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Kathie Lee, the Holy Land, and Living Stones

(This is the last in a series of three posts from our trip to the Holy Land. To read the first two, click here and here. And if Insights from Israel isn’t your thing, check back next week, when I hope to write about what we can do with a Downcast Soul. Which is not, I realize, the most cheery promo. But hey. It’s been really cold for a really long time, and maybe somebody out there needs a little pick-me-up. I know I do!)

 

Out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. (Matthew 3:9)

Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? (Matthew 7:9)

I tell you…if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out. (Luke 19:40)

Each of these quotes is from Jesus. I’m not going to get into why he said what he did in each instance (click the links, if you’re curious), but if you are even half awake, you’ll note that there’s a common word in each line.

Stones.

Which are, actually, everywhere in Israel. As in…everywhere. We walked on stones, sat on stones, and slept in hotels made of stones. One gal in our group even had her face rubbed with stones (which was not, at it turned out, as beneficial to the complexion as advertised).

So plentiful are Israel’s stones that, in lieu of flowers, people put rocks on the graves of their loved ones:

I know that the Bible talks a lot about stones (and I love how Ezekiel describes God removing our heart of stone and replacing it with with a new one, made of flesh), but I’d never really thought about why. But then, as we found ourselves tramping all over the country, surrounded by rocks and stones of all sizes, a lightbulb went off. I think Jesus used stones in his stories because they were…there.

(It’s like me, driving home a point to my kids: “If I’d wanted someone who would NOT take out the trash, I would have asked the pile of DOG HAIR to do it.” You work with what’s handy.)

But anyhow. I don’t think their ubiquitousness is the only reason God focused on stones. I think he also did it because (gasp) Jesus was a stonemason. Which is something I learned from Kathie Lee Gifford’s new book, The Rock, the Road, and the Rabbi.

I will confess that when I first read that claim in her book, I was like: Kathie, girl. I love you and all. But I think maybe you’ve been knocking back too much of that wine you always promote.

I mean, if she were right, did that mean that Josh McDowell would have to go back and re-do the book that (along with late-night pitchers of beer and baskets of pretzels) served as the underpinning of my evangelism strategy in college? I built half my presentation around the info in More than a CarpenterWould More than a Stonemason have the same apologetic impact?

I thought not.

But then I dug deeper and realized that Kathie Lee Gifford was right. She was right, in fact, about a lot of cool things in the book (which is, incidentally, a zillion times better than the Baedecker’s Guide I used on my last trip to Israel). And when this guy…

…told our tour group that Jesus was not, in fact, a carpenter but a stonemason, I sat there looking more than a little pleased with myself.

“Oh yes,” I said, nodding my head. “The word that’s translated ‘carpenter’ in the passages that talk about what Jesus did for a living is actually the Greek word tektōn. It means ‘builder.’ And since there were only rocks to build stuff out of, a more accurate description of Jesus’s job would be ‘stonemason.'”

The group looked at me sideways, like they knew there was no way I knew that. I had to ‘fess up. “It’s true,” I admitted. “I read it in Kathie Lee’s book.”

“Ahhhh,” the group said, as the light collectively dawned. “That is good. We love Kathie Lee.”

So there’s that.

But I think there is even a third reason–the main reason–why Jesus kept pointing to stones. It’s because (and I realize that this might be kind of a “duh”) he is the Stone.

Jesus is the Stone prophesied about in the Psalms, the one that the builders rejected–and the one that wound up becoming the cornerstone. He’s the Stone we hail as our “Rock and our Redeemer.” He’s the Stone who is alive, the One we call “Savior.”

That last reference–the one about the living Lord who is our Rock and our Savior–is from Psalm 18:46. It’s a phrase echoed in the New Testament, and (stay with me here) it has incredible implications for us. Look at what Peter says about what happens when we come to Jesus:

As you come to him, the living Stone—rejected by humans but chosen by God and precious to him—you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house to be a holy priesthood…a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.

That’s kind of a mouthful. And I’ll just go ahead and tell you that I’ve probably read those words fifty times. But not once have I stopped to think of myself as a “living stone.” Not until our tour guides, Tony and Andre, told us what believers in Israel call themselves.

You guessed it. Living Stones.

Tony and Andre are Palestinians who’ve trusted Jesus as Lord. Before this trip, I would have called them “Arab Christians.”

They introduced us to some Jews who had also met Christ. I would have called them “Messianic Believers.”

Those labels, I guess, might still fit. But I much prefer our new friends’ self-chosen name, and I want to wear it myself. I want to be a “living stone” who knows that she has been chosen by God. That she is his special possession. And that it is her privilege to declare the praises of him who called her out of darkness and into his wonderful light.

Heavenly Father,

We come to you, grateful for the Living Stone that is Jesus. Shape us into a house where Your Spirit can dwell. Remind us (especially during times of discouragement or doubt) that we are chosen. That we are treasured in your sight. And that our job–our privilege–is to praise you.

We ask these things in the name of the One who is both Rock and Redeemer, Savior and Lord.

Amen.

Oh and P.S., one more stone thing.

Remember the warning Jesus gave his disciples in Matthew 18:6, the one where he said that if anyone caused a believer to stumble, it would be better to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea?

Yeah, well. We saw a bunch of old millstones in Capernaum, Christ’s adopted hometown. And let me tell you: Those things are NOT small. Made me think twice about the whole blogging thing. Would you please pray that I will only write what is helpful and true, rather than the stuff (and I’ve got plenty of it, in my head) that makes people stumble?

Thanks. xo

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What will God make you?

(This is the second in a series of posts featuring lessons from Israel, a trip that—as one of our fellow travelers put it—takes the Bible and moves it “from black and white into color.” If you don’t have time for a post but want a good prayer, scroll down to the end for some life-shaping verses you can pray for yourself or for someone you love!) 

Don’t be afraid.

That’s what Jesus tells his first disciples, Andrew and Peter, when he finds them fishing on the shores of the Sea of Galilee (as depicted in this tile mosaic at Magdala).

It’s a story repeated in all four of the gospels, but Luke gives us the most detail—including the fact that Peter was awestruck and afraid.

What was he scared of? How come the guy dropped to his knees?

Maybe it was the fact that Peter and his pals had been fishing all night and caught nothing—and then, at Christ’s command, they hauled in so many fish that the nets started to break. Who has that sort of change-agent power?

Or maybe it was because the boats started to sink. Our tour guides told us that Galilee’s fishermen tend to stay close to the shore, since fierce storms can whip up on the Sea without notice. Capsizing—and drowning—was no idle threat. And when you see what some of those early boats looked like, you get it. They found this one, preserved under the mud for the past 2000 years:

Or maybe (and I like to think this was the case) Jesus knew exactly what Peter was feeling—sinful, unworthy, and of no use to God—and he wanted him to know it was okay. Maybe “Don’t be afraid” was the short version of the reassurance he gives us today, when we know that we’ve blown it: “Don’t worry. I know. It will all be okay. And I love you.”

Whatever the reason, Don’t be afraid is a command that’s repeated over and over again in the Bible (sometimes it goes by “Fear not”), by some counts as many as 366 times. That’s one for each day of the year, even when Leap Year rolls around.

(How clever and gracious is God?)

The fear factor, though, is just part of this story. As Matthew tells it, when Jesus calls Peter and Andrew, the command’s got an invite, built in:

Follow me.

Follow me. No wonder Jesus had to speak to their fears! To “follow,” in Greek, is apparently the same thing as “attach,” and it comes from the same root word as “appendix.” The invitation Christ offered meant leaving the only job Peter and Andrew had ever known—and attaching themselves to someone they didn’t! Not yet, anyway.

(Which raises the question, for me: How “connected” am I to Jesus? Am I truly attached? There are plenty of days when I feel like my dog, at the end of a retract-o-leash. I’m attached…but sometimes I find myself off in the bushes and I need my sweet Jesus to reel me back in.)

Ty Saltzgiver, our dear friend and trip leader, stood right where Jesus did (well, in the same general area; we gave it an A- cuz who knows if we sat on the same exact rocks?) and shared his thoughts on this passage.

Ty said that in addition to the command and the invitation, Jesus offered a promise:

I will make you fishers of men.

“I will make you.”

That’s a pledge the Lord offered 2000 years ago, and it’s one that still holds true today. Because, as Ty pointed out, Jesus is always making us: Shaping us, growing us, conforming us so that we look more like he does. Even when our boats start to sink, or we are not at all sure where we’re headed.

Two of my all-time favorite parenting promises (I’ve shared them here in the past, and I’m sure I’ll do so again) are Philippians 1:6 (which is where Paul tells us that God will finish the good work that he starts in our lives) and Philippians 2:13 (which is where we realize that we don’t have to do it ourselves, because God is the one who gives us—and our kids—the energy to desire and to do the good stuff). Both of these verses (and so many more) point to why Jesus came.

He came to give us a rich and satisfying life. He came to give us freedom and purpose. He came to fill up our nets—so full that they burst—and lead us into the life he describes in John 10:10.

And you know, if you’ve been around this blog for awhile, that I can never read that verse without thinking of our daughter Virginia and the time she jumped out of a plane in Australia, strapped onto some stranger named Ollie, and called it a John 10:10 experience.

(Robbie’s response, back when Virginia sent us that photo, was not all that uplifting. I think his exact words were, “You’re dead.”)

But here’s the thing: Whether you’re jumping out of an airplane or leaving your job, if you’re doing it to follow Jesus (which I am not 100% sure was the case with Virginia), your choice involves a measure of risk. Things will change. They might get painful, or awkward. God might stretch you in ways you don’t think you want to be stretched.

And that’s okay. Because it doesn’t matter where we’ve come from, or what we’ve done. Like Peter, when we decide to pursue the life Jesus offers—when we choose to turn away from our old life and take hold of the new—we can stake our trust in Christ’s words:

Don’t be afraid.

Follow me.

I will make you.

Heavenly Father,

Please give ______ freedom from fear. (Luke 5:10)

Help _______ to follow you. (Matthew 4:19)

And work in _______ to will and to act in ways that line up with your good purpose. Thank you for the good work you have already started, and for the blessed assurance that you will, indeed, bring it to completion. (Philippians 2:13 and 1:6)

Amen.

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An A+ for Israel

We’ve just returned from 10 days in Israel.

(That’s me, atop Jerusalem’s walls.)

There were 32 of us on the tour–mostly from Colorado Springs, but a handful of y’all-ers represented the nation’s southeast. We connected via a mutual love of Young Life (an organization that thinks every kid, everywhere, should be able to experience the hope Jesus offers), and we were privileged to meet some of the Middle East Young Life leaders and talk with a few of the teens. And as news outlets blared reports of yet more fighting in the Gaza strip, it was nice (amazing, actually) to meet Muslims, Christians, and Jews who were getting along. And even singing, sometimes.

But we saw all other stuff, too. Lots of it. All the places, in fact, that you read about in the Bible: The Sea of Galilee. Capernaum. Caesarea. The Dead Sea (in which even Robbie, who has .2% body fat, could not sink):

And, of course, we got baptized in the Jordan. True confession? Coming from a tourist town where people get salt water taffy and tattoos “just because,” the prospect of getting dunked in a river was not something I thought would be all that special. I thought I’d feel like one more lemming in a rented white robe.

I was wrong. It was (and remember, I am not given to a lot of emotion)…really great.

Along the way, our guides ranked all the sites that we saw. “A” meant that folks are sure something happened there; the synagogue at Magdala, for instance (a chill-inducing spot on the tour, and one I wrote about on Facebook and Instagram last week), is a place where we know Jesus taught:

They awarded a “B” ranking to places that seemed likely, based on all the stuff that we know. The house in Capernaum, where Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law (a miracle detailed in Matthew 8:14-15) is one such place. They’ve since built a BIG church on top of the house, but it’s somewhere in or under that circle of stones.

(Not sure Geoff and Charlie would want to live with me in that small of a space, even if I did wait on them like P’s mo-in-law did.)

And “C” places were those where something probably did not take place, but it’s possible–and if it wasn’t “here,” it was someplace “like here.” The garden tomb–the one everybody visits to be sure it’s still empty–is one of these spots.

(Tour guides rate this place as a “maybe” because the stones date to Christ’s time, and because of things like the presence of an olive press in the garden, which would indicate that it belonged to someone rich. Someone like Joseph of Arimathea.)

(And, I imagine, because it’s a good place for a gift shop.)

Even though the Garden Tomb is a “C” (or a “Z,” if you believe the only ordained guy on our tour), it was one of my favorite stops. It was not peaceful (you could barely hear the Muslim afternoon call to prayer over the sound of the nearby bus depot and the varied groups of Christians from all over the world, singing praise songs in their native tongues), and yet, as our group took communion together, the spot was transformed. It became beautiful. All of a sudden, we were not in a “C” place at all. We were in the midst of a story–a love story–one where all the love in the world had been poured out for us, and all we had to do was receive.

If you go to Israel (and I highly recommend that you do), you’ll see all of this stuff. But even if you never get there, you can still experience the best part of the story. Because Jesus really does love us–still–enough to die on the cross, and his power–his resurrection power–continues to transform our lives every day.

And every time we celebrate communion (every time we remember our Lord and his love!) it’s 100% real. It’s unimpeachably true. It’s what we’d all call, in tour-guide speak,  an A+.

Notes:

I’m still processing the firehose of information we sucked down between bus rides and bathroom breaks (and there were plenty of both), and I’ll probably blog at least once or twice more about the things that we learned. If Scripture-spiced travelogues aren’t your style, please check back in May. I’m working on a printable gift for you mamas out there, and hoping to finish by Mother’s Day.

Also…for more info on Young Life in the Middle East, click here. And if you want help planning your own trip to the Holy Land, you’ve got to meet Andre and Tony, the guys behind Twins Tours. They know way more history than you do (even the American kind), but don’t worry. They are patient. And kind. And if you’re nice, they might even tell you you’re “brilliant.”

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Butternut Squash & Bible Study (and why we can’t do them alone)

(Note: This is the last post of the month. I’m headed to Israel – whoop! – so get ready for an upgrade in the blog material, come April! And in the meantime, if you’ve not yet picked a March Madness team, please cheer for the ‘Hoos!) 🏀

 

If you’ve been around this blog for awhile, you know I’m no Pioneer Woman. Sure, I’ll share a recipe tip now and then, but I tend to not be all that precise.

Which can lead to a situation, sometimes.

Like the time our son asked me to text him the recipe for his favorite birthday meal, Mac-n-Cheese-n-Peas-n-Fleas. (Don’t ask.) Robbie was working and living at a skate park at the time, and he fixed the dish for a bunch of his co-workers:

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You can read the story (and get the recipe, although I don’t recommend it) here. Longtime readers may recall my confusion when Robbie told me that one girl had “freaked out” when she saw him putting the hamburger fat back into the pasta pot.

“You did what?” I asked.

“Added the fat. Like you said to.”

Now, I definitely did NOT intend for Robbie to pour the fat back in, but to prove his point, Robbie sent a screenshot of my instructions:

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Normally, I am more precise with my pronouns.

But I share this story today to help explain why, even with a CLEAR recipe, I can find myself at a loss in the kitchen.

For instance, I’m smack in the middle of Kelly Minter’s Bible study on 2 Corinthians, which is called All Things New. Kelly is as Scripture-smart as she is camera-cute (I can’t decide if she should sell toothpaste or shampoo?), and I am learning a ton about things like finding purpose in suffering, being useful to God, and navigating less-than-easy relationships.

Kelly is also, apparently, a pretty good cook. And she shares a new recipe to go with the homework each week. Which is how I wound up making her Sausage and Butternut Squash Risotto.

In the interest of transparency, I will go ahead and tell you that I had no idea what a “butternut squash” even looked like. I grew up in a home where we ate frozen peas, canned green beans, and (if it happened to be summertime) corn on the cob. Vegetable-wise, that was it.

Nor did I know that the thing would be so hard to cut.

Or that it would be infested with seeds.

(And if you are wondering WHY I am including these pix, it’s because my mom reads this blog, and she’s in my Bible study. And if she ever decides to make Kelly’s risotto, I want her to know what’s new in the vegetable world. Or the fruit world, cuz of the seeds. Whatever.)

Forty-five minutes later (and I am not making that up), I had the squash cubed. I felt super accomplished, so I took a pic and texted it to my pal Annabelle, who leads a small group at our study. “I’m making Kelly’s recipe!” I crowed. “It’s taking a long time, and I nearly sliced off my hand, but it’s going to be SO GOOD!”

Here’s what she texted me back:

All of which is to say: We can’t do life alone. WE NEED EACH OTHER.

If you’re trying to cook, you might need an Annabelle. And if you’re trying to figure out why the Corinthians were so mean to Paul (and how he could love them so much, in return), you might need a Kelly.

Understanding the Bible can be tricky, sometimes. (Harder, even, than getting seeds out of squash.) We need teachers, people willing to do the hard digging to flesh out what the text really says. We need friends to help us process how the words relate to our lives. And we need the Holy Spirit to do what God promised he’d do: Teach us and remind us of what Jesus said.

And as we avail ourselves of these resources – wise teachers, good friends, and the help God himself will provide – even the hard stuff begins to add up. We’ll be able, as Psalm 34:8 so beautifully puts it, to “taste and see that the Lord is good.” 

(And so, as it happens, is Kelly’s risotto.) 😊

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A Fake Coach, a Real Game, and God’s Grace

With all due respect to the platform, I’m not the world’s biggest Twitter fan. To me, it sometimes feels like a one-liner fight club, where anyone with a handle or a hashtag can jump in and start punching. Like the person who skewered Beth Moore when she encouraged Christians to lighten up and laugh a little. The critic took offense to Beth’s suggestion, noting that it is “not funny when people go to hell.”

(It isn’t. But maybe less of them would if we smiled at them a little more often?)

Still, though, I have a Twitter account. I do this to keep my publisher happy (because I guess nobody reads entire books anymore) and so that I can keep up with U.Va. sports. Especially during basketball season. And Double-Especially during March.

Hands-down, my favorite sports-tweeter (if that’s the right term) is Phony Bennett. He’s a self-described “fake coach” who borrowed the real coach’s name to create his Twitter persona: @IfTonyTweeted. (He doesn’t.) And like the real Tony Bennett (who has built his U.Va. teams on humility, passion, unity, servanthood, and thankfulness), Phony’s tweets rest on five pillars of their own: Humor, sarcasm, self-deprecation, trash talk, and school pride.

Phony hails from Virginia Beach. I actually met him once at a U.Va. event (where some overzealous Twitter fan pre-maturely unmasked him), but he’s been anonymous to most of the rest of the world until this week, when he revealed himself on UVAToday. And honestly? It was a mighty fine week to come out. It’s the ACC Tourney, our guy Isaiah made the Sports Illustrated cover, and on Monday, the U.Va. Men’s Basketball team (after starting the season unranked) earned a unanimous #1 ranking from all 65 AP Coaches–an accord due, at least in part, to U.Va.’s incredible, unforgettable game against Louisville.

Had this contest been played in February, things might have been different. But it was Day One of March, and clearly the basketball gods (and for those reading on Twitter, that’s a lower-case “g,” so don’t hate me) were ready to rumble. The Washington Post provided my favorite end-of-game recap (complete with video highlights, and with a headline that starts Hahaha), but if you don’t have time for that whole piece right now, here’s my own version:

Me (getting into the car at the airport, after speaking in Nashville): Why aren’t you listening to the U.Va. game??

Robbie (who had pulled up, curbside): We’re getting killed by Louisville. I can’t take it anymore.

Me (mumbling something less-than-edifying, something you might read on Twitter): I think we’ll come back. Turn it on.

And by the time we pulled into our driveway, U.Va. had come back. With 4:12 left, we were down by just 7. And by the time the clock ticked down to .9, we’d cut it to 4. (Let me just say that again: With .9 seconds left, we were losing. By 4.) And then, thanks to an utterly improbable combination of missed shots, fouls, and violations by both teams, we…won.

Of course, I woke up the next day and checked Phony’s take:

Isn’t that a great summary? And you know what I thought, when I re-read that tweet? I thought of Jesus, and the Parable of the Workers in the Vineyard.

(Because really, who wouldn’t?)

(Don’t answer that.)

Maybe it’s just me, but a lot of times when I watch U.Va. Basketball, I think about God. I wish there were a market for Bible/Sports Commentary; I’d want a sideline press pass. Because every year (at least for U.Va. fans) there’s so much good material.

In 2015, for instance, a key takeaway was that we needed to trust God as our coach, instead of relying on our own understanding.

In 2016, the game taught us to throw off distractions and live life to the full. To get out there, as Coach Bennett put it, and “play free.”

And last year, NBA star Malcolm Brogdon came back to JPJ and let us all know that love never fails.

As to this year….

This year I’m sure there will be more gold to mine, but so far, that Louisville game takes the prize.

Because in life, just like in basketball, it’s not just about how you play. It’s about how you finish. You can stink it up the whole time–and U.Va. certainly did–but if, at the end of the day, you surrender to Jesus, you win.

Sure, some people will complain about that. If I were a Louisville fan, I know I would. Their guys played hard–and well–for a very long time. They deserved to get more than U.Va. did. But isn’t that just like the workers, back in Jesus’ day? The ones that did time in the vineyard?

You remember the story. A landowner needs help with his grapes, so he goes out early in the morning and recruits some workers, telling them they’ll get a denarius (that is, a day’s wages) for their toil. Then, at 9:00 a.m., he sees some more guys hanging around, doing nothing, and he hires them too. Same thing happens at noon, and at 3:00 p.m. And then once more at 5:00.

When evening comes, the landowner pays the last pick-ups first. And when they see those 5 o’clock guys get an entire day’s pay, the earlier people are pumped. They figure they’ll get much more, since they’ve worked so much longer.

But no. Everyone gets the same thing.

And, people being people, the early guys start to grumble. They don’t think it’s fair.

But here’s what the landowner says: I am not being unfair to you, friend. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius?  Take your pay and go. I want to give the one who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?”

Isn’t that awesome? Jesus used this parable to teach us that, at the end of the day, it’s not our good life or our hard work that matters. It’s God’s grace. And our God is generous. He doesn’t want to leave anyone out and so, even if we wait the whole 39 minutes and 59.1 seconds to turn to him, he gives us the win.

Do I recommend playing like that? No. Life tends to work better (and with less painful consequences) when you “play well” the whole time. As does basketball. But none of us can do that. We’re all gonna blow it in one way or another, in big ways and small.

So here’s the thing: If you find yourself down, or feeling like God could not possibly love you, given the way that you’ve played, it’s okay. He does. He’s crazy about you, in fact. And to God, .9 seconds is more than enough time to redeem a whole life.

If you’ve stuck with me thus far, you might be scratching your head. Like, you might be happy that U.Va. won, but you feel bad for Louisville. So do I. And so did Tony. In the post-game interview, Coach Bennett said he was “so thankful” for the win, but that he felt “pain” and “compassion” for the Cardinals. We get that.

But basketball is basketball and life is life. And thankfully, in life, we all get the chance to cut down the nets.

All we have to do say yes.

Thanks be to God! He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Corinthians 15:57)

#YouAreLoved.

 

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