Journey to the Holy Land 2020

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In January 2020, I will once again lead a trip to Israel/Palestine.  Every couple years I run a trip (most recently a Journeys of Paul cruise through Italy, Greece, Malta), and every fourth year or so I venture with a band of pilgrims to walk the steps of Jesus.

I would love for you to consider joining us.  It will transform your walk with God.

If you have not been to the Holy Land, prayed on the Sea of Galilee, swum in the Dead Sea, or walked the Via Dolorosa up the road to Calvary, consider this pilgrimage of a lifetime.  Bethlehem, Jerusalem, the Jordan River, Jericho, the Mount of Beatitudes, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre: they all hold a special place in my heart.

When I was a student in Israel the professors would talk about the “Fifth Gospel” and I was perplexed.  Had someone canonized a book without me knowing it?  What is this heresy? “You can’t understand the first four Gospels, Matt, until you understand the fifth gospel,” I was told. 

Come to find out the Fifth Gospel was the land itself, and the story the land told.  This is something they helped me to understand, as well as the wonderful guides I have had over the years, most notably Shafik Khbeis, who despite his young age completely transformed the way I saw the Holy Land.  He was our guide when we went last time in 2017, and having been so many times I went with a chip on my shoulder thinking I knew everything.  Boy was I wrong!  Shafik helped me to understand I will always be a student of the Land, ever growing in my knowledge of the Fifth Gospel.  (He is the one kneeling above in the 2017 group pic.)

To speak simply, after arriving in the Holy Land, the scriptures opened up to me in a new way – like the difference between black & white TV and High-Definition Color.

It has forever changed the way I see those Old Testament stories and brought the Gospel to LIFE.  I pray it will transform your walk with God too.

Consider giving yourself this gift, and join us in walking in Jesus’ steps.

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I am particularly excited about the Optional Extensions I have planned this time around: the Wonders of Jordan/Petra/& the Dead Sea; Cairo & the Route of the Exodus; Nile Cruise Extension; Judea & Samaria Extension; or a 3 Night Jerusalem Extended Stay.  


God’s LOVE Goes First


Deut. 9:23-10:5Heb: 4:1-10John 3:16-21

“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”

This may be one of the most misused verses in the Bible.  Often taken out of context and plastered onto banners for use in protest marches or NFL games, it has been used to beat non-believers over the head, fear tactic and all, into changing their non-belief.

This illuminates a divide that we Presbyterians (and all Reformed Christians) have with our more Pentecostal/evangelical brothers and sisters.  We come at faith believing we are all a wretched mess and without God we are nothing.  And we see God through a different lens – primarily coming at us first and foremost with love and compassion, not exclusion and judgment.  Grace alone.  Grace first.

It’s not a better way to read scripture, just a different approach.  It is not our activity that is primary, but God’s then, in this approach.

When I see JOHN 3:16 signs I am tempted to hold up a sign that says “John 3:17”.  Read on!  John 3:17 declares “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”  The passage goes on to talk about judgment as if it is something for God alone, and not for us to be deciding.  Our focus in on good deeds and staying in “the light.”

It turns out that John 3 warns against the very thing that people intentionally or unintentionally do with their “3:16” signs.  If we begin by casting judgment on people, we miss the point of God’s purposes for us.

Recently at a college campus here in the Toledo area, this kind of divide of faith came into play.  Some involved in the campus ministry were coming at their faith primarily through a lens of judgment, demands from God, or worse from fear.  The leadership thankfully was coming at things with a broader, fuller understanding of Scripture, primarily that God’s LOVE comes first, and if God’s love and desires for us to discover that love predominate our lives, we need to approach the campus in that way too.

This is the radical nature of John 3:17.  We need to suspend judgment and leave that up to God alone.  We need to embrace God’s love, and love God and neighbor as ourselves.  God’s welcome must comes first.  Everything else will follow.

For John, everything seems to stem back to the premise that he laid out at the beginning: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”  Everything that follows is an explanation and expansion of that main thought.

And where does that leave us as believers?  It means that our lives’ focus have changed.  We are to revel in the wisdom that is all around us.  We are to enjoy God, celebrate God, and feast on the goodness of God, sharing that feast with others.  We are not to disrespect God by taking on the position of judgment or condemnation.  We are to seek love in everything we do – in every relationship – in every place we go.

I am thankful that our campus ministry is on firm footing, deeply rooted in Scripture and washed in the LOVE of God


Lent: Change


Deut. 9:4-12Heb. 3:1-11John 2:13-22

Change is always hard.  I am sure you have heard the joke….  How many Presbyterians does it take to change a lightbulb? …CHANGE??????  Presbyterians are notorious for not liking change.  Well, today’s scriptures deal with the demands that faith put on us and the change that is required within us.

The readings also deal with the difficulty of unbelief and stubbornness.  Both Deuteronomy and Hebrews deal with trying to keep the “hardening of hearts” in check, and a holy self-examination of motives.

In John, Jesus cleanses the Temple.  It is quite something to see Jesus driving people out of the temple and overturning the moneychangers’ tables.  “Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle.  He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned the tables.  He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here!  Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!”

This is indeed extraordinary.  God’s plan, it turns out, is to bring about change and renewal in people’s daily lives.  It is extraordinary because people of the time were expecting a Messiah to be something quite different.  They were expecting the Messiah to come and lead them out of the oppression of Rome, not reprimand them and demand better behavior from them.

This is the conundrum of the Lenten journey, and of our Christian faith.  It is not all about validating our behavior, but about transforming our behavior to be more Christ-like.  Change will be demanded of all of us.

For me the Lenten journey is much more basic in terms of transforming behavior.  Many of you know my new position – not as a pastor but now in executive leadership.  It requires much more driving and meetings than before….in other words more sitting on my rear!  So I have realized I have to be intentional about yoga and running and going to the gym.  So that’s the change that is required of me right now.

Jesus’ stark behavior is a warning, and a much deeper call to change.  It warns us not to become too complacent in our spiritual practices, but constantly be on the lookout for how God may want us to conform our lives anew.  The people of the time saw nothing wrong with the moneychangers.  To buy doves and other sacrifices to God at the Temple was simply how things were done.  This was the vehicle of grace!

Jesus said no.  He was reinterpreting the spiritual trajectory of things.  He was demanding we be circumspect about our walks in faith, to make sure our actions match our hearts’ beliefs.

This is quite a task.  It will require our whole lives.  Body, Mind, Spirit, and Voice.  It will require a fair dose of God’s grace as well, as we journey this road our whole lives long.


Outward Rites and Inward Light


Jonah 3:1-4:11Heb. 12:1-14Luke 18:9-14

The shift from Mardi Gras to Lent can be jarring if you are on Bourbon Street at midnight having too much fun – “CLEAR THE STREETS….MARDI GRAS IS OVER.”  Indeed, the church calendar makes a sudden shift today and a more spiritual, disciplined life has begun.

Ash Wednesday: our readings not surprisingly take a sudden turn and we find ourselves in Jonah, one of my favorite books.  Jonah is almost comical when you understand how he grudgingly goes to Nineveh, and with only a few half-hearted words becomes an agent of transformation for that town.  It is a powerful story.  The king, and the town, follow this up with action, including sitting in ashes.  Outward rites reflect the inward reality.

Whenever I think of these kinds of outward rites like the Imposition of Ashes which many of us encounter today, I think of one of my favorite hymns, As a Chalice Cast of Gold, esp. the first and last verses:

1.  As a chalice cast of gold,
    Burnished, bright, and brimmed with wine,
    Make me, Lord, as fit to hold
    Grace and truth and love divine.
    Let my praise and worship start
    With the cleansing of my heart.

4.  When I dance or chant Your praise,
    When I sing a psalm or hymn,
    When I preach Your loving ways,
    Let my heart add its Amen.
    Let each cherished outward rite
    Thus reflect Your inward light.

Luke’s passage is of Jesus telling the story of the Pharisee and tax collector, one who stands where all can see him saying, “God, thank you that I am not like other people….”  The tax collector was standing far off, not even looking up to heaven, beating his breast and saying, “Have mercy on me a sinner.”

Repentance and humility are key themes for Lent.  It is clear that God wants us to take seriously our actions and do the best we can.  Yes, grace abounds, but that does not exempt us from serious introspection and a genuine turnaround in the areas of our lives that need it.  Outward rites to assist the inward desires.

This is the essence of Ash Wednesday.  And so as we take this day to seriously consider any Lenten discipline that may aid us in repentance and humility, self-sacrifice and introspection, may we look to the people of Nineveh or to the tax collector, both who come to understand inwardly and outwardly that change for them is important.


A Story That Is LIVED


Deut. 6:16-25Heb 2:1-10John 1:19-28

“And when your children ask you… ‘What is the meaning of the decrees and the statutes and the ordinances that the Lord our God has commanded you?’ then you shall say to your children, ‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt, but the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand….’”

When I was studying in Israel, one of the things that impressed me the most was the way Jewish children were educated in the faith.  It wasn’t enough to hear a story being told, they were often enacted, lived out, felt in the heart and hands while spoken on the lips.  Stories like Pharaoh and Egypt and Moses came ALIVE, especially at Passover.

Every aspect of Jewish life seemed this way to me: It was to be lived, retold, and at the forefront of our lives.  The prayers and the depth of commitment to the story was overwhelming.

As we celebrate Mardi Gras, Shrove Tuesday, we do so with a deep sense of time in our lives and time in the church.

This is when “catechesis” can take full form.  In order to truly learn, we build it into the calendar, mark it in our lives and in our hearts.  And while a King Cake can add to the festivities, it also becomes an opportunity to set today apart from tomorrow.  We joyfully embrace today, ending a party that began on Epiphany, Carnival season, and clearing our lives of the sweetness and indulgence of our lives.  (This is also an excuse to learn a little bit about New Orleans history, which is a rich piece of the history of America too and the gumbo pot that is American culture).

Tomorrow as Lent begins we embrace simplicity, reverence, and penitential solitude.

I encourage you to BUILD RITUAL into your day, into the life of your family.  It is a great instructive tool.  And do that tomorrow too.

Happy Mardi Gras, y’all.  Have a piece of Kings Cake for me.


For a little bit about the what and why of a King Cake, check out