The Land They Call Holy…

“Five gospels record the life of Jesus. Four you will find in books and the one you will find in the land they call Holy. Read the fifth gospel and the world of the four will open to you.” – Jerome (347-420 AD)

It’s easy to miss – among all the city life, the politics, the ethnic and religious tension, among the sunsets and mountain vistas, even among the holy sites and ancient ruins. With all that beauty and history and tension that is Israel, it can be easy to miss the signs that point to something greater than the place itself. It’s as if the land is whispering, inviting us into the story that unfolded among its hills and cities.

If the land itself whispers, it is beckoning us not to itself, but to what was revealed here: nothing less than the very glory of God. Here God’s glory was revealed not by mountain vistas or sunsets over the seas. No, God has revealed His glory in the person of Jesus (2 Cor. 4:6) – and this land bears testimony to His life and His ministry.

Still jet-lagged, Kristin and I returned yesterday (Monday) from 10 days in Israel with my DMin cohort. From the weather and the food to the teaching and the ancient sites, this was an amazing experience! I hope to walk through some of the highlights site-by-site in the coming weeks. For now, however, here are a few images that we managed to capture from our time in Israel!

Scenes from Caesarea Maritime, where Peter preached to Cornelius (Acts 10) and Paul was imprisoned (Acts 23-25). Clockwise: Herod’s aqueduct; the ruins of Herod’s palace; the ancient theater.
To the far north (Golan Heights) for Caesarea Philippi (Matthew 16:13-28; top) and Dan (site of a rival temple, bottom right)… then to the Sea of Galilee for Capernaum (synagogue, bottom left) and Magdala (the Magdala Stone, bottom center)!
A breath-taking wealth of treasures! Clockwise: Sea of Galilee (looking towards Magdala), Megiddo (an ancient altar used in pagan worship for over 2000 years), Sepphori (a city neighboring Nazareth, which likely provided carpentry work to Jospeh and Jesus), and the remains of an ancient fishing boat (roughly 1st century) outside Tiberias!
Traveling from Galilee to Judea, we moved south through the Decapolis (its capital Scythopolis, right), down the West Bank and to Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity (left).

Jerusalem is simply too much for words.
Clockwise, Herodium, the Western Wall, the Garden Tomb, and Joffa. In addition to all the amazing sites, the teaching by Scot McKnight (left) and Joel Willitts (right) made our time truly exceptional.

On the Road: Headed to Israel

Passport: Check

Itinerary: Check

We’re knee deep in preparations here. In just a few weeks, Kristin and I will join a crew from my Northern Seminary DMin Cohort for a 10-day study tour of Israel!  While we’ve had the opportunity to see many biblical sites in Turkey and Greece, this will be our first time in Israel. Guided by our doctoral professors, Scot McKnight and Joel Willitts, our cohort have the opportunity to see firsthand the sites and scenes that help to animate much of the Bible. This kind of context isn’t a mere backdrop to the biblical drama, it is integral to the story unfolding on the pages of scripture.  If you read the Bible carefully, the setting is a rich and compelling character, used by the authors to give nuance, depth, and detail to the story!

For those who might be interested, I’ll be doing my best to offer some highlights here on the blog. Here’s a simplified itinerary of our time:

Day 1 – Depart the US

Day 2 – Arrive in Tel Aviv; Tour Joppa/Jaffa and Caesarea

Day 3 – Tour Megiddo, Mt. Carmel, Druze Village, Nazareth, Cana, Galilee

Day 4- Mount of Beatitudes, Golan Heights, Caesarea Philippi, Tel Dan, Sea of Galilee

Day 5 – Galilee, Capernaum, Jordan River, Beit Shean, Bethlehem, Jerusalem

Day 6 – Mount of Olives, Palm Sunday Road, Garden of Gethsemane, Jewish Quarter, Temple Mount, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Southern Steps

Day 7 – Masada, Ein Gedi, Qumran, Dead Sea

Day 8 – Shrine of the Book (Dead Sea Scrolls), Model City, Hezekiah’s Tunnel, St Peter in Gallicantu, Garden Tomb

Day 9 – Jerusalem, Herodian, Khirbet Qeiyafa, Elah Valley

Day 10 – Depart to the US

It’s going to be a whirlwind, but we can’t wait for the opportunity to learn and grow together!

A Watery Graveyard: Refugees Risk Everything in Search of Safety

Although the stories may not be as prominent in the news, the refugee crisis in Europe has by no means abated. Many of the Greek islands that are set just off the coast of Turkey continue to receive hundred of refugees per day. The sea, however, is growing more treacherous by the day, as the fall/winter brings with it rougher waters. Several teammates from Helping Hands recently made a visit to the the island of Lesvos to see the situation firsthand. Here’s an update from a friend and one of our former teammate serving in Athens…

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Hello again from Athens. I would like to share a few stories with you from my time on Mytilini (also called Lesvos) island. I sat down many times to write this, but I haven’t been able to come up with words to express what I saw there. During the two days we were there, 49 people lost their lives at sea, many of them children. The seas are getting too rough for passage on boats not made for the sea, but people keep coming anyways. I can still see the expressions of terror, exhaustion, and relief on refugees faces as they landed on shore. Below are some stories from my time there…

One of the rafts used to cross the treacherous sea.

The first day we were on the island the seas were very rough. One of my coworkers and I were on the shore when an overcrowded raft washed up. Everyone was soaking wet and had looks of sheer terror on their faces. Four different women fainted when they got out of the raft due to shock and one man was suffering from hypothermia. His entire body was shaking. As people were trying to get off the raft the waves kept tossing it and throwing people. One man broke his leg against some rock and another woman hurt her knee.

Many refugees told me that the smugglers on the Turkish side forced them into boats at gunpoint. There are thousands of refugees living in the forest away from the coast of Turkey waiting for their turn to get on boats. When it is their turn a smuggler comes and gets them. When they get to the boats and see how rough the sea is, many of them want to turn back but the smugglers force them on at gunpoint. They don’t want people backing out and they don’t want people piling up more than they already are on shore.

A two month old baby slipped out of her mother’s arms when a strong wave hit their raft. Luckily the mother recovered the baby quickly. We found the baby dry clothes, but the mother didn’t want the baby back while she was dripping wet. I held the baby while her mother looked for dry clothes for herself. I had tears in my eyes thinking about how this precious little girl almost became another statistic of a life lost at sea. Just thirty minutes earlier she could have been lost. I prayed for the little one and asked God to bless them and protect them as they continued on their journey.

One of the rafts used to cross the treacherous sea.

It was late in the afternoon our first day there and a raft full of refugees had just come in. After all the refugees piled into vans we stuck around and talked a little on the shore. A Greek woman who’s house is along on the shore came out with a trash bag to start cleaning up refugees’ belongings that had washed up on shore or been left behind as people moved on in a hurry. We asked if we could help her clean up for awhile. She talked about how her home had been in the family for a long time and they used to vacation there when she was a child. She now lived there permanently and said it was anything but a vacation spot. She looked out at the sea and said, “This sea has become the graveyard for far too many people. I don’t know if I will ever be able to swim in it again or see it like I used to.”

We also spent time at one of the camps on the island. It is run by many different organizations. We translated, picked up trash, sorted clothes, and one of my coworkers used her medical training and language to help in the clinic. An Afghan woman was so stressed she started having symptoms of a heart attack. My coworker was able to talk with her and calm her down. After a few hours she was calm enough that she was able to leave with her family as they continued their journey.

(Back in Athens) This past Tuesday we cooked for over 150 refugees, many of them having recently arrived from the islands. I was so excited when two families recognized me from the island! We had a great time talking about the rest of their time on the island, their journey to Athens, and where they hoped to go next. I was able to pray for them again and was invited to be their guest whenever they get established somewhere!

Most of the refugees arriving on the island haven’t showered or had a real meal in weeks. They are exhausted, scared, unsure of what lies ahead, and extremely grateful for the kindness they’ve been shown. There are so many more stories to tell, but this has already gotten quite long! I can’t think of my time there without tears coming to my eyes. Many nights as I’m praying for the situation there I begin to weep again at the horrors people are going through every day. Thank you for praying with me and standing with myself and the ministry here. Lives are being impacted and I’m extremely grateful for you!

Without a Country

My heart has been heavy this week. I’ve been thinking of Peshraw, Hezhar, Soran, Housain, and dozens more. These were some of my dear Kurdish friends that I met while in Athens. They were refugees, forced from their homelands due to war, persecution, or politics. These Kurdish friends have been on my mind since watching “Better Friends than Mountains” – a film documenting one small group of Christian workers serving today among the Kurds of Northern Iraq. They are just a stone’s throw from the front lines of the war with the Islamic State.  If you haven’t watch this film yet, be sure to check it out!

RFD-Kurd-Map3-tmagArticleThe Kurds are a diverse people. Today Kurdistan (a cultural and geographical truth – but not a political reality) includes portions of SE  Turkey, Syria, NE Iraq, and Iran. The modern Kurdish experience can vary greatly (from having the Kurdish language banned in Turkey to governing an autonomous region in Iraq), but one thing has remained constant: The Kurds are a people without a country. While distrust and tribalism are certainly present between different Kurdish factions, the longing for a country of their own unites this diverse people group.

As I’ve been thinking of these Kurdish friends, my mind drifted back to first meeting Iraqi Kurds in Athens. They were quick to greet me: “Beyanît baş.” Good morning. In the midst of the many languages floating around our ministry center (Greek, Farsi, Arabic, Russian, and more), it took me a month just to learn this simple greeting. These Kurds became friends. I stumbled upon a blog entry from our first months in Athens (2007), just as a new wave of Kurds were entering Greece:

We’re averaging over 600 meals per day. In addition to the temperature drop, the political atmosphere on this side of the world has increased the flow of refugees. Greece is now claiming that Turkey has been neglecting its boarders – allowing refugees to travel into Greece with little impediment. The instability of the Kurdish regions of Turkey, Iraq, and Iran (not least due to Turkey’s recent military action in Kurdish Iraq) has quicken the flow of refugees. We are experiencing an influx of Kurdish refugees. Have been here for 3.5 months now, it is breath-taking to see how quickly people move from one nation to another.

I’m thankful to consider some of these young men as friends, but it was a true honor to witness some of these Kurdish refugees come to Christ. While I was looking over some older blog posts, I came across “Zee’s” (not his real name) testimony:

Coming from a very religious household in Kurdish Iraq, Zee’s father was an imam (prayer leader/teacher) at the local mosque. From a young age, however, Zee rebelled against his strict Islamic upbringing. Zee joined the communist party as a teenager and became very active in Kurdish politics. Soon, though, Zee began to see a political solution was hopeless. Zee was left unfulfilled by communism, but was unwilling to return to the Islam of his childhood. Zee met a group of Christian friends in Kurdistan and slowly – after initially mocking their faith – began asking question about Jesus, the Bible, and Christianity. While these “gospel seeds” germinated, Zee left Kurdistan for Europe. In Greece, Zee meet other Kurdish Christians at our ministry and continued to ask questions about Jesus. Eventually, Zee’s heart and mind were convinced that Christianity was consistent. Even more, Zee saw that Jesus did not prescribe a list of religious activities or laws, but offered salvation by grace. This grace was radically different than anything Zee had seen in Islam or the communist party. It was this grace that grabbed Zee’s heart. Zee asked Jesus to be Lord of his life, and was baptized in August of 2008.

I can think of other stories much like Zee’s… and I’m praying for many more stories of Kurds following Jesus!  Would you join me in praying for the Kurds?  Here are seven simple ways to pray:

1 – Pray for peace. Whether it’s the Islamic State, gassings by Saddam Hussain, or conflicts with the Turkish government, the Kurds have known almost constant conflict for decades.

2 – Pray for workers. The fields are ready for harvest. Let’s pray to the Lord of the Harvest for more workers dedicated to the field of Kurdistan. Pray God’s strength to those who will come and those who are already in country!

3 – Pray for the church. There are a small number of Kurdish Christians. Pray for their endurance, their faith, and their growth in the grace of God! May the church in Kurdistan cling to Jesus, growing daily in their faith.

4 – Pray for boldness. May these Kurdish Christians have courage in their witness. Like the early church, may they have boldness in sharing the goodness and glory of Jesus Christ.

5 – Pray for the refugees. Many Kurds live as refugees and Internally Displaced Peoples (IDP) across the Middle East and Europe. Pray for these refugees would come to know the God who sees and cares, right in the midst of their weakness.

6 – Pray for leaders. Kurdistan needs selfless leaders. May God raise up strong leaders for the Kurdish church. Leaders who are committed to the priority of God and the beauty of His bride. Can we be so bold to ask that some of these leaders come from the ranks of the persecutors – an apostle Paul for the Kurdish nation?

7 – Pray for new life. Pray for the hearts of those who don’t know and follow Jesus. May they be softened and moved to faith. May God stir hundreds, and thousands, and eventually millions of Kurds to faith in His Son.

No Friends but the Mountains

Is there hope in Iraq today?  Is there even the faintest whisper of Good News in the midst of the Islamic State’s onslaught of war, genocide, and beheadings?

In the midst of the countless Internally Displaces Peoples (IDPs) and refugees fleeing the Islamic State, there are some who have sacrificed in order to offer help – and hope.

Find an hour and watch this documentary style film documenting the needs, the challenges, and the opportunities among the Kurds (a people group in Iraq, Syria, and Turkey).

I know… I know… an hour.  It’s worth it. Stream it to your TV when the kids go to bed. You may not want this, but you need it (may God use it to cultivate in us a heart like His own).

The Kurds (who have been stateless for centuries) have an ancient proverb: “The Kurds have no friends but the mountains.”  Little do they know how God’s heart burns for the Kurdish people. He has sent a perfect Friend to bind their wounds, pay their debts, and bring them into a place of insurmountable, inexpressible joy.

Who will show the Kurds that they indeed have a better Friend than the mountains?

Join me in praying for the Kurds.

Also learn more about Frontier Alliance International (who created this film) and find next steps here.

Lost in Greece

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency) recently released a report on the treatment of refugees and asylum seekers in Greece. The report is based on an assessment in the last quarter of 2014. [Check out the report summary here.] Last year, roughly 43,500 asylum seekers and immigrants crossed the Mediterranean from Turkey to Greece. That staggering number represents a 280% increase from 2013!

If you’re not familiar with the perils of the migrant trek from Turkey to Greece, here are two recent Vice News reports on the situation on the border between Greece and Turkey (note the dramatic – yet not unfitting – title, “Death Boats to Greece”)

Part 1

Part 2 

For those who survive this journey, once in Greece these migrants face difficult living situations (many sleep rough on the streets, in parks, or in abandoned buildings), and a nightmare of an asylum process.  The UNHCR report documents some of these challenges:

But problems remain in Greece’s asylum system despite reforms. These problems include difficulties in accessing the asylum procedure, a continuing backlog of unresolved cases under the old procedure, risk of arbitrary detention, inadequate reception conditions, lack of identification and support for individuals with specific needs, push-backs of people at the border, concerns over integration prospects and support for refugees, and xenophobia and racist violence.

We saw these situations firsthand while working with Helping Hands in Athens. This is a humanitarian crisis. Sometimes we don’t see these crises because we’re unaware; we’re distracted; we’re busy. But even when we do hear about these crises, in our world of 24/7 news, we can grow weary of tragedy. Or worse yet, we can be tempted to scan the news for the crisis du jour: what’s trendy, what are people talking about. We may not see, we may not remember, our compassion may be exhausted… but God cares about the oppressed, the vulnerable, and those in need.

God hears the cries of the oppressed (Deut. 26:7; just cherry-picking examples, here is one of many):

Then we cried to the LORD, the God of our fathers, and the LORD heard our voice and saw our affliction, our toil, and our oppression.

He promises to judge the oppressors (Amos 4:1; again one example of among many, but this is a favorite one for obvious reasons):

Hear this word, you cows of Bashan, who are on the mountain of Samaria, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy… The Lord GOD has sworn by his holiness that, behold, the days are coming upon you, when they shall take you away with hooks…

And God calls us to care for the oppressed (Is. 58:6-7):

Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh? 

God cares about this crisis in Greece, and so should we. Pray with me for the situation in Greece:

  • God, may our hearts reflect your compassion for the oppressed, the vulnerable, and the hurting;
  • may the systems and processes in Greece that add to people’s suffering be turned on their heads; may justice and truth be the new norm;
  • may the many Christians and organizations serving asylum seekers in Greece be filled with your strength and extend your hope in dark places;
  • may the many refugees in Greece find peace and hope, and may they ultimately find the only lasting peace and the only satisfying hope: Jesus Christ.

Read the UNHCR report and summary here.

Something More

As we celebrate Christmas, what is it about the birth of Jesus that has so grabbed the attention of the world? Was this just a birth like any other, or something more? Was Jesus a man like any other (who simply had the misfortune of finding himself on a Roman cross), or something more?

The good people at Moving Works have been asking the same questions…

This Christmas, may you be reminded that there is indeed something more to this baby born in Bethlehem.

Inside the Islamic State

Now ruling over a swath of land across Syria and Iraq (and now Lebanon) roughly the size of Maryland, the Islamic State (IS, formerly ISIS/ISIL) is responsible for violence, persecution, and fear which has driven out hundreds of thousands (millions?) of refugees over the past three years – and increasingly so over the past three months. You have likely seen stories of the rise of the IS across the media (e.g. CNN, Fox, and BBC).  Maybe you’ve seen the gestures of solidarity with persecuted Christians on Facebook and Twitter – or even ways to help.

The situation in Syria and Iraq is heartbreaking. We worked with many Iraqis during our time in Athens – many of whom I still count as friends (Kurds and Arabs; Christians, Sunni, and Shia; residents and refugees). I know their hopes and their fears… and my heart breaks for them right now. Please join me in prayer: pray for peace, for justice, for those who are suffering, for the hundreds of thousands of refugees, and for the millions more who have not escaped.

Vice News has gained unprecedented access within IS territory.  They’re telling the story of IS in a five-part series of short (10 min) videos.  Check them out below – or on the Vice News site here. [Warning: Some videos contain graphic images.]

Part I: The Spread of the Caliphate

Part II: Grooming Children for Jihad

Part III: Enforcing Sharia in Raqqa

Part IV: Christians in the Caliphate

Part V: Bulldozing the Border Between Iraq and Syria