From My Time in the Middle East

Two weeks ago, I returned from seventeen days of roaming around Israel and Jordan. It was a biblical study hiking tour.

I could write facts that I learned or post more pictures. I have fun adventure stories. I have favorite places. I have a list of everywhere we were.

But for now, here’s this.

I love questions. I love the challenge of asking a meaningful question. The worth of an answer can be measured by the question it stems from. One of my favorite questions I’ve been asked about my trip is, “What do you still find yourself thinking about the most from your time there?”

I’ve been thinking about being in Galilee. Bethsaida was there. It was the community where almost half of the original disciples came from and where they were shaped. I’ve been thinking about sitting on a rock by the shore of Tabgha Harbor where Jesus would have first invited the most unlikely few to follow him. I’ve been thinking about the mounds of ruins in the Decapolis cities on the other side of the Sea of Galilee, powerful pictures of idol worship, immorality, and self-seeking pleasure at its highest. I’ve been thinking about how the disciples impacted those cities they were sent to in such a staggeringly powerful way, one that forever changed the world.

How?

These are portions of Scripture that I couldn’t stop thinking about on the flight back to the states.

“By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” [John 13:35, ESV)

 “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.” [John 17: 20-21 NIV]

The first and foremost way that Jesus says people will know Him is by how His people love each other. The relationships we have with one another and how we interact are pictures that reflect Him. Or how they don’t. Later on, out of all the things Jesus could have prayed for future believers, He asks that we would be one like He is one with the Father, completely unified.

I am pierced by that.

I started to unintentionally reflect on my time in the Dominican Republic after returning. Something that subtly ended up characterizing my time in the DR was division and conflict. It was destructive, individually and collectively. I wouldn’t have said it at the time. Circumstances made it seem justifiable to treat the people around me poorly and how I reacted to situations. The thing is that I wasn’t really listening and I wasn’t really willing to and I wasn’t really honest. Practicing those things is difficult and time consuming and takes a great force of intentionality and time devotion. Most often, change is required. Who wants that? I didn’t. Not really. BUT. As pain-staking as the process of allowing the space for that was and as impossible as the mountain of perceived and real hurt seemed, I was refined by it. Not at first. I fought it for a long time. Where did that refining come from? It started with the people I was with.

Two of them are my friends standing beside me in the majority of my trip pictures. We weren’t always smiles and hand stands. Ten months ago, if you asked any one of us if we thought we would be exploring the Holy Land a year later, let alone together, we probably would have thought you were on drugs.

We lived together in a twenty-four seven ministry setting that was a perfect combination of factors to cut to the core of the heart, and mine was ugly. I didn’t know what was there until it started to manifest, made evident in my interactions with them. To have people in your life you can’t hide that from and who point it out is terrifying. My initial response to my unflattering heart condition was mostly a combination of denial and being offended. Isn’t it true that sometimes we just want people to confirm the excuses we make for how we conduct ourselves?

I didn’t realize how much I learned about community, even more so, how Jesus allowed me to know His grace more fully through them until I wasn’t with them daily anymore. I fully believe that God allows us to know more of who He is through the present people in our lives because He is a God of nearness, a God who gets close. It doesn’t always looks like we might expect or be who we expect. It isn’t always welcome. But, we are His image bearers. Why is it surprising that He would allow us to know Him more deeply through other people in our lives to such a vast degree? It’s a gift. It is how we are refined and chiseled to be more like Christ. Together.

I pray you all have friends like Jac & O’Dell. I’m increasingly aware of how I know the grace and forgiveness of Jesus more because of them fleshing it out to me. I was forced to deeply acknowledge the proof of my brokenness and need and to embrace them choosing to love me despite every justifiable reason not to. The process was imperfect and messy, but I can say now, it was good.

The kind of love that Jesus pleads with His Father that we, as His Body, as His Church, exemplify is baffling. It defies divisions, both external and internal: cultural, racial, ethnic, generational, personality, to name a few. It knocks down stubborn theological differences, the petty ones. It exposes them. It rallies together those who most truly know who He is in an unbreakable fellowship.

This instance in my life began a slow wrestle when I returned to America last summer. If I was unwilling to love the people around me (friends, laborers in ministry, fellow missionaries) as Jesus beckons to, how in the world could I call myself His true follower or expect to impact anyone “for Christ?” To sit in a spirit of refusal to extend the forgiveness and grace of Jesus is to not have truly or fully known Him or His gift. If you have, you can’t help but be changed! I’m saying this, not out of condemnation, but to convey the immensity of the pleading heart of God for His people to stand in unity, to be of the same purpose. That doesn’t mean we are all the same; it’s about our hearts toward each other as the people who claim Jesus Christ as Savior. I can look back at the division I experienced and contributed to and be devastated at how much it pained His heart, but it doesn’t have to win or have the last word. It hasn’t.

The true community of YHWH (Yahua, Yahweh) will unshakably stand together on His Word, His Truth, His Promises. As this country, this culture, and this world continue to move away from the Truth of Scripture, the more heat will His Church begin to experience, yet what joy because that is the proof, that is the refining that brings forth what is pure and true and right. It brings forth the unmistakable knowing that Jesus Christ is Lord.

What characterized the transformational influence of that first community of disciples? They loved each other, out of a fierce and firm knowing of how immeasurably loved they were by Jesus. They knew their inevitable condemnation apart from Him but the power and gift of His unmerited forgiveness. It changed them. It was the Gospel. Does it change us?

That’s what I’ve thinking about. That’s what I wrestle with.

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