No drones

On our way into Capernaum to see the traditional excavation of Peter’s house, I saw this interesting and detailed sign. Visitors speaking any language would understand appropriate dress and behavior, including a very modern “No drones.”

Clearly this sign is a recent addition. I’m thinking the powers that be posted it after someone complained about drones buzzing around this popular tourist destination. A photographer could get some amazing shots from the air. But how annoying that could be to those desiring to walk where Jesus did. Plus, who knows what harm could be done where crowds gather?

One of our tour group who lives in a condo upper floor mentioned that they often see drones hovering outside their windows. Disturbing. Who’s watching? And why?

Better watch your step.

How does God “lead?”

The words of Psalm 23 easily roll off my tongue. The Lord “leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake” (Ps. 23:3). I’ll join in with the prayer of Psalm 5:8, “Lead me, O Lord, in your righteousness…make your way straight before me.

But what does that mean exactly? What does that look like? How does God lead me?

It was easy in the wilderness. “The Lord went before them by day in a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire” (13:21). Pretty basic. When the cloud moves, you go. When it stops, you set up camp for a few nights.

But that was a long time ago. You’ve probably noticed that when there’s a big decision to be made there aren’t any arrow-shaped clouds directing you. And when you are lying awake at night wondering what to do, someone must have forgotten to light the burner on that column of flame.

The primary way God will always lead me is with his Word. The “path of your commandments” (Psalm 119:135) will always lead me in “what is right” (Psalm 25:9). The light and truth of his Word will always direct me (Psalm 43:3). Rather than simply wondering what God wants me to do, I can spend a little more time meditating on his Word, letting it either narrow down my choices or reveal what I ought to be doing.

God’s kindness also leads me – to repentance (Romans 2:4). Another day of sunshine or rain is a reminder that I’ve been blessed not according to my behavior but because of his steadfast love. I often need to be led back to him. Not down a path or towards an opportunity. But to my God. I’m grateful he does that like a Shepherd guiding me to food and water rather than a Cowboy driving cattle into the barn!

And then of course, “Christ always leads us in triumphal procession” (2 Cor. 2:14). When you are in the parade celebrating God’s grace, you never have to wonder. With eyes fixed on Christ, the author and perfecter of our faith, I’m always on the right path. It’s amazing how clear the path is when he reminds me of who I am at the water of baptism. I’m reassured of my way when he reminds me of who he is at the altar, where I enjoy pasture of grace.

If you are afraid of making the wrong decision or stepping outside of God’s will, remember that if you stray he always comes looking for you. He always runs to embrace you when you realize you’ve made a bad choice. He still loves you and you always get another chance.

In fact, if we are declared righteous by faith, doesn’t that mean he’s already made all the right decision for us? That is a very freeing reality.

I believe it says a lot about God that he hasn’t made all our decisions for us. Instead he lets us discover what it’s like to taste something new that we might or might not like. He lets me decide to sleep in or get up early. I can choose any pet I want, change the station to listen to different music, and eat an extra cookie. I can choose to retire, go say hello to a stranger, add chocolate chips to my pancakes, sit silent in worship or sing my heart out. I can give a few bucks to a beggar or few hundred to my kids.

You know, when I think about it, it’s people who always seem to have more to say about my decisions than God does. Other are quick to question and condemn, not God. He’s slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. That must be why the writer of Ecclesiastes states, “There is nothing better for a person than that he should eat and drink and find enjoyment in his toil” (Ecc. 2:24). It’s all a gift from God!

Expressing your faith

One of the places we really enjoyed visiting recently in Jerusalem was the Western wall of the temple. As i am sure it is everyday, the space in front of the wall was filled with people praying. Many were Hasidic Jews. Some were bowing in rhythm. Some were bowed over prayer books, prayer shawls over their heads. Some were leaning against the wall. Many tried to find some microscopic niche in which to slip a tiny slip of paper filled with prayers.

And no one blinked an eye. Business as usual. Overt expressions of worship and devotion from any and every religious tradition were simply business as usual.

My wife commented, “If we did this back home, everyone would think we were strange.” How true. Even though we live in a nation of unprecedented religious freedom, we are pressured to keep the expression of our faith to ourselves. We might get away with bowing our heads over a meal at a restaurant. Or a fish magnet on a car. Perhaps some religious jewelry. Just don’t get carried away.

On the streets of Jerusalem Muslims roll our their prayer mats in public at the call the prayer. Many businesses shut down for Sabbath. Souvenir vendors and art dealers blatantly cater to Christian tourists. Orthodox Christians, Hasidic Jews, and many in Islamic garb walk the streets together in plain sight. They live, worship and work together, free to express their faith.

Interesting.

“She’s not here.”

I was just trying to do my job. Just doing pastoral care the best I know how. I figured if I timed it right, I could stop by to see one member in the hospice house and make another home visit before Good News Club this afternoon.

I walked into the hospice house and headed for the room I had just visited yesterday. It was empty. Oh boy. I’m glad I visited yesterday. She must have passed. The room was empty, clean and ready for the next patient.

As I walked out, I stopped by the front desk and asked about the person in room 2. “Oh, they moved her.” Really? “She was transferred to Fish.” Fish is short for another hospital in the AdventHealth chain. That’s unusual. Why would you move someone who was in the last hours of their life? I asked, “I know you can’t tell me much, but why would they move her?”

Someone who appeared to be a nurse said, “I don’t know. I hadn’t seen her.” Another front desk person said, “There could be a thousand reasons.” Another apologized, “I’m sorry.”

When I got to my car, I tried to call, then texted the daughter. A few minutes later I got a phone call fro her. Her mom had died last night. That’s what I thought. But why didn’t anyone at the front desk or nurses station know that? Why didn’t anyone care to pass along that important detail?

I started to call the hospice house, just to let those at the front desk know that one of their clients had died. But I didn’t. Why waste my time?

I’m glad that God knows when a single sparrow falls to the ground, much less one of his loved ones. By grace, she was someone! By grace, so am I.

The best and the worst

After two worship services this morning, I headed out to Stuart Meyer hospice house (in Palm Coast, FL) to see Kay. By the grace of God I last saw Kay on Wednesday, the last day she was awake and aware. I was glad to talk with her, give her communion and pray with her. Within hours, the doctors found a brain tumor and plans were made for hospice care. From that time one, she was unconscious.

Early this morning, I realized I’ve known Kay for more than twenty years. Before we built a new sanctuary, and before we paid someone to be an office manager, she was a volunteer, answering phones and helping me get ready for Sunday morning. I did the memorial for her husband ten years ago. I will soon do hers.

A lot of pastoral care happens on the extremes of life. I am there at birth and baptism, and then at death and funerals. In between I get to be a part of weddings and marriages, confirmations and graduations, and birthdays and anniversaries. I get to share in the best of life as well as the most difficult times.

That’s what makes this job pastor so unique, interesting and rewarding. I get to ride the waves of celebration, wade through the muck of disappointment, cradle a new life in my arms and hold a hand one last time before their last breath. The words of encouragement, hope, strength and comfort are always my Lord’s and never my own as I represent Him in times of both life and death, beginnings and ends, joy and sorrow, and laughter and tears.

I began my day by holding a newborn baby in my arms and welcomed her into God’s family. I ended it by holding the hand of a child of God about to take her last breath in this world. What a privilege to experience both!

A few interesting people in a few interesting places

I quickly took this picture in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. I’m not sure who this man was or what religious tradition he follows, but I was amused to see him focused on his smart phone, just like I could be in any given moment.

Guarding a door at the Dome of the Rock

A little girl wandering around on the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Her family is close by. She has the same sippy cup as my grandchildren.

Priest saying mass for a small group of worshipers at the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth. I believe he was speaking Spanish.

Great beret, sippers and tote bag.

An older Hasidic man browsing at Mehane Yehuda market.

Tell your story

On my recent trip to Israel, I encountered two very different styles of selling. One bugged the heck out of me. The other got me to purchase something.

After one full day of touring near the Sea of Galilee, our group was dropped off at a diamond store just down the hill from our hotel. We were assured that this was the best place to go if we wanted to purchase jewelry since Israel is one of the world’s leading exporters of diamonds. One of the store managers gave us a quick quick presentation on diamonds on the lower level. He then took us upstairs to the showroom.

A very kind gentleman with a clipboard immediately became my wife’s shadow as soon as we walked into the showroom. There were at least a dozen more like him, all of whom attached themselves to other members of our group. My wife simply wanted to look at what they had to offer and see what kinds of settings they had. Our friend followed us from display to display, from one side of the room to the other, just waiting for a nanosecond pause that might reveal interest in an item. It wasn’t five minutes before she said, “How do we get out of here?”

Later in the week we went to Bethlehem. Upon entering the city, we had an excellent falafel lunch, and then went to the olive wood store next door. We were told that this was the best place to get anything olive wood. It was genuine, handcrafted right there, and was far better than anything we’d see in the markets, which probably came from China.

After a little talk about the different products there, the same person who had waited on us in the restaurant gifted me an olive wood covered bible. Then we were free to look around. The selection was amazing, as were the prices. Once again, we attracted a number of folks who pressed hard for a sale. Each time we paused to look at something, someone was right there to make sure we got something off the shelf. They upped the ante by offering me the special pastoral 25% discount. Time was of the essence, too. When another tour group came in, we were herded towards the door. We bought some Christmas ornaments for the grandkids and headed for the bus.

I wasn’t surprised by those two experiences. I’ve been there, done that before. It’s just annoying. It makes us want to get out as soon as possible.

We had a totally different experience in the markets, though. Strolling through the Arab market in old city Jerusalem, we came across a different kind of store, one that sold antiquities. This store had everything from coins to oil lamps to pottery and other items found at archeological digs. The owner of this store was still opening up his store as he welcomed us. As my wife looked at some of the coins from the time of Jesus, I asked him how long he had worked in this store. “I am fourth generation,” he proudly explained, “And my son works here, too.” When his son walked in a few minutes later, we got to meet him.

He asked where we were from and when he learned we weren’t far from St. Augustine, told us his brother owned a pizza restaurant there. (I found the place on TripAdvisor, but we haven’t been there yet.) My wife had a few questions about some of the coins, and he pulled out a reference book that explained when each was used and where. He never asked us once to buy anything, but had a story about each item that caught our eye.

My wife not only purchased a coin mounted in a pendant, but also bought another as a gift for her mom. Our friends came in and bought something, too. We stayed in his little shop for about an hour altogether.

Later, as we walked by the many, many booths of Menahen Yehuda market, we paused at one booth with an amazing display of spices and dried fruit mixes. The smells coming out of that booth were amazing. When we pointed and asked, “What’s this?” he explained what the dried fruit mixture was, explained how it could be used to make tea or added to wine or eaten as is, and then gave us a generous taste. He did this over and over, working through the sweet and then the savory side of the booth. He told us how long each could be stored. He explained how he would wrap it up to take home. I bought four different kinds of dried fruit mixes, about two pounds in all.

I asked him if he was the person who’s name was over the booth, and he told us that he was almost family, but not quite! I then asked where to find the best coffee and baklava in the market, since there were so many stores. He thought for a moment, then pointed out where we needed to stop next.

Where we stopped next was a little coffee shop. Basket after basket of coffee was on display, and the young man working explained where each came from and which blends were his favorites. He gave us a little sample. You don’t have to work very hard to sell me coffee. I picked out the coffee labeled “Tanzania” and he told me they roasted that one right there. He scooped up some beans, ground them and brewed a nice long espresso for me. Delicious.

Not many steps from there was an impressive display of baklava. No one else was at the shop when we arrived, so the owner explained each variety. and which ones he liked best. He let us try one, too. Delicious! Could we take some home? Absolutely, he said. He handed us a box to fill up, then he wrapped it securely to pack in our luggage.

I’m fascinated between these very different experiences. I couldn’t wait to get out of the first two stores. But I could have hung around all day at the last three places. I’ve read a lot recently about how to promote your business or sell your product by telling your story. I got to see that method in the markets of Jerusalem from some vendors who did it extremely well!

A tale of two memorials.

Last Saturday, I did two memorial services, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. The services were similar, yet very different. Seven people attended the first service, including the organist and myself. More than two hundred attended the second, including the organist and myself, the choir, a soloist, an honor guard, plus a bagpiper and drummer.

I don’t often have a doubleheader, but I had been traveling our of the country for the last few weeks (as my readers know), and the families were waiting for my return.

I knew everyone who gathered for the first service in our chapel, including the widow, her elder, her sister, her sister’s husband and a family friend. After my sermon, I had a chance to ask them to share a memory, a story, or a quote and everyone did. It was a moment that produced more laughs than tears, speaking powerfully of the family’s love and closeness. I love it when God’s Word does exactly what it say it will, and turns our mourning into joy.

I did not know most of the people who attended the second service in the main sanctuary. The family began arriving ninety minutes before worship began. There were flowers to arrange, pictures to display, details to go over, more copies of the worship folder to make, sound checks, food to prepare, and seats to be reserved. After my sermon, the son of the deceased shared some wonderful memories which also made us simultaneously laugh and cry. More memories were later shared at a meal served in our fellowship hall.

From my preacher’s point of view, these were two very different experiences. Of course I enjoy a church full of people, but sometimes it’s easier to connect with a smaller crowd in a smaller space. With a smaller group you get immediate feedback. After speaking to a larger group, responses tend to come later. A big attendance tends to make me feel important (not good). Smaller numbers remind me they are important.

Jesus spent some afternoons with thousands of people. Other nights with just one. John’s visions of heaven in Revelation include multitudes no one can count. I’m looking forward to being a part of that crowd. He is certainly worthy of such honor and praise.

Early in the morning, though, it feels like just Jesus and me. I don’t deserve that kind of attention. But I always look forward to that private audience, too.

Mahane Yehuda Market

Our last day in Israel was the “go do whatever you want day.” My wife and I and a few friends decided we wanted to return to the Jewish quarter of Old City Jerusalem and then check out the highly recommended market, Mahane Yehuda.

When we started out, we didn’t even know the name of the market. But a shop owner said, “You are probably looking for Mahane Yehuda” and he wrote down the name for us. Great. Now, how do we get there? “Oh, it’s easy. You have to go deep into the Arab market, out the Jaffa gate, and head towards Jaffa road and St. George.” We thanked him as if we knew what that meant, and headed towards the Jaffa gate, where our taxi had dropped us off early that morning.

We got to the Jaffa gate. Now what? Aha, there’s a tourist center here. He sent us out the gate and up the hill to where we could catch the tram, a light rail train that would take us to the market. We saw the tracks in the road, and waited for the next train to come so we could see where the stop was. Once we got to the stop, it looked like we would need to buy a ticket. Not quite sure how to do that, a random guy simply directed us to a machine that had an English option. As I fiddled with the buttons and my debit card, a train came and left. Finally the machine spit out five tickets for us, and we boarded the next one.

I think this is the first time my wife and I have set out to explore a city on our own without a translator or guide with us. I really enjoyed the adventure! As we were told, everyone we asked for direction was extremely gracious and helpful.

Sitting on the train, I looked up and saw a sign announcing the next stop – in Hebrew. I can figure out some Hebrew, but now quickly. Before I knew it the announcement changed to Arabic. Not helpful. Finally came the English. We reached the stop specially designed to bring traffic to the market, and started down the street.

There is a lot of information on Mahane Yehuda Market on Wikipedia. Over two hundred and fifty vendors lined the streets, some out in the open, some under cover. There were fruits and vegetables, fish and meat, bread, halva, baklava, coffee shops, spiced and dried fruit, olives, and candy as far as my eye could see.

Turning into one of the covered areas, we came across Haachim Levy spices, teas and fruits. The young man working the booth enthusiastically described and let us try many of the blends of dried fruits out front that could be used to make tea, infuse drinks, or mixed into oatmeal. We bought three sweet and one savory blend from him.

Baklava, anyone?

We asked him where to get the best baklava and coffee in the market. With booth after booth selling those items, we wanted a recommendation. He directed our eyes down the long row of booths past several signs his favorite coffee roaster. “Just past that you’ll see an old man – that’s where you want to buy your baklava.” At the coffee roaster, I got a delicious long espresso made from a Tanzanian blend. Sure enough, just a few booths down we found a huge display of baklava. We loaded up a box with one of each that was sealed up so we could take it home with us.

As we continued to walk through the market, I couldn’t help but wonder how many in Jerusalem did their food shopping here. Throughout all our travels, we hand’t seen any grocery stores or Walmarts in Jerusalem. Maybe we just didn’t go through those parts of town. After a little research, I learned that there are some grocery chains there. But most people talk about the markets.

The experience reminded me of the markets in Baltimore when my wife and I lived there. The best thing is you buy everything fresh! I suppose after a while you would have your favorite vendors and be able to get exactly what you wanted in season and for special events. I could get used to a great selection of fish, meats and vegetables. I am too often disappointed with the grocery stores near me.

One cool thing about the market is that you get to talk to the person working the shop. Everyone was very proud of their booth and products, encouraged me to try samples, and loved to talk about their product, their family and the market. The few farmer’s markets near us give us a bit of that, but it just wasn’t the same.

I think I could have spent the whole day there!