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IMG_3562There is a tree in Israel that everyone knows.  It has a name that stops conversations, bows heads, infuriates the righteous and saddens the majority.  Everyone knows the Judas tree.

Of all who walked with Jesus and all of us who are following Him today know the name Judas.  It stirs feelings of disdain in all humans.  Even those who are outside of the faith know the dastardly deed of the most infamous of traitors.

After two thousand years of history no one has surpassed Judas in recognition of the worst of betrayers.  When trust and love are given in bountiful doses, he turns on his benefactor and betrays Him for 30 pieces of silver.  No one believes that any amount of anything justifies betrayal, but mere monetary gain makes a despicable deed even more repulsive.

Life is difficult for most of us.  Each one of us has our own story of excruciating pain that came from a betrayal.  It is the kind of life experience that takes a chunk out of our hearts.

Israel 2014 IFL 386Warm tears soak our pillow at night.  Nightmares of imagining the hideous gossip, slander and conspiracy efforts of these wicked people tear into our minds.  It is impossible to escape the surprise moments when this pain resurfaces at the oddest moments.

Yet, there is relief.  The haunting of these who hurt us can be made impotent.  No, those people never change.

Instead, we can change towards them.  Jesus showed us the way.  He forgave Judas and all those who turned on Him.

The ignominious death of our Savior is a portrait of how ugly sin is.  Judas’ betrayal triggered this awful event.  How could someone turn against pure love?

Yet, for every betrayal in all of our collective lives we have felt a small dose of that personification of evil.  The hurt is unimaginable.  Discovery of this kind of vicious human wickedness is shocking.  Trying to describe the abandonment, the astonishment or the bizarre nature is for want of words.

We see it.  Our mouth turns up in frustration.  Our head shakes in disgust.

Betrayal when only trust and love have been given is the worst of sins.  Have you trusted someone who went behind your back and conspired to betray you?  Did you get blindsided when a trap was sprung by those that you thought were in your corner?

See this tree?  God understands.  He has felt that ugliness and is ready to bring you the salve of His grace and mercy.

photo credit: brucefong photography

Our drive up north is becoming a familiar journey.  Every other month I schedule a trip from Houston to Dallas.  A face to face with key personnel is a small price to invest in our ongoing communication with the mother ship.

Dallas Seminary is branching out.  It has several locations around the nation and overseas.  I have the privilege to serve in the Houston Campus.

Part of my long list of responsibilities is to give oversight to the educational endeavors of our fine institution in the fastest growing city in the USA.  Emails, text messages, Skyping and phone calls are countless.  But, nothing beats 30 minutes of smiles, conversation, immediate feedback and details of initiatives with instant approvals.

Most of the time I drive up from our megalopolis to this gem in the heart of Texas. It is a four-hour drive compared to the 3.5 hours of commuting, checking in and flying via commercial airlines.  That comparison does not even include getting from the airport to the campus once I arrive in Big D.

When I arrive my credentials and permits get me to a safe parking spot and on to the campus without any delay.  A list of people are on my mind and I head for my first location.  Invariably, I see someone and we stop and talk.

It is the unplanned spontaneous serendipitous meeting in the parking lot, in the foyer, in a walkway or along a stairwell that makes for strategic initiatives.  Ideas are born.  Personalities meld into operational plans.

During the day I am taking notes.  When I end my day, I am at my computer rehearsing ideas, making notes, recording thoughts and linking those thoughts with people.  The future is born out of those providential gatherings.

The sun is now setting.  As I scan the changing hues and marvel at the city lights, the long trip has been worthwhile.  Questions are answered and relationships with key people are deepened.

On my long drive home I will rehearse every one of those discussions.  In my spirit certain thoughts will seal into further plans.  Others will keep the back burners simmering until the time is ripe.

Sixty days will pass before I make my journey north again.  But, by then several initiatives that were discussed today will be in the history books.  I intend to make good ideas into real results in the near future.  Tomorrow is all about today’s conversations.

photo credit: brucefong cellphone photography

Motorcycle to Banff 2008 144This is a special day.  We stop whatever we are doing and pause to remember. It is an honorable recollection.

For some of us the BBQ grill is fired up.  Guests are making their way over to our home.  Food is brought out from the pantry and lining the counters.

Games are scattered throughout the backyard.  Little ones will fill the inflatables, pool or field the badminton court.  Space will be occupied by special lives.

Sounds will overwhelm the space.  Laughter and talking will test our sensory overload limits.  Smiles and hugs will dominate our day.

Others will have a traditional journey in their day.  They will drive to the family plot at the community cemetery.  There fresh flowers will decorate the headstone of a dear loved one.

Next to the flowers an American flag will be inserted into the ground.  This was not just a family member that is remembered.  Here lies one who died for his or her country.

Yes, Memorial Day is about family and friends.  Yes, it is about a day off to relax from the rigors of our labor.  Yes, it is about celebrating with food and fun.

Nevertheless, at the heart of this day is why all of these moments for fun and partying were made possible.  Those in our armed forces who fought and died for our freedoms is the meaning behind this day.  Liberty is a costly privilege.

Some time during this special day, we can deepen the meaning behind our gatherings when we take a moment to look at our American flag and be grateful.  Our thankfulness for those who paid the ultimate sacrifice for us would give meaning to our day.  It would inject great value into the remembrance of those who died on our behalf.

Then, our gratitude would be a treasured moment.  Suddenly, it is not just a day-off but a day of meaning. Life is much more than a time about doing what we want instead of what we have to do.
Listen to a patriotic song and feel your spirit leap.  Consider the lyrics of our national anthem and be grateful.  Treasure the sight of Old Glory waving in the skies above.

When the red, white and blue come into view, be a thankful citizen.  Smile at the thought of those who courageously squared off with the enemy and beat them in battle.  Remember the warm tears of loved ones who buried those brave soldiers in the soil that they won for our liberty.

photo credit: brucefong cellphone photography

There was a day when Jesus was walking with His disciples.  They were going to Jerusalem for a festival.  This company entered the city through the Sheep Gate, near the pool of Bethesda.

Five covered colonnades near the pool marked this distinguishing site.  A man was there who was born blind.  Jesus engages him in a conversation.

Many who are disabled crowd around these waters.  Those who are blind, lame and paralyzed make this location their daily routine.  The expectation of a miracle is on everyone’s mind.

Israel 2014 IFL 349The man talks with Jesus but has no idea who He is.  Instead, he only talks about his predicament.  When the waters are stirred, he is frustrated because there is no one who can help him into the waters.

Jesus asks the man the obvious, “Do you want to get well?”  Even the man does not pick up on this query.  He answers with his predicament.

Then, Jesus declares that the man is healed.  He orders the man to pick up his mat and walk.  The healed man does so.

Everything about this  miracle is immediate.  There is rehabilitation.  No transition time is necessary.

Although the man has never seen since he was born blind, his mind can process people and he can negotiate his physical locomotion.  The miracle is total.  Yet, the mystery that surrounds it linger.

But there were sour legalistic people around.  Some took the rules of living to the extreme.  They criticized the healed man for carrying his mat.

Israel 2014 IFL 348In their perspective it was work and no one who was serious about their Judaism worked on the day of rest.  It is ludicrous to understand the rationale of this encounter.  Nevertheless, this extremism speaks to the unwillingness of people to see their own sin and stubborn refusal to humbly come to Jesus and believe in His message of grace.

The man who was healed kept on expressing a simplicity of his faith.  He simply told his critics that he was just doing what the man who healed instructed him to do.  When challenged to identify Jesus, the man honestly responded that he did not know who He was.

Later, in Jesus’ quiet way he met the man who He had healed.  He told him to go and sin no more.  Bad things happen to those who sin.

This is the message at the pool of Bethesda.  God’s mercy comes to those in need.  When it does, then humbly obey with simple faith.

photo credit: brucefong photography

 

Joshua 12-14
Part 4 of 6

God pulls no punches about Joshua. In Scripture, Joshua is identified as being “old”.   The Bible punctuates his years saying that Joshua was not just “old” he was “very old.” That makes old bones creak.

It was time for a transition. Joshua would no longer be the swashbuckling leader that he has been. Instead, the individual tribes will need to step up and take the land that they have been given and secure it from the remaining Canaanites that live there.

As Caleb demonstrated with his vigor and determination, God would give each tribe the strength and fortitude to drive out the last vestiges of the enemy and secure their land. God never leads His people without providing all of the resources and energy that will make their faith endeavor successful.

Half-hearted efforts to obey lead to an incomplete mission. Each tribe is perfectly able with God’s help to secure their borders. If they would simply obey, trust God and act decisively then their military efforts would be rewarded. Faith looks beyond what the natural eye can see.

The tribe of Levi had no real estate parcel per se. They were given cities and pasture land, but their reward was doing the service of the Lord. In the ministry that was sufficient for their satisfaction.

Those two and a half tribes who settled on the East side of the Jordan River chose too early. They settled and as a result became fodder for the eventual invasion forces that swept Israel off to captivity. Never settle and justify accepting less than what you know is what God wants for you.

More later…

Israel 2014 IFL 335There is a narrow road that swing uphill from the Kidron Valley.  The descent from the Walls of Jerusalem are not far behind.  It is natural to look up when the road starts to climb.

The road is narrow and winding.  Modern designers never would have planned the route like this.  It is another indication that today’s roads have simply followed the old roads of the past.

Lining each side of the now paved route are tall stone walls.  You feel penned in.  Yet, the sense of being on the right road is assured by our guide.

Israel 2014 IFL 336Not far along this journey is a gate off to the right.  Many pilgrims are filing in.  The sense of this being a very special place is in the air.

Once inside the gate, our guide gives us quiet instructions to follow the pathway and to speak softly.  People are meditating and this is a sacred site. Those words are just a vanguard of what our spirits have already sensed.

Israel 2014 IFL 338Inside the walls a security fence surrounded the grove of olive trees.  Down the middle gravel pathway stood the largest and apparently the oldest olive tree in the garden.  Its trunk was massive.

Scarred and twisted this old tree was still sprouting shoots into the sky that were dressed in new leaves.  Botanists tell us that this tree could very well be two thousand years old.  It stood tall, solid and unmovable before us.

Israel 2014 IFL 339Maybe it was a mere sapling when Jesus came here at night and wept tears of blood. The agony of the Savior may have soaked the ground with His ignominious perspiration.  Here He accepted the Father’s will to take on the sin of the whole world.

This task meant that He must die.  It is the penalty of sin.  Death is the only option available to bring sin to justice.

Our only redeeming option is to have a substitute that will die in our place. Jesus agreed to take our place.  He died on our behalf.

Israel 2014 IFL 342It meant that He would be separated from the Father.  That reality was what weighed on  Jesus’ heart that night.  Yet, out of love for us, He agreed willingly to do it.

No wonder a church stands next to this garden in commemoration of this great sacrifice.  Nations from around the world contributed to its construction.  Enter this garden, His garden and sense the forgiveness given through the great gift of love.

photo credit: brucefong photography

Joshua 12-14
Part 2 of 6

We all make decisions that end up being determinative in our lives. These decisions are the result of choices that we make. Some times these are agreements others are partnerships and still others are unilateral promises.

God leads us into challenging situations in life. When He does we must be ready. Decisions and choices will meet us. Wisdom to choose well and complete any steps of obedience will be essential to faithful living.

Over the years I have taught many students. I make them a promise that no matter where they are or what happens in their lives, if they are hurting and need someone I will be there. They can call me or come and see and I will help them.

Whenever that call has come I have answered. It calls for some immediate decisions and choices but God has always been faithful through helping those in need. Tough moments have come along with those cries for help, but God’s mercy has always been a part of those moments to come alongside someone in need.

More later…

Israel 2014 IFL 326There is a special quiet place in the middle of all the hustle and bustle of the crowded active city of Jerusalem.  It has a panoramic view of the Ancient City.  The setting today is still serene.

After the miles traveled and arrangements that mark this once in a lifetime visit to the Land, it is well worth the altered course to visit this special site.  Traditionally, Jesus was here.  When His busy ministry captured all of His brief days in this region, He paused here.  The Gospel of Luke in chapter 19 verse 41, the event was captured.

Jesus looked over the city of Jerusalem and knew what would transpire. Israel 2014 IFL 324 As grand a city as it was and as fabulous a location of strength and faith that it was, it would fall because of sin.  Its people would be carried away into the Dispersion.

The heart of God for His people is captured in this tender moment.  Love clashes with the reality of impending judgment.  It is not cruel but necessary and consistent with the holiness of God.

Israel 2014 IFL 331Sin can never be tolerated.  It must be dealt with swiftly and definitively. Hope for a future is just as real.

Grace comes from the Almighty as well. He will bring the nation back.  Our moment of the hillside marks the reality of that anticipation from ancient days.

Here coffins are laid above the ground.  Families bury their loved ones here in sight of the city walls.  The closer they are to the walls the hope is that their resurrection will be splendid when the King returns.

Israel 2014 IFL 332Family members leave a stone on top of the grave tops to mark their visit.  Some day a reunion would take place.  All in the family would be reunited and their hope in the city when Jesus would reign there would be the focus of their faith.

Israel 2014 IFL 333A church stands on the grounds of this serene location.  It is surrounded by a grove of olive trees.  The design of the building depicts the shape of a human tear.

While our busy pilgrimage schedule was full, it was well worth the time to pause here and take in the love of God for His people.  Like a loving father who disciplines his children, our Heavenly Father will bring His holiness to bear on our lives when the ugliness of sin makes its presence known.   He loves us and does what is right.

photo credit: brucefong photography

Joshua 12-14
Part 1 of 6

A traveling salesman was on a routine drive through his Southwestern region.  His territory included the vast and sparsely populated area of New Mexico.  During his journey from one population center to the next, he spies a lonely Native American woman walking along the highway.

Not only was it odd to see anyone walking in the harsh desert, the notion of a woman walking alone was very curious.  As he drew closer, he was even more surprised that she had a burden.  In her arms she was carrying a saddle.

He pulls over and offers her a ride.  She climbs in and after a few moments he comments, “That is a very nice saddle.”
“Thank you…got for husband.”
Smiling while running her hands on the finely tooled leather works she nodded and then continued, “… good trade.”

More later…

 

Joshua 11
Part 6 of 6

The test of leadership is the satisfaction that we achieve what God wants done, nothing more and nothing less.  If we are greedy or steal His glory in the process, then God will not let that theft go unpunished.  Leaders are as much about stewardship as they are about courageous initiative.

A confidence among spiritual leaders is self-evident.  Leaders know that when God clearly directs He also makes it possible to achieve what He asks us to do.  It is never about our assessment of the likelihood that a task can be done; rather, it is discerning what He wants us to do then stepping out in faith to do that specific task.

Mixed in with spiritual leadership is the high level of concern that leaders have for those that they lead.  Caring for our troops reflects the heart of God in every leader that He chooses.  Motivating others when they know that we love and lift them up is a combination for success.

God loves peace.  Ultimately, discern that His values are consistent with this.  When we know what He wants then we can practice great insight into what He wants to accomplish in our lives and those who are His.

Thanks for joining me on this journey through the Scriptures.

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