Marines.Together We Served

Monday, March 26, 2007

Jerusalem the Beautiful

I continue to pinch myself about my recent travels to the Holy Land. In the eight days spent traversing the entire country of Israel, I reached overload attempting to absorb it all. I took a lot of pictures and am even now in the process of sorting them out. That’s easier with a digital camera where all you need to do is hook the camera (or chip) to the computer and download all your pictures. I did this daily while I was in Israel, accumulating more than one thousand photos. I’ll be busy for a while!

Jerusalem is an amazing city. It is quite modern, replete with rush hour traffic that rivals anything we have in New York or Los Angeles. My traveling partner, Bob Geer, and I will be sharing our pictures and videos from the trip at 6:00 pm on Sunday, April 1 at the Ripon Free Methodist Church. We are calling it, “The Odd Couples’ Tour.” This identifier came about because Bob and I were the only ones from our church, whereas the rest of the 25 members in our tour group were pretty much evenly split between a Baptist Church from San Luis Obispo, California, and a Free Methodist Church from Kidron, Ohio. They all decided Bob and I would be called the “Odd Couple.” It fits, too. Bob and I are quite dissimilar in appearance. I am now 68” tall, a recent revelation after having a physical in February. I used to be 70” tall (that’s 5’10”). Bob is 6’2”. As I get older I feel like the Wicked Witch of the West from the Wizard of Oz, crying, “I’m melting!”

As we approached the outskirts of Jerusalem, Nola, our tour guide, had a CD ready to play “Jerusalem.” It is a wonderfully moving song, and brought tears to my eyes. We arrived in the middle of the afternoon on Friday, March 17. The Jewish Sabbath begins at sundown so all we had time to do was take pictures of the city from across the Kidron Valley looking at the Holy City. Once the Sabbath officially starts you will find nary a vehicle on the street. Dinner for the evening was prepared ahead of time so no one would have to work after sundown. But to stand there and see this glorious city is simply breathtaking.

We spent most of the last three days of our tour in Jerusalem. During one of those days we traveled to the Masada fortress where the Jewish Zealots sought refuge from the encroachment of the Roman government during the later part of the first century. Then we went to Qumran where Jewish Essenes removed themselves from daily life to study, preserve and copy Scripture. It is here where the Dead Sea Scrolls (or Qumran Scrolls) were discovered about sixty years ago. We also visited En Gedi, a natural oasis where David often spent time hiding from King Saul. Here you find beautiful springs and water falls in the barren hills alongside the Dead Sea. To end the day, we stopped by the Dead Sea for a dip. It really is true: You cannot sink in the waters of the Dead Sea because of the enormous salt and mineral content. I found myself giggling as Bob and I floated effortlessly in the water.

But it was Jerusalem that embodies the history and heart of the people, and where as a Christian, I could envision Jesus walking through the streets, praying in the Garden of Gethsemane, and eating olives from the many trees that still grow along the hillsides. It was Solomon who said of Jerusalem nearly three thousand years ago: “You are beautiful, my darling, lovely as Jerusalem.” He was right then, and he would be right today.

We visited what used to be called the “Wailing Wall,” but today is referred to as the “Western Wall.” On the day we were there, it was the beginning of a new moon.
There was a large number of Hasidic Jews at the Wall standing about five deep. By definition, Hasidism is a sect of Judaism founded in Poland in the 1700s by Israel Baal Shem-Tov. It is characterized by its emphasis on mysticism, prayer, religious zeal, and joy. The name comes from the Hebrew word for pious. Traditionally you can pick out the Hasidic Jews by the black suit and black broad-brimmed hat. Many will stand at the Wall and pray, rocking back and forth in rhythmic fashion.

There is, of course, the Al Aqsa mosque with its golden dome which always stands out in any photo. This whole area is considered quite sacred to the three major theistic religions of the world: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Within the ancient walls of Jerusalem the city is divided into quarters.

What was of significance to me personally was our visit to the traditional burial plot for Jesus. The location is outside the ancient city walls and not far from the Garden of Gethsemane. Once inside the area of the Garden Tomb, Nola introduced us to a delightful man who would take us through and give us the history behind this site. Ken is a classic Englishman with white hair and a beard, elflike in stature, and with eyes that literally crackled with excitement. He looked like a character right out of Central Casting in Hollywood, and would have fit right into C.S. Lewis’, “The Chronicles of Narnia.”

Ken regaled us with the history and traditions surrounding the possible burial sites for Jesus.
It cannot be known for certain exactly which tomb Jesus was laid in, but there is one thing I can assure you: Whichever tomb he was laid in, he’s not there any longer! As the sign said on the door which led into the tomb: “He is not here. He is risen!”

Hallelujah! Amen! Have a great Easter!

Monday, March 19, 2007

Where Jesus Walked

It was 4:00 am on Sunday morning when I picked up Bob Geer. We two happy wanderers were about to begin the journey of a lifetime. With his suitcases safely tucked in the back of my car, we started down the road for Jerry & Gayle Mottweiler’s. They had offered to drive us to the Sacramento airport, thus avoiding the hassle of leaving my car in long term parking for eleven days.

No sooner had I pulled away from Bob’s house than the oldies radio station I had on played Ricky Nelson’s 1950’s classic, Travelin’ Man. It was a serendipitous moment!

In any event, we caught our early morning flight to Chicago’s O’Hare where we made our connecting flight on British Airways to London’s Heathrow. After a six hour layover and a two hour delay we finally caught our flight to the Ben Gurion airport in Tel Aviv, Israel. With the time changes and length of travel, we were happy to finally be at our destination. One slight problem – our luggage did not make the transfer in London. Thankfully, it did catch up with us the following evening.

Admittedly, the idea of traveling to the Holy Land had never been a particular desire of mine. That’s not to say that if the opportunity had presented itself I wouldn’t have gone. I surely would have. But only in recent years did I begin to have a desire to walk where Jesus walked. I can’t fully explain this, other than to say it was a longing that would not go away. It certainly had nothing to do with wanting to travel – I’ve done more than my share of that throughout my life! I guess by way of explanation I’d have to say that I simply wanted to look upon the hills that surrounded Nazareth, ride on the shimmering waters of the Sea of Galilee, and enter the Holy City of Jerusalem where my Lord had his final showdown with the religious establishment of the day.

Okay, back to our arrival in Tel Aviv. After a night’s rest in the Grand Beach Hotel we headed for the ancient city of Caesarea. This was a city built by King Herod the Great who was king at the time of Jesus’ birth. About forty years earlier Herod had this city built in honor of the current Roman emperor, Caesar Augustus. Though very little remains, you can still see the foundations. It was here that the Apostle Paul would have journeyed to Rome.

Next stop was Mount Carmel, or Karmi-el, meaning “Vineyard of God.” It was here that the prophet Elijah had his famous confrontation with the prophets of Baal. Then we stopped atop Megiddo where we could look down on the Valley of Jezreel, the site for the future apocalyptic Battle of Armageddon.

We then rolled in to Nazareth, hometown of Jesus. This began a journey over the next several days which allowed us to see, hear, smell, taste, and feel what Jesus would have experienced. We saw the location of Jesus’ first miracle in Cana when he turned water into wine at the wedding feast.

Being somewhat of an emotional person, I found myself overwhelmed on the third day during our boat ride up to Capernaum. It began with the boat captain ceremonially raising a small American flag and singing OUR national anthem. We all joined in with gusto! It was a wonderful touch.

A short time later I was reflecting on passages of Scripture where Jesus walked on the water. Or the story of Jesus asleep in the bow of the boat when a horrific storm came up and threatened to drown all on board. Jesus simply said, “Peace, be still!” and the storm was quieted, just like that! Or the visit to the ruins of the synagogue in Capernaum where Jesus was handed the scrolls of Isaiah where he read prophecies about himself. Or the site where Jesus multiplied the loaves and fishes. Or the location where he gave the Sermon on the Mount.

Now add to this the realization that I was actually here in the Holy Land, and before I could do anything about it I had tears running down my cheeks. The old gospel song came to mind, “I Walked Today Where Jesus Walked.”

At the site where Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount I had been asked to share with our group of twenty-seven. I spoke of the wonderful simplicity, yet profound teaching of the Sermon on the Mount. I finished by pointing out that we’d just passed through the area of the Gadara. This is where Jesus was confronted by the man who was demon possessed. Jesus cast the demon, called Legion, out of the man and into the herd of swine. The swine were driven mad, rushing off the cliff nearby and into the Sea of Galilee where they all drowned. I mentioned how before I gave my life to Christ as a twenty-four year old sergeant in the Marine Corps, I was just as far from God as this demon possessed man had been. But then I met Jesus, just like he did.

Before beginning our journey south to Jerusalem, we visited Caesarea Phillipi where Peter declared to Jesus, “You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!”

An extra special moment was when we stopped at the Jordan River where a number of our group chose to be baptized, including Bob and me. It was my privilege to baptize Bob. In turn, I was baptized by one of the other ministers in our group. It was cold, but those of us who stepped into the frigid waters would not be denied this singular experience. It was John the Baptist who baptized Jesus in these same waters.

Then we drove down the Jordan Valley to Jericho where we began the three thousand foot climb to the Holy City of Jerusalem. When we stopped at a lookout point over the city, the sun was shining and you just knew there was something special about this place. Jesus, too, looked upon this city as he entered it for the final time, and said, “We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life.” Hallelujah!

That’s where I’ve been the past six days. I have walked where Jesus walked. Because of this I will always have a deeper and more profound appreciation for the message of the Bible.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Next Week, Jerusalem!

When you read this I will be in the Holy Land. I can’t begin to tell you how excited I am about this trip!

Last year I was planning to take a bunch of folks from my church, The Ripon Free Methodist, on a trip to the Israel and a couple of places in Greece. Because of last summer’s dust up between Israel and Hezbollah/Hamas, we decided to postpone the church trip to the Holy Land to the spring of 2008.

Then in October during Pastor Appreciation Month the congregation presented me with a trip to Israel. I was flabbergasted! You see, despite the fact that it seems like I’ve traveled just about everywhere, I have never been to Israel. Part of the rationale was to have me go this year so I would be better prepared to lead the church group next year. Works for me.

So here I am on the eve of my departure writing to you about the trip of a lifetime. One of the men in the church is going with me. He has made a profession of faith in Christ in the past two years and was very anxious to make the trip with the church. Even after it was postponed, he still wanted to go, so Bob is joining me in this adventure. We’ll be hooking up with two other church groups: one from Southern California, and the other from Ohio.

The itinerary has us flying from Sacramento to Chicago where we’ll catch a connecting flight to London’s Heathrow Airport. From there we’ll fly into Tel Aviv, Israel. I still can’t believe I’m on my way to the land where Jesus walked. Somebody pinch me!

We will be visiting a vast number of historical sites, many of which are mentioned in the Bible. We’ll start off at Jaffa, the traditional port where Jonah sailed away trying to escape God’s call on his life. The next day I plan to take a walk on the beach before breakfast. Then we’re off to Caesarea, one of the most famous of ancient Mediterranean seacoast cities. This city was selected by King Herod the Great of Israel as a place that he could use to escape the crush of everyday life and troubles in Jerusalem. This fabulous port was a seafarer’s delight, providing all sorts of entertainment for the weary traveler. It is commonly believed that Herod was fully intending to shift the seat of Jewish government to this city, but was never able to quite pull it off. From an airplane you can still see the outlined remains of the port under the clear waters of the Mediterranean.

Then on to Mount Carmel which is famous for the confrontation between God’s prophet Elijah, and the prophets of Baal and the prophets of the Asherah. This all came about because Elijah spoke out against King Ahab for abandoning his faith in the one true God, and for his marriage to the evil Jezebel. Baal worship was recognized as the worship of the god of fire. Asherah worship was centered on sexuality and reproductive rites of passage. The statues of Asherah were female in design featuring multiple breasts.

We’ll be traveling through Galilee where Jesus grew up. There is also scheduled a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee in a replica of a small boat from that time period, a boat that was only recently discovered and restored in 1986.

Bob and I are both planning to be baptized in the Jordan River. Then it’s a quick stop at Jericho, the famous site where Joshua and the Israelites watched as God won the battle that long-ago day. After that we’ll head for Jerusalem, the city of God.

In Jerusalem there is just way too much to take in, but we’ll give it our best shot. I’ll be able to walk on the same stone paths taken by Jesus and the Disciples; see the Garden of Gethsemane, the Pool of Bethesda, Pontius Pilate’s Judgment Hall, the “Ecce Homo” Arch (Pilate’s words about Jesus to the crowd: “Behold, the Man!”); and the Upper Room where Jesus and the Disciples had their Last Supper.

There will also be a side trip to the Dead Sea, the lowest spot on earth, where it is impossible to sink in the water due to the enormous amount of salt it contains. We’ll also visit Masada, a fortressed hill by the Dead Sea, where the Jewish Zealots were eventually boxed in by the Roman Army. Realizing they could not hold back the Roman war machine, every Jewish man was assigned to kill his wife and children. Then each man was assigned to kill another. The last man was to commit suicide, thus depriving the Romans of slaves, or victims to mutilate, torture and kill. All the bodies were laid out in neat rows, so when the Roman soldiers breached the walls of the fortress, they found the defenders dead. Israeli soldiers today, as part of their training, are taken to Masada as a visible reminder of what they fight for.

This is going to be such a great trip! Obviously, I will have much more to share upon my return. Did I mention I would be taking my still camera and a video camera?

A rallying cry for Jews is, “Next year, Jerusalem!” In my case, it’s, “Next week, Jerusalem!”

Monday, March 05, 2007

An Open Letter

An Open Letter to All Presidential Hopefuls,

So you want to be my president?

I know I’m not alone in this, but the level of rancor and disrespect you folks have already reached makes me dizzy. And we’re still a year and a half away from Election Day 2008.

Many of us are fed up with your political diatribes that are being carelessly slung across the national landscape, aided by your willing accomplices and sycophants in the news media.

Now, there may be a playbook for you politicians to consult when it comes to running for election. Maybe it’s just an unwritten rule that gives a wink and a nod to thoughtless and demeaning verbal attacks simply because you’re in the rough-and-tumble world of political careerism. If so, then I’m sad for you. I’m sad to think that a person who would want to be my president would stoop so low.

And I’m not simply talking about name-calling, which is bad enough. What you are engaged in could only be labeled as character assassination. Your opponent becomes your enemy. There are no holds barred when it comes to having your fifteen second sound bite which will be picked up by a media ravenous for any news and then displayed on endless news programs where your remarks will be argued and debated ad nauseam.

You must firmly believe that average Americans are impressed with your lack of character and classless behavior. I do not claim to speak for anyone but myself – but let me say that in my many travels around this great country of ours, I mostly run into people who are not impressed with such behavior. In fact, when I was a kid, if I had said some of the things you folks say about each other, one of two things would have occurred: 1) I would have had my mouth washed out with soap, and 2) I would have been required to personally go to the person I had insulted and apologize. Now that I think about it, both things would have occurred! I didn’t like it, and I certainly didn’t want to do it. But I’m grateful my parents didn’t let me get away with it.

I’ve told you some of the things I don’t like.

So let me tell you what I do like, and what I am looking for in a person who aspires to be the President of the United States, the leader of the Free World, my president, and the Commander in Chief.

· Character matters. I’m only too aware that character was pushed off the political stage not so many years ago, and that’s a pity. You see, character does matter. By definition, character is the person you are when no one is looking. This is why we as a nation have always held in high esteem the likes of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, among other notables. We knew their character. We knew what to expect. What can I expect from you?
· Honesty matters. I do not expect my president to know everything. That’s why he has a staff and advisors. I do expect my president to be truthful and be up front about the affairs of state. If you cannot be honest with your constituency, when will we know when you are being honest? My wife and I raised our girls to always tell the truth. This way we would never have to question them.
· Values matter. There are certain things in life that are worth defending; certain things worth fighting for, even if you stand alone. I do not always expect to agree with your every decision, but I will have a greater respect for you because you were willing to take the heat for standing up for what you believe. That says volumes to me.
· Image matters. Yes, your image does matter. How you present yourself is very important, especially when you represent “we the people.” I expect my president to be presidential. It is beneath you to behave shamelessly before the cameras in an effort to win votes; to pander to particular groups simply for their votes; or to pass yourself off as something you are not just to gain more votes. Win the election on the merits of your beliefs. Do not prostitute yourself before the eyes of the world. We, as Americans, expect better, and we deserve better.
· Leadership matters. As a member of the Armed Forces, I need to know that my president makes decisive decisions so that when I and my fellow service members are asked to go into harms way, you have worked through the issues with your advisors and this is the option left to you. We will gladly step up and answer the call – we always have and we always will - every time. That’s what we do. You need to know this when you sit in the Oval Office.
· Faith matters. What your personal beliefs are is not at issue here. I trust you have a solid faith in the Living God. What I’m looking for is whether or not your faith is important to you. If you are Jewish, then be a good Jew. If you are Mormon, then be a good Mormon. If you are Catholic, then be a good Catholic. If you are an Evangelical Christian, then be a good one. Do not apologize for your faith. Live it. Otherwise, it is meaningless.

This is what I’m looking for in a presidential hopeful. I realize I am only one person out of three hundred million in this country, but I’m fairly certain that most Americans would agree with this list I have provided for you. You would do well to take note and act accordingly.

Thank you for listening. And may the best person win.