I recall walking through a tight corridor after leaving the Western Wall site, filing past the throngs of people.  The people were jostling and bumping us as we moved down the hallways and corners.  Coming toward us, I saw a little girl walking  a few feet behind her father and slowly losing  the pace.  She called out to him:  “Abba”.


That’s the word for “daddy” that we can call our God!  Romans 8:15 came alive in a special way at that moment.  I heard that word spoken in a tender and pleading way, from the lips of a child who wanted to get back to the strong grip of her loving parent.  I looked around and raised my eyebrows at the student walking with me; he had heard it as well.  We heard the affectionate word that we Christians can use in our talk with God, and we heard that very special word right here in the blessedness of the Holy Land.

And I realized that it’s our special relationship with Jesus that is most cherished.  We want to get back into a better balance with Abba, God our dear Father..

What a day.  What a week.

Bye bye.

In the middle of a Holy Land spice warehouse, I learned a lesson

j10It is a wee bit past six in the morning and we are in Haifa.  We zipped in here late  yesterday after taking in yet another whirlwind of sites.  The momentum of the week is now showing on our students; more than one nodded off in the van and when we arrived at the hostel last night, and some could barely keep their eyes open as they had their passports checked and rooms assigned.   But what a day it was. 

Capernaum’s weather was hot but beautiful.  We walked through the ruins and sat next to the chunky Roman-style columns while Christian and Brooke both read passages from the Bible concerning this boyhood home of Jesus.  Could Jesus have walked on this particular pathway I’m stepping on?  Certainly He would have gazed on those same hills as He moved throughout His ministry here…  The mind boggles, as they say.  We moved into the remains of a second century synagogue that was built, Dr. Hudson informed us,  most assuredly over the foundation of the very same synagogue where Jesus and His disciples attended.  From the pillars to the threshold, you saw a Biblical timeline teasing your thoughts.  Could He have passed by this…?

Yesterday was a series of sites that threw us back to Jesus’ family life.  We trekked through Magdala, snapping photos like stereotypical tourists, yet not without asking and seeking to know as much as possible.  Is it true historians say Jesus would have assuredly walked down this narrow main street?  Funny thing about archaeological sites:  you can’t hurry past them.  You get an itch to re-route yourself at another angle, take another look, ask another question, take another picture, reach out and touch what you can.  It’s a great alternative activity to the average American manic/electronic pace.  You’re forced to slow down, and it’s a good thing, especially for a Christian.  We need time to incubate more of this great faith we follow.

We had a quiet time at the site of the Sermon on the Mount.  The setting is beautifully serene, with small plaques of the various teachings of Christ embedded at the side of the walkways among the fountains and flowers of the estate.  We looked over the hill and saw what probably was the very spot where Jesus stunned hundreds – thousands? – with the greatest sermon ever preached.  We moved quietly (there is an unwritten rule of silence) over to a small benched area and sat in the sunlight while Simon, Morgan and Ethan each read a selected passage from Jesus’ words found in the fifth, sixth and seventh chapters of Matthew.  We reflected and discussed a bit before moving on. Our next stop was the church dedicated to the site of the Loaves and Fishes, where Jesus miraculously fed the thousands on the hillside.  We reminded ourselves that the fish served had never spent a moment swimming in the Sea of Galilee, nor had the bread been baked in any Hebrew oven.  This food came straight from the pantry of Heaven.  I wonder what the best food on earth would have tasted like?

We got an idea of the kind of fish it might have been.  We went to St. Peter’s restaurant and had a meal of the “Saint Peter’s fish” – yes, eyeballs and fins and tail and all right on our plate- in order to get an idea of the cuisine of the first century.  For the record, Ethan ate the eyeballs and Ron, not wanting to be outdone, swallowed them as well.  Simon informed us that the eyeballs had a rubbery/plastic taste to them, and proceeded to eat the fish’s brain.

We dined on arosa in Haifa and sipped mint lemonade in a plaza as the sun went down.  We reflected back on Nazareth, Capernaum, the Sea of Galilee, the White Mosque, the impossibly intertwining traffic, the winding inner-city pathways with delicious aromas, and even the stray cats that took immediately to our group despite the fact that Brooke kept yelling that she didn’t like cats. But…

… what was my strongest memory of the day?  That’s easy.

Dr. Hudson had taken us down a side street in Nazareth that led to a nondescript bland building embedded within an alleyway.  We crouched and entered through a tiny doorway into a magical little warehouse filled with boxes, crates, bags and barrels.  This was Elbabour Galilee Mill, and the jovial owner Tony greeted us with a huge smile, open arms and a tiny cup of delicious Arabic coffee.  We moved about the bins of ginger, cinnamon, coffees, teas and dried fruits.  What a grand smell! There was a side room for candies – chocolates, dates, figs – and huge scoops and bags to get us started with our shopping.  The atmosphere was fascinating.  Tony kept up a waving-arm narrative as our students and sponsors brought sweets and spices to the counter for purchase.  His joy was genuine.  He waved off my purchase.  “You’re their teacher,” he said, shooing away my shekels.  “No charge.”

We gathered and sang for him.  He pulled out his phone and filmed us while he beamed.

And then he spoke.

“I welcome you any time; you are my friends.  But I also  ask you to pray for us Christians here.  We are a minority in this land, and we need your prayers.”  When we assured him we would, he continued.  “I find it my ministry to share Jesus every day here – right here – to everybody that comes in this shop.  My family for many years has owned this store and we serve the community in this 250 year-old building in the city of Jesus, and this is what I want to do:  to tell Jesus every day, every time I have the opportunity.  I want to reach out to all people, all kinds, and let them know of Jesus’ love.”

And that may have been the greatest part of this trip to me.

A simple man in love with Jesus and in love with the people around him.  A simple man with a simple message of Jesus, made easy because the love of Christ exuded from him.  A man who was in the minority of the beliefs of the land, yet so filled with a passion for outreach that his active ministry was in a 250 year-old spice warehouse while he worked.

He was blooming where he was planted.

I think I am taking a very, very big lesson from the Holy Land.


The quiet noise of the Western Wall, the cold warmth of the Jordan

1011171240.jpgDr. Don Hudson approached me last year about taking our school students to the Holy Land.  I agreed.

I sit here, truly believing it was one of the best decisions of my teaching career.

Dr. Don Hudson has put together one of the most intensive, instructive, emotional and impactful trips I’ve ever taken.  King University should be proud to have this professor on their faculty.  The man has planned out a virtual college course in Biblical studies, and has been leading a private classroom for us at each stop.  At each stop, man.  It’s been an eye-opener at every new venue.  We have been piling in the van every morning at 8 and slipping back into the hotel at night at 7:30 p.m. for dinner.  Qumran Caves, Dead Sea, Jordan River, Masada, Gethsemane, Damascus Gate… I’m getting worn out just writing the list.

I mention to you that I am sitting here, because this is one of the few times this week that I have been able to rest.   We just got back to the hotel for a quick shower after bobbing like corks in the Dead Sea.  Lots of people have asked me about the Dead Sea experience, so I will give you a brief report: it’s warm and oily and strangely fun.  You walk down a long descent to the beach, past people who have slathered themselves with the seaside mineral-packed mud (Virtually all of them are over 40 years old – we all have an idea that it may have to do with an anti-aging, wrinkle-smoothing craving by the older set.  And please don’t ask me about the overweight octogenarian in the dirty white Speedo.  My eyeballs are still trembling.) and make your way to a grayish slow-moving shore.  You must be careful of the small sharp spikes of salt in the water – they could tear your foot open.  You wander out to waist-high water and you … well, you roll back.  Your feet will pop up like two corks and you can lean back.  Don’t get any of the Dead Sea saltwater in your eye;  Greg did and he was pretty much blinded in one eye for a spell.

After ten minutes you’ll feel like what our adult sponsor Linda accurately described as being “dipped in baby oil.”  It’s no longer fun; you really want to get the slimy feeling off of you.  Happily, there are outdoor showers where you can pull a chain and get a freshwater rinse.  And not have to look at Speedo Man anymore.

It’s been fun so far, but more importantly, it’s been a spiritual awakening to me.   Through the beginning of this school year I felt a fatigue, but even more than a physical fatigue;  I felt a hollowness.  I as afraid that things might become routine, and I would rather resign than become stale.  I prayed for the refreshing from the Christ to renew my Spirit during this week in this blessed land.  I needed to see the sacred things of the Lord once again, and experience the reality of Jesus.  I wanted solitude in a Scriptural walkabout study –  and in one of the busiest cities in the world, I started finding it.

One place was at the Western Wall, also known as the Wailing Wall.  This magnificent plaza was packed with Jewish Orthodox leaders, ladies with scarves, fathers with Bibles and children in tow, and a myriad of other blends of worshipers and celebrants. This is the annual holiday Week of Tabernacles (Sukkot), and as we approached the area we were amazed at the mass of humanity.   I knew I wanted to get to that Wall to pray.  Ethan, Christian, Ron and I made a decision to surge forward and get through the crowd.  As we passed a sea of people waving palm branches and holding up fruit in prayer, I spied a cart full of kippahs, the hats Jewish men wear.  We each donned one and made our way forward.  A kindly old man in a black hat spoke to me in Hebrew.  I nodded and he nodded back;  I realized that my white beard, black shirt, and determined walk toward the Wall gave him the impression that I was Jewish!

We each waited patiently for our turn. We knew the wall did not give us any special in-road to God; we just wanted to feel the history and enjoy the seriousness of those around us.  Each man stood shoulder to shoulder all the way down the wall.  I found a place and rested my head as I prayed.  I will not reveal all of my prayer, if you don’t mind, but I will freely admit that in that vast, quiet moment I asked the Father for a fresh new look at Him and to restore the joy of my salvation.

It was a sweet moment.

And my prayer was answered soon.  Very soon.

This morning we awoke and packed our gear for the Jordan River.  Six students:  Stacy, Brooke, Morgan, Simon, Emma, and Christian all wanted me to baptize them.  This was an honor that I cannot begin to describe.  The whole vanload emptied at the parking lot, and soon we were descending the wooden steps one at a time into the greenish waters of the Jordan.

May I state the greenish cold waters of the Jordan.  It took me a moment to speak because I lost my breath for a minute or so.  I didn’t need a second coffee this morning;  I was fully awake.

Ah, it was another sweet moment.  Each student gave their reason for being baptized.  Our group watched.  Other groups stopped and watched.  It was quiet, but there was a deep joy in the morning.

“… I baptize you as my sister in Christ in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit…”  “I baptize you as my brother in Christ…”

Then Ethan decided that he wanted to be baptized as well.   Seven in all.  What a grand, perfect number.

And like yesterday, in the quietness of the morning hour, Ron stepped forward to lead us in singing.  Dozens of people stopped, turned, and listened – some filming us on their phones – as we all stood in the water and sang.

We sang gently. Very gently.

When we’ve been there ten thousand years
Bright shining as the sun
We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise
Than when we’ve first begun.

Oh, dear Lord above, it’s been a sweet day.



Our Holy Land trip is changing us all

j8I am sitting here in Taybeh Golden Hotel on the Main Street in Taybeh-Ramallah, and I have thirty minutes in order to write my thoughts before I head downstairs and meet the students and sponsors for breakfast.  We’ll be heading to the Jordan River this morning and I will be baptizing about five of my students. This day will start out to be very special.

Where do I start?  These last few days have been a whirlwind of emotions for all of us.  I mean, we walked through the ancient and majestic trees of the Garden of Gethsemane and turned and gazed at the Eastern Gate within the same minute.  I need you to think about that last sentence.  I have been taught about these two sites since I was four years old.  I’ve read about them for years.  The Bible relates that Jesus was in the Garden.  This garden.

Jesus was in the Garden.

Jesus Himself.

I stood with Ethan as we pondered this.  I could tell that he was in the same state as I.  We blinked and we looked.  We looked again at the pathways and the low branches.  And we tried to drink it in.  He shook his head slightly.  “Amazing,” he said.  That’s a pretty good word to describe how we took in the scene.

Then there was our trek through the four quarters of the Old Jersusalem.  The winding narrow streets – you might want to call them stone pathways, they are so narrow.  The aroma of baked breads, spices and shawurma tease you as you walk by the various booths.  Old men raise their hands and try to get you to stop.  Silks scarves and golden trinkets fill the walls.  A cat passes us by and trots through the thickly populated passageways.  Everybody bumps and brushes by you.  There is a constant bumping and nudging as you move through the city. You get used to it by the second day.

The Church of the Nativity.  We saw the historical place where many believe Christ was born.  We went to the Wailing Wall.  I will share more about that in another blog.

We walked the Via Dolorosa and pondered that this was where Jesus Himself walked.

It rained on us.  We were completely caught off guard by a sudden downpour that followed us for the better part of three hours.  We were wet – and so were all of the stone walkways and stairs around the city.

Brooke wiped out at the tower overlooking the City of David.

Emma wiped out at the Dung Gate.

Trey wiped out at Station of the Cross Number 8.

All students were in good shape afterward, although Trey had an impressive tear in his jeans.

I have six minutes left to tell you of  a great, deep memory that we will all hold dear for many many years to come.    It was when we all decided to put on swim gear and walk the length of Hezekiah’s Tunnel.  I don’t have much time to give you the whole history, but I beg you to look it up and see the pictures.  It’s a 1750-foot tunnel carved during the reign of Hezekiah to bring water from one side of the city to the other.

2 Kings 20:20 “As for the other events of Hezekiah’s reign, all his achievements and how he made the pool and the tunnel by which he brought water into the city…”

2 Chr 32:30 “It was Hezekiah who blocked the upper outlet of the Gihon spring and channeled the water down to the west side of the City of David.”

We paid our fee and lined up. We all purchased little LED flashlights (5 shekels apiece) and I was given the honor of leading the group.  And we marched/splashed the whole route – winding, twisting, dripping – way, way underneath the city.  It was fascinating. And dark.

We saw a light coming out at the very end, and ascended the metal steps.  We were at the Pool of Siloam.  We were at the Pool of Siloam, wading in the ankle-deep waters.  It stopped us in our tracks for a moment.

Morgan smiled and Simon laughed.  Christian gazed around while Ron pondered and Trey shook his head.  We weren’t sure what to do next.  We were just taking it in.

I gathered the group.  “Let’s sing,” I said.  “Ron, please lead us.  Let’s sing ‘Amazing Grace.’

And so we did.  Slowly and reverently we circled up in a group in the water and sang.

Amazing Grace!  How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost but now am found
Was blind but now I see.

We heard applause.  We turned to see a group of Jewish tourists behind us, the men wearing their kippahs, clapping.  We went over and met them. Right there, in the Pool of Siloam, we made new friends.

That will stay with me for the rest of my life.

Time for me to leave. I will write more later.



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