Sunday, August 13, 2017

TODAY, I WILL BAPTIZE A BABY


Today, we will be having a baptism service in our church. To be baptized is something that Jesus has instructed all of his followers to do. In that regard, it is like the observance of the Lord’s Supper. We are told that we should do this.

Also, just as Jesus shared in the first communion with his disciples, he himself was also baptized. Jesus did these things as examples for us, so that we should continue in what he taught us.

However, we as a church have not been good at remaining faithful to his intentions in these traditions. It is an unfortunate development that baptism, like communion, is a custom that has historically caused controversy among church denominations.

Last week I spoke of how we in the churches have hijacked the observance of the unity Lord’s Supper to create division within the body of Christ. We allowed this to happen rather than allowing communion to be a sign of the oness of the church, as Jesus intended it to be. It is a sadness for me to say that it is much the same concerning baptism.

Both of these practices are meant not only to represent for us deep spiritual meanings (the greatest portion of which none of us understand completely), but they are to both also be a demonstration of our unity in the body of Christ. But again, like communion, because the entirety of the all of the spiritual implications and meanings concerning baptism is beyond any of our abilities to comprehend and appreciate as a whole, some churches choose to emphasize one certain aspect of baptism, and other churches choose other things.

Thus, as it is in the Lord’s Supper, instead of listening to and learning to appreciate various viewpoints and to learn from them, we have used these different perspectives to draw lines of division among the churches. The sad result is that, in our different church denominations, it is our tendency to arm ourselves with arguments about how our own denomination has the “right” understanding of baptism, and those who do it differently are “wrong.”

Again, baptism is unfortunately much like communion in this regard. If we do take the time to listen to the perspectives of another church, we often listen in the same sense as one would listen to his or her opponent in a debate. We are not really trying to understand the motives involved with what another church believes, but we are instead only listening with the sense of building a counter argument against each one of their points.

Primary and Secondary Beliefs

Because of our upcoming centennial of our church, I have been asked by a number of people in recent weeks if the Log Church is “non-denominational.” My response, of course, always is, “yes, it is.”

I do not know what that phrase, non-denominational church, means to you, but to me it means that when it comes to the secondary beliefs of the church, like communion and baptism, we take time to consider the traditions of others. I call these “secondary beliefs,” because to me, in these there is some room for latitude.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

CONCERNING MY WOUND THAT WILL NOT HEAL

Some months ago an old wound of mine opened up again, and even though by now a good deal of time has passed since this latest episode of the old infliction has come to me, the pain has not abated. In fact, in some ways it has gotten worse. This time, it has set itself deeper within me than it has in the past.

Before this latest occurrence, I thought that this injury would one day be healed in my lifetime. But now, I fear that it will not. It is beginning to look like I will take this pain to my grave.

This is a wound not of my body, but a wound of my soul. It is one that begins to ache when I see the Holy Communion being used to bring separation between believers in Christ. The pain comes when I see that the Lord’s Supper is used for division instead of being a sign of unity in fellowship, as Jesus intended it to be. The wound that has come to me is one of my heart, and is an affliction that actually drains me even of physical strength.

Sunday, July 30, 2017

JE SUIS NICODEMUS

I do not know why Nicodemus waited until it was night before he went to speak with Jesus. Generally, we assume that it was because, as a member of the Pharisees, Nicodemus was afraid that the act of his going to see Jesus would cause him to be censured by his colleagues in their religious order.

By and large, we today have a largely negative connotation of the Pharisees of the first century. The Pharisees were a group of self-righteous religious leaders who were often the objects of scorn by Jesus.

Jesus said of the sect of the Pharisees as a whole, “They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.”[1] Hypocrisy seemed to be the central issue of the Pharisees. When Jesus spoke to the Pharisees face to face, he even spoke in much harsher terms than he did when merely speaking to someone else about them.

Once, when Jesus was speaking to the Pharisees directly, he told them this: “Now then, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness.”[2] Jesus also called them such things as “unmarked graves, which men walk over without knowing it,” [3] as well as “fools” and “hypocrites.”

Even John the Baptist, the forerunner of Jesus, showed no deference to these men who always looked for the most important seats at gatherings and who loved to be honored by others. “You brood of vipers” John bluntly called them. These are the same words that were repeated later by Jesus when he spoke to the Pharisees.[4]

Notwithstanding these comments by Jesus and by John, in the Jewish society at large, the Pharisees actually were largely respected as the religious leaders of the day. They, along with the Scribes (who also were often of the sect of the Pharisees), were the ones who studied and knew the Scriptures.


Sunday, July 23, 2017

LIVING IN THE TORRID ZONE

And there will be a shelter to give shade from the heat by day,
And refuge and protection from the storm and the rain. Isaiah 4:6

The sun over my head seared down merciless upon me, blindingly intense and draining me of all energy. I was at the time living in a town in western Venezuela and I was walking across and open soccer field on my way home from an errand that I had to make that day on foot.

The errand began early that morning out in the hills surrounding the village. My journey into the hills had begun in the coolness of the day, and I had not prepared adequately for the heat that I should have known would come later. Actually, my task had taken me further than I first intended to walk, and I was returning home later than I thought that I would.

Our village was in the Andes Mountains. While it was not in the highest of mountain areas, it was still at quite a high altitude. In places such as these, with the thin air and dryer atmosphere, the nights may be refreshingly cool, but the day can warm up quite fast. By noon it can become pretty unbearable to be out in the sun without protection. That is where I was in this last part of my walk, under the full sun with no protection. As I entered the village, there seemed to be no shade anywhere. Now, I was cutting across a soccer field to get back to our home. The heat and the sun had exhausted me of any energy reserve.

I thought that it must be about noon as I walked across the open field. At this point at the end of my journey, the heat and intensity of the sun was more than I could endure. As I made my way across the turf, I noticed that the town had recently erected huge light poles around the field, the bases of which were nearly two feet in diameter. There were no lights on the poles yet, but the poles were in place, ready for the workers to later place them to illuminate the field at night.

I had been hiking under the cloudless sky all morning long. In the hills there had often been a little shade, but not in this last leg of my walk. It had been all intense sun. After enduring the heat of the sun for some hours, I decided that when I reached the other end of the field, I would sit with my back resting on the shady side of one the poles for a few minutes before making the very last of this bit of my return trip to our home.

Much to my dismay, however, as I approached my intended resting spot, I could see no shadow. I walked completely around the pole and was disheartened to find that every side of the light post was being heated by the sun. Squinting my eyes, I looked up at my tormenter above my head and realized that it was indeed noon, and I was in the Torrid Zone at the equinox. 
 

Sunday, July 16, 2017

A PATH THROUGH MÉRIDA

God once provided a path through the Red Sea for the Israelites so that they could pass. Our family also has experienced paths of God, perhaps not to the same extent as did Moses and his people, but nevertheless, we also saw the hand of God in these times. This is a story of one of those times: 

A PATH THROUGH MÉRIDA 

The city of Mérida, in the Andes Mountains of Venezuela, is built on a narrow plateau that sits like a castle high above several rivers that seem to surround it like a moat. It is a college town. The Universidad de Los Andes is there. During the years that we lived in that country, the university had about 30,000 students.

College towns usually have a culture all of their own, but this was especially true in Venezuela where both student and faculty protests and strikes were very common and where the strikes would frequently close down an entire town or even a city. The kids learned it from the earliest grades. It was not uncommon for us to see first and second graders in our own town carrying placards along with the rest of the students of a school, protesting some sort of “injustice”.

Mérida, because of the geography of the mountainous region where it is built, is a long and quite narrow city. There are really only three roads that lead through the length of it. The streets were not built for the amount of traffic they needed to bear when the city grew to its present size, and the downtown congestion was common.

One day we had to drive the length of the city to return to our own home in western Venezuela. Again, things may have changed since we lived there a couple of decades ago, but at that time, there were seldom bypasses to cities in Venezuela. One had to simply drive through the heart of town and hope for the best.

As we approached the city of Mérida, I suppose we should have been immediately suspicious that things were not right when a police barricade blocked off the first main street that we wanted to take.

However, this was not that uncommon. Streets seemed to be almost routinely blocked off for one reason or another, and without further thought, we proceeded to the second street. When we arrived at that second passage-way, we saw that there were cars on it, and they seemed to be moving along.

Well…the word moving may be a little misleading, because once we got in the line of traffic, we realized that they were mostly stopped, bumper to bumper. Nevertheless, since we thought we might have no other choice, we also joined in. With that, in the spirit of driving in the cities in Latin America or perhaps anywhere in the world, we hoped for the best.

We expected the line to move slowly, but as we sat in our car on this hot day, this one became agonizingly slow. As we tediously proceeded, I noticed that the cross streets were absolutely abandoned. In fact, there were very few shops open. No cars were parked along the sides. Something was not normal in the city of Mérida.

As we got nearer to the university and the downtown area, I could really tell something was up. The only street that had any cars on it was the one on which we were stuck in the traffic. The city looked abandoned with all the roll-down steel window coverings over the store windows (for some reason they call these security doors “Santa Marias”), and only a few university students standing idly about on the streets.

I was getting tired of sitting in the car going almost nowhere, and I saw a nice shady place where I could park our car on one of the side streets. I decided to get out and see if we could find out what was going on. Sticking my arm out of my window to try to get the other drivers to make a gap for me, I cut across a line of cars and made my way to our shady spot.

Vivian, our two boys that were with us, and I got out of the car and began walking toward where we saw a group of students standing in the middle of the intersection. As we got closer, our sons began to complain. “The air is stinging my eyes and burning my throat,” they said. Vivian and I really could not sense anything.

We approached the students. “What’s going on?” I asked.

“We are having a protest,” one of them told me.

“Why, what happened?”

Sunday, July 9, 2017

ESTHER’S DILEMMA

Therefore, whenever we have the opportunity, we should do good to everyone – especially to those in the family of faith. (Galatians 6:10)
***************
 
The story of Esther takes place in the citadel in the city of Susa. Susa was located in present day Iran, and is one of the oldest cities of history. During the days when we read of Esther at somewhere around 460 0r 470 BC, Susa was also probably the most splendid of all cities of the world. This was in the days of the first Persian Empire and the reign of King Ahasuerus, otherwise known as Xerxes I. This is where we pick up the story. 

The Party

Ahasuerus, whom I shall just call by his other name of Xerxes, was throwing a big party. In fact, it was a huge party. The invited guests where the nobles and officials from all of his provinces, and since these provinces stretched from Ethiopia to India, this included a lot of people. In addition to these guest dignitaries were also his military leaders. The king took them all around the area to show them his vast wealth and the marvels of his kingdom.

The party went on for 180 days (if you can imagine), and when this time was over, the king then held a special banquet in his enclosed gardens lasting seven days. The garden was bedecked with hangings of white and blue linen, fastened to rings made from silver and placed on marble pillars surrounding the dining area. The wine was served in goblets of gold, each goblet unique. It was open bar. The king specifically instructed all the wine stewards to serve each man as much as he wanted.

It was a party like no other. The king was eager to show off his great wealth. His queen was Queen Vashti. She also was having separate party in the royal palace for the women and wives of the nobles.

The party seems to have been largely a success until near the end, when things began to go wrong for Xerxes.
 

Sunday, July 2, 2017

THE RAVEN AND THE DOVE

Our Man Noah

What was there about Noah that caused God to look upon him with favor?

Like many saints of old, we really do not know very much about this man. We do know that the society of his day was extremely wicked, perhaps more so than any society which has ever lived. It must have been so to provoke such a severe judgement from God.

However, we do not know any of the particulars of the people of that day. We do not know for what reasons God declared the society to be so wicked. Nevertheless, as we earlier read in the account of Noah, God’s assessment of the people demonstrated the extreme depth of depravity to which they had descended.

“The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.”

Among the seven things listed in the book of Proverbs that are particularly detestable to God are “hearts that devises wicked schemes and feet that are quick to rush into evil.”[1]

King David wrote of this condition in the book of Psalms:

The fool says in his heart, “There is no God.”
They are corrupt, their deeds are vile; there is no one who does good.

The Lord looks down from heaven on all mankind to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God.

All have turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one. (Psalm 14:1-3 NIV)

Whatever form that the evil took in the lives of the people of Noah’s day, their immorality was apparently to the point that even their every thought was evil. There was no goodness at all left in them. After God had seen the deep corruption of the world, it was to Noah alone that he came with the news that he had determined to put an end to all people

Somehow, Noah managed to retain his goodness and stay strong in the midst of this evil society. Of Noah, we read, “he was a righteous man and he lived a blameless life among the people of his time.” Those words remind us of another outstanding person of the Old Testament – the man Job. God said of him, “there is no one on earth like him; he is blameless and upright, a man who fears God and shuns evil.”[2] 

Sunday, June 25, 2017

NOAH THE BOAT BUILDER


The world-wide flood that the Bible teaches took place during the days of Noah is one of those stories that is so fantastically extraordinary that I think that most people in these days do not believe it actually happened. Even some people who believe the Bible have serious doubts about the literal interpretation of the events as they are described in the Scriptures.

This sermon is not intended to be an argument for or against any opinion, but because people are often so passionate about this subject, one can hardly speak on it without addressing some of the geological and hydrological, as well as a couple other aspects of the flood.

Broadly speaking, although I acknowledge that there may be some allegorical language used when describing the events on the flood of Noah’s time, I still accept the events as described as being true. One does not need to be an intellectual Neanderthal to hold to this view, and if you care to do some research, there are some good resources available.

I would first like to address two questions rather briefly so that I can move on to the real topic of this sermon. The first of the two questions is this: Where did all the water come from so that the entire earth could be flooded? And the second question is: How is it possible that one pair of every kind of animal, including the dinosaurs, could fit on the ark?
 

Water, Water Everywhere

Because the amount of water needed to cover the entire surface of the planet is so great, many people believe that the flood did not literally inundate the entire planet, but was a flood that may indeed have been great, but perhaps limited to the local area surrounding that region. To Noah, it would have seemed like the whole earth had been covered by water, but if there had been astronauts circling the globe at that time, they would have radioed back to Houston that most of the planet still has large regions of dry ground (probably Houston would not have been one of these areas).

Sunday, June 18, 2017

THE SINS OF OUR FATHERS (AND OUR OWN)

When we were living in Venezuela many years ago, on one hot afternoon, a young man named Carlos sat on our veranda and under the trees in the chair opposite me. We were enjoying the shade and the breeze, and we were talking about the fatherhood of God.

“Since becoming a father myself,” I told him, “it is not quite so difficult for me to understand some of the things that God, as our Father, has been willing to do for us in the past, and still is doing for us.

“When I look at my own children, there is so much of myself that I see in them. This is not surprising, since they have inherited half of their genetic factors from me. When God made man, we are told that God made us in ‘his image.’ It is not that I understand all of the truths that are involved with this phrase, but whatever else it means; it means that when God looks at us, there are some things of himself that he sees in us.”

Carlos seemed to be listening intently to what I was saying, so I continued speaking.

“I am also able to understand a little more about the lengths to which God has been willing to go to redeem us. I do not pretend to comprehend entirely or even a small portion of all that is involved in our redemption, but what I am beginning to see is that it is God’s great love that was his motivation in redeeming us. I can see this fact because of the love that I find I have for my own children, even though my own love is far from perfect.”

Here Carlos stopped me.

“For me,” he said, “this is very difficult to understand. Certainly, I do not have the perspective of a father, only that of a son. Nevertheless, among my friends and I, we do not have an image of a father as one who loves us. All of us have had fathers who lived detached from family life, and who, on the occasions when they would come home, usually came home drunk and held us all in terror.

“Our fathers came home not to love us, but to beat us,” he said.


Sunday, June 11, 2017

THE CHRISTIAN PILGRIMAGE

(Much of this post is a repeat of the blog posts that I made when I went to Ethiopia. However, the people of my church told me that they wanted to hear more about the trip, so I used some of this to speak on a subject that has not traditionally been a part of most Christians in America)

THE CHRISTIAN PILGRIMAGE
 
The town of Lalibela is in northern Ethiopia, and is one of the oldest of Christian pilgrim destinations in the world. As I said in my earlier posts on Ethiopia, the primary reason that I went to that country was to see my son Levi. However, as he and I went up to the town of Lalibela, it was also with a sense of pilgrimage that I traveled to that place. It is this subject of being a pilgrim that I would like to speak on today.
With this in mind, before I tell you about the city of Lalibela, I need to go into a little of the history of how it became a center of worship.
 
Very early in history, even before the birth of Christ, there were communities of people in Ethiopia who had converted to Judaism and practiced their faith according to the Mosaic Law. The exact origins of these communities are unknown and shrouded with many theories (which I won’t go into right now). There are still some of the Jewish faith in Ethiopia today, although many had emigrated to Israel in the 20th century under Israel’s Law of Return.

 
The Birth of Lalibela
 
When we move ahead in history from the Old Testament times to the second century after Christ, we come also to the time of the establishment of the city of Lalibela. Even a great deal of this more recent history is unknown to us, and much is open to the interpretation of whatever historian one cares to read. However, the general consensus is that the city began its role as a site of pilgrimage for Christians during the reign of the king of the region of that time, one Gebre Mesqel Lalibela. It was after this king that the city was named. The first two names, Gebre Mesqel, of the king literally mean, “Servant of the Cross,” for Lalibela was born into a Christian home in the year 1162.

Monday, June 5, 2017

POURED OUT

Not many days before he was to be crucified, Jesus was a guest at a home in the village of Bethany, a place not far from Jerusalem. The house was that of one Simon, a man who had been a leper but must have been healed some time before, presumably by Jesus. The man was still called “Simon the Leper,”

When Jesus was in the house of Simon the leper and as they were at the table, a woman approached Jesus with a vial of very costly perfume. The vial was made of alabaster, which is a soft stone that was often used for sculpture and, as in this case, to make household vessels. The perfume that it contained was very valuable, probably worth about three hundred denarii. This amount may not mean anything to you or me, but one denarius was what a man was often paid for one day’s work. This made this container of perfume worth almost a year’s salary. 

At the Feet of Jesus

The woman, it turns out, was Mary, the sister of Lazarus. Lazarus was the man whom Jesus had brought back to life some time earlier. Just before Jesus had done that, Mary had fallen at the feet of Jesus and said to him, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died” (John 11:32).

At the time, Mary probably thought, “It is too late now.” Indeed, at that point, Lazarus had already been entombed four days. Despite this, Jesus called Lazarus to come forth from the tomb. With the call of the voice of Jesus, the one who had been dead appeared at the opening – alive!

On yet another occasion, Mary was again found again sitting at the feet of Jesus. At this time, despite the work around the house that her sister Martha thought important, Mary saw the greater need at that moment to sit at the feet of Jesus and listen to his teachings (Luke 10:39).

Now here again, not many days before the crucifixion of Jesus, Mary was once again found at the feet of Jesus. She knelt down and broke the spout on the vial of perfume. Presumably, the vial had a spout with a stopper of some kind. It must have had one where someone had put in the perfume at the beginning. 

Mary’s Commitment

But Mary did not pull out the cork. She did not merely open the vial. She broke the spout. This act of breaking the vial was one of commitment. It was not the same as removing a cap so that she could pour out a portion of the contents. Whatever Mary intended to do with the perfume, she meant to use all of it.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

HOW TO WALK IN FAITH

For we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7).

These are the words of the Apostle Paul in describing the Christian life. We often hear about “living a life of faith” and “walking by faith,” and we are fond of calling ourselves, “people of faith.” These are all very pious sounding words, but sometimes we do not really understand what it means to walk by faith.

On the other hand, walking by faith is often misrepresented and ridiculed. Christians are sometimes accused of having a “blind faith” and placing hope on something that, deep down, they fear does not really exist.

Mark Twain, for all his wit and writing ability, did great damage in mischaracterizing the life of faith with the much quoted statement of one of his characters: “Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.” (Pudd’nhead Wilson). Also in our culture, it is common to refer to a “pie in the sky” type of faith, which ridicules the life of faith by implying that Christians are placing all of their hope in some future promises of heaven that do not actually exist.

Both of these references have their elements of humor, and if we do not take them too seriously, we can laugh at them. But unfortunately, they have also mischaracterized what actually is a walk of faith. 

Two Walks

However, if these characterizations of faith are not true, then what does it mean to walk by faith? The Apostle Paul is quoted as saying “We walk by faith, not by sight.” Just what does this mean? What is it to walk in faith? Is it true that those of us who practice walking by faith, walk in blind trust, without sight and without any evidence whatsoever?

If it might help in your understanding, here is how I would compare a life of walking by faith in contrast with a life of walking by sight alone: 

Walking by Sight

Walking by sight can be likened to what a man or woman may do when they stand in a doorway of a room. They do not immediately enter, but only stand in such a way so that they can see all that the room contains. They are able to simply stand in the doorway without making any real commitment to enter. Finally, when they become satisfied that they know sufficiently what is in the room, they may choose whether or not to go inside. Their commitment to act only follows their sight. It does not go before.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

STREET BOYS

An experience that I had in Addis Ababa reminded me of something that I wrote many years ago. When I arrived in Ethiopia, Levi told me that I needed to be careful of street boys who may surround me and try to lift my money clip.

As it turns out, this did happen from time to time as I walked alone. Only once did it get a little physical, but no big deal.

In our own country, we know that we have many adults that live on the streets of our cities, and I am sure that there are also many minors that are homeless and living on the streets. Nevertheless, in some cities of Latin America, and also apparently at least in Ethiopia, boys living on the streets can be a genuine security problem, even on a busy street in full daylight.

Our first reaction to being accosted by these young boys is understandably reactionary and negative, and I am not claiming that they are all misunderstood and misled adolescents. However, there may be some other factors that we do not know.

Hence the story from Lima, Peru. What I write below is not actually my story, but it was told to me by a man had opened a home for street boys and who shared with me some of the stories of the boys that had come into his home. (There are no real names in this essay).
 

THE STREET BOYS OF LIMA
 

Pedro is no longer a boy. He has grown into a young man and works as a janitor in a rescue home for street boys of Lima, Peru. He is married, has a child and is a believer in Jesus Christ – but this only after many years. And he still carries some scars in his soul.
 
When Pedro was born, his mother died in the delivery. He had an older brother and a sister, and for some years, the father kept the family together. Then, when Pedro turned four years old, his father called him into the room.

“Pedro,” his father said, “you are now four years old and for four years we have been waiting to tell you something. You are now old enough to understand. First, listen to your brother. He also has something to tell you.”

Saturday, May 20, 2017

TO ETHIOPIA I GO - Part 13

(scroll down for parts 1-12)
LALIBELA 3

Perhaps the best known of the churches of Lalibela is the church of St. George. This church is the best preserved, most likely owing much to the fact that it is the most recent of the churches to be sculpted. In some ways, it was surprising to me that a church was constructed in Africa that commemorates St. George.

Like many historical figures, St. George is not only a person of history, but also of many legends. As an historical figure, it seems that George was born in Lydda of Cappadocia (now central Turkey) to Christian parents. His father was named Gerontius, a name I kind of like because it means “old man” (I suspect that we get our word Geriatrics from this word). This Gerontius, the father of George, was a well-known soldier in the Roman army. However, despite his name, Gerontius died when George was only fourteen years old.

As in many military families, the son followed his father in this career. Gerontius had been one of the finest soldiers in the Roman guard. Thus, when George enlisted, the Roman emperor at the time, a man by the name of Diocletian, was happy to have George also join his forces.

However, after some time, things changed in the Roman Empire. Some time after George became part of the Imperial Guard, the emperor Diocletian suddenly became opposed to Christians and ordered that all the soldiers should offer up sacrifices to the Roman gods.

George, not only a Christian by name but especially by conviction, refused to do so. What was more, his refusal was not done in secret, but in front of the other soldiers and even in an audience with the king himself, before whom George strongly held to his conviction as a believer in Christ. Diocletian did not want to lose George as a soldier, and tried to convince him to renounce his faith by offering him many gifts of land and money and slaves if George would make a sacrifice to the gods of Rome.

After repeated refusals, the king then subjected George to many torture sessions, three times from which he had to be resuscitated only to endure more torture. Before his death, George had distributed his wealth to the poor. His end came with a public decapitation on April 23 of the year 303. Among the witnesses to his death was a pagan priest and a Roman empress, who thereafter also became Christians.

His body was returned to his birth place of Lydda. Almost immediately Christians from the area visited his tomb, recognizing him as martyr for the faith.

That is the story of St. George, at least the part that is at least
somewhat substantiated by history, but George’s story goes far beyond this. For instance, you have no doubt heard of how St. George slayed a dragon. This event is said to have taken place in a now unknown location, but one which had a small lake, in which the dragon lived. The dragon carried a plague that was ravaging the countryside, so in order to keep the dragon appeased, the townspeople would feed it two sheep every day.
Woodcut by Albrecht Dürer

Eventually however, the town ran out of sheep. After that time, so the story goes, each day one of the children of the town was given to the dragon for his food, each child chosen randomly by lot from among the village children.

This was the case until the lot fell on the daughter of the king. The grief-stricken king offered the people of the town all of his wealth and half of his kingdom if his daughter could be spared, but the people would not have it. They demanded the king to feel the pain that many of them had already felt.

Reluctantly, the king complied with the decision of the people. His had his daughter dressed up as a bride, since she would never see her wedding day, and brought to the lake to be fed to the dragon.

However, as chance would have it, George happened upon the situation. As he was speaking to the girl, asking her why she was dressed the way that she was, the dragon emerged from the lake. George, instead of fleeing the dragon as the girl had told him to do, instead made the sign of the cross in the air and charged the dragon, seriously wounding it with his lance. After some additional dramatic details in the story, George then struck the final and fatal blow to the dragon.

So that then, is the legendary part of the story of St. George, at least the shortened account of it. It may seem incredible, but it is accepted widely enough that the image of St. George on horseback slaying a dragon is seen on many coats of arms, and the sign of his cross found on several flags of nations and cities. During the Second World War, Winston Churchill named his own personal aircraft after the name of St. George’s lance, Ascalon. I am told that there are several sculptures of Saint George battling the dragon in Stockholm, the earliest of these inside Storkyrkan (The Great Church).

And, as we see now, the image of St. George battling the dragon is also found in the town of Lalibela, Ethiopia. Not only is
the image of George on several wall hangings in some of the churches, but the cross of St. George elaborates many of the window openings. But King Lalibela did not stop there paying honor to the saint of old. The entire structure of the Church of Saint George is made in the shape of what we know to be his cross, patterned after the sign the saint made in the air before charging the dragon, while mounted on his steed and brandishing his lance Ascalon.

There are those of us who may question what we might see as the sometimes excessive veneration of past saints, but we should not be so harsh in our condemnation. After all, the eleventh chapter of the book of Hebrews also brings many of these saints of yester-year to our attention, calling them “A great cloud of witnesses that surround us.”

In our culture, wearing the football jersey to honor our favorite player, or a tee-shirt emblazoned with our favorite rock band seems always to be acceptable – even to church. Instead of this, why do we not honor some of these men and women of the past who teach us that true virtue is not that you can throw football, or hash out some mean chords on a guitar, but true virtue can be found in doing good, in helping people, and in staying strong in our Christian convictions in the face of great persecution?

Don’t know where to start?

Hebrews, chapter eleven.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

TO ETHIOPIA I GO - PART 12

(Scroll down for parts 1-11)

LALIBELA - 2

It was not until fairly recent decades that there has been a road to the town of Lalibela that has been better than barely passable. Before just several years ago, there were no vehicles in Lalibela, no petrol stations, and little to offer in regard to services for travelers. Lately however, much work is being done on the road. I believe much of this is owing to the fact that the church site of Lalibela was named a historic site by the UNESCO World Heritage Centre in 1978. Even with this, when Levi and I traveled to that town by backcountry bus, much of the road was still under construction.
 
It was largely a long and dusty ride of about seven hours from Dessie, with one stop to pee on the side of the road if you needed to, and one more stop later for lunch, or perhaps to look for a more discreet place to pee if you were too embarrassed the first time (if you had managed to hold it for the additional three hours). The entire way we crammed ourselves into school-bus type seats with our luggage on our laps.
 
As on my other bus rides in Ethiopia, the green plastic store bags were occasionally passed back to car-sick passengers in the bus, soon to be filled and then thrown out of the window. Thankfully after that first experience on the bus up from Addis Ababa, I had no further need for a bag to be passed to me. Seemingly I had made my adjustment to the bus rides over the mountains and around the sharp turns of the roads of Ethiopia (see part 7).

At the bus station in Lalibela, the manager there was somewhat surprised to see us. “Most foreign tourists come here on the airplane,” he told me.
 
I suppose that is true, but I was also told by someone that some Ethiopian pilgrims come even on foot to Lalibela as part of their pilgrimage.

******************
The eleven rock churches of Lalibela in Ethiopia remained largely unknown to the world for many years. I call them rock churches instead of churches made of stone, because they are not stone churches in the traditional sense. These are not the work of stone masons who began the structures by laying a foundation of stone footings, and then building upon the footing with succeeding courses of stone. This is the way in which we usually think of stone churches.

The churches of Lalibela however, are monolithic in structure. That is to say, they are chiseled and carved from one solid piece of rock. This is not done from the bottom up, but rather from the top down. Most of the structure of the churches was made by first chiseling straight down into the rock of the mountain, or perhaps into a side, leaving only the rock that was to remain as part of the structure. Any material that was chiseled away and not wanted had to be carried away. Only the rock of the building itself remained.
 
Thus, these churches were not of stones that were cut from the mountain of their origin, made into blocks, and then constructed into a building at another site. The churches of Lalibela were made from stone that was undisturbed from its origins. In this way, it is said that the churches are made from “living stone.”

The clearest example of all that was involved can be best seen in the Church of St George. Here, a nearly forty-foot deep cavity was chiseled straight down into the rock of the mountain, leaving only the middle intact. Until the cavity had been completed to its full depth, there was no entrance into the excavation except from the top. That means that all of the rubble from the removed debris had to be carried up and out the top. It was only when the cavity was dug to what would be the floor, forty feet down, that a cave-like entrance was added.
 
Then slowly and painstakingly, the inner church began to take form. The churches of Lalibela are not crude hollows cut out of rock, but are ornately designed, complete with door and inner supporting arches, elaborate windows and door frames, and interior and exterior columns. The builders very obviously exceeded far what was merely necessary to make their churches. This was a labor of love, and labor that held deep spiritual meaning for the people of that time.
 
However, despite the fact that these were magnificent structures that held deep meanings for their builders, and despite the fact that Ethiopia also had large communities of Christians in the early centuries, 12th century Ethiopia was not medieval Europe, and for hundreds of years the churches of Lalibela remained unknown to the outside world. It was not until the 1520’s that the Portuguese began to explore the area and came across the city. 
 
In the first of these expeditions to this region, the priest Francisco Alvarez who accompanied the group wrote of these magnificent buildings, describing them in some detail until finally concluding with these words:
 
“I am weary of writing more about these buildings, because it seems to me that I shall not be believed if I write more…but I swear by God, in Whose power I am, what I have written is true.”
 
After visiting these churches, I will say the same. In an earlier post about Levi’s village I mentioned that there are some experiences that cannot be described with even a thousand words, and if a picture is truly worth a thousand words, then even a thousand pictures are not adequate. What I will tell you about the churches of Lalibela can never be adequate to describe them. The best that I can hope to do is to give you some sense of what it was like for me to see them.


Saturday, May 13, 2017

TO ETHIOPIA I GO - PART 11


(scroll down for parts 1-10) 

LALIBELA - 1
The Christian Pilgrimage 

It was for two reasons that the Emperor Lalibela saw the need of providing a destination of pilgrimage as a necessity for the people of Ethiopia. The first of these reasons was the very great distances required for the pilgrims to travel to the original Jerusalem. So great was distance to Jerusalem of Judea that, for many Ethiopians, a pilgrimage to reach that faraway land would never happen. Also there was the fact that even if they could do so, the Jerusalem of Judea had suddenly fallen under the control of the Saracens. I wrote about these two reasons in the previous post. 

It was for these reasons that Lalibela began the construction on a city that was to eventually be so intimately associated with him that it also took on his name. The city was to be built as a representation of what the emperor experienced while he was in Jerusalem, and it was meant to become the object of Christian pilgrimages, especially for the Ethiopian pilgrims. 

We of the western Christian societies have largely gotten away from the notion of religious pilgrimages. It is unfortunate that we have allowed this to become so. A pilgrimage is indeed travel, but it is travel for a specific purpose not recognized by most modern day tourists. The reason most people want to tour a new place in these days is mostly self-centered. The modern day notion of travel is for personal entertainment, and little else. 

The religious pilgrimage is not the same type of travel. The religious pilgrimage is not for personal entertainment nor is it self-centered. It is instead God-centered. Certainly, as in any travel, there are new things to see and new things to experience. But the goal of the pilgrim is not to be able to snap a selfie of himself or herself in front of a cool building so that he can post it on facebook to see how many “likes” he can get. The goal of the pilgrim is to regain what has become lost in his relationship to God. 

From time to time, all of us need to regain what becomes lost. As we work in our day by day lives in this world, our personal relationship with God becomes soiled with the filth of the society in which we live. It is for this reason that daily Scripture reading and prayer are important, and it is for this reason that weekly gatherings of worship with other like-minded believers in Christ is important. 

Also, it is for this reason that on occasion, a Christian pilgrimage may also become important. Not only do we set the world aside for a few moments so that we can read the Bible and pray. Not only do we leave the world aside for a couple of hours so that we can go to church. In a pilgrimage, we leave the world aside for a more extended time for the purpose of regaining the perspective that we need to maintain in our relationship with God. 

We may even endure hardships in the journey, but these hardships also play a key element in a pilgrimage. They help us to reestablish the priority that our relationship with God is of greater importance to us that any personal comfort or enjoyment. A pilgrimage is in fact meant to show us that our relationship with God is everything.

The concept of the pilgrimage is given to us very early in the Scriptures. “Three times a year you shall celebrate a feast to Me,” God instructed Moses (Exodus 23:14).

Psalms 120-134 are all what are called the “Songs of Ascents.” These were songs that were sung by the worshipers as they ascended the road to Jerusalem in their thrice yearly pilgrimages.

One of the few details that we have recorded for us about the childhood of Jesus was that every year his parents brought him on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem for the feast of the Passover. It was on one of those pilgrimages that Jesus had stayed in the temple to ask questions and to learn of the opinions of the teachers. 

The city of Lalibela in Ethiopia was constructed for the purpose of pilgrimages. Thus, what I will describe to you beginning with the next post is not meant to be a travelogue. Rather, it is meant to be the account of a pilgrimage.
 

(I will finally begin to tell about the city in the next post)

Friday, May 12, 2017

TO ETHIOPIA I GO - PART 10

(scroll down for parts 1-9)

In the year 1187 AD, the Saracen commander commonly known as Saladin laid siege to the city of Jerusalem of Judea, causing its surrender to him in early October of that year. At the time of the siege and sacking of the city, there were some Ethiopian pilgrims present in Jerusalem who witnessed all that had happened to this destination of their pilgrimage.

In fairness to Saladin, in his conquest of Jerusalem, the Muslim warrior attempted to take control of the city with spilling as little blood as possible. This was in great contrast to the methods of the Crusaders of 1099, when they had captured the city at that time. The history of that specific siege by the Crusaders is written with great quantities of the blood of the victims.

Saladino,
Cristofano dell'Altissimo, ante 1568
 

But Saladin, with his own capture of Jerusalem, did not slaughter all whom he found within the city gates. He instead granted conditions of surrender for those inside. Part of these conditions included a provision for any who wished to leave instead of remaing under his command. These people would be required to pay a ransom, with which they could earn their own release.

When it was found that some of the residents could not pay the price of the ransom, Saladin allowed the amount to become negotiable. Still other ransoms were paid from the city treasury (which, one could say, Saladin could have easily seized anyway). Yet other captives were simply given their freedom without any payment at all. Some of those set free under one of these conditions were apparently the pilgrims from Ethiopia.

When these Ethiopian pilgrims returned to their homeland, the brought with them the news of the fall of Jerusalem. Again, to repeat the year that this happened, it occurred in 1187 AD.

I repeat the year because that also is the year that Lalibela the man began his reign in Ethiopia: 1187 AD. You may call this a coincidence of history or you may call it providence, but that was the year that the then Emperor Lalibela began his work on the city that was to become known by his own name – the worship center of Lalibela, Ethiopia.

Of course, there is much about when the actual construction of the churches began that is unknown, and much of it open to the interpretation of historical evidence. However, it was at that time that the Emperor Lalibela saw the great need for a center of pilgrimage, and it was at that time when the development of the city was initiated in earnest.

I will begin to tell you a little about the city as it was when I visited it on this trip to see my son Levi, who is living in Ethiopia, but that will be in the next post.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

TO ETHIOPIA I GO - PART 9

(scroll down for parts 1-8)

LALIBELA Part 1

The town of Lalibela is in northern Ethiopia, and is one of the oldest of Christian pilgrim destinations in the world. It was somewhat with this same sense of pilgrimage that I also traveled to that place. Before I tell you about the city however, I need to go into a little of the history of how it became this center of worship.

Very early in history, even before the birth of Christ, there were established communities of people in Ethiopia who had converted to Judaism and practiced thier faith according to the Mosaic Law. The exact origins of these communities are unknown and shrouded with many theories, but there even remains those of the Jewish faith in Ethiopia today, although many had emigrated to Israel in the 20th century under Israel's Law of Return.

When we move ahead in history from the Old Testament times to the second century after Christ, we come also to the time of the establishment of the city of Lalibela. Even a great deal of this history is unknown to us, and much is open to the interpretation of whatever historian one cares to read. However, the general consensus is that the city began its role as a site of pilgrimage for Christians during the reign of the King of the region of that time, one Gebre Mesqel Lalibela. The first two of these names literally mean, “Servant of the Cross,” for Lalibela was born into a Christian home in the year 1162.

At that time, Ethiopia was not an established nation as it is today, but the region of Ethiopia has been well recognized from ancient times. We have in the Bible, for instance, the story of the Ethiopian eunuch who was a court official to Candace, the queen of the Ethiopians (Acts 8:27). This Ethiopian had been to Jerusalem to worship, and apparently at the point of the story in the Bible, was on his return trip to Ethiopia. As he traveled in his chariot, he was reading from the book of Isaiah, but could not understand the meaning of the Scripture. It was then that God called the early evangelist Phillip to explain to him the meaning of what he was reading.

This and other stories give us an indication that there was an early Christian community that began in Ethiopia, a community of whom we have little written history. By the second century, the Christians seem to have become well established in Ethiopia. As a result, the man Lalibela was born to Christian parents.
15th Century painting of
Emporer Lalibela

As with any well-known man or woman of early history, the accounts of the life of Lalibela is are a combination of fact and legend, and it is often difficult to differentiate between the two. However, even legends are often based on true events, so there is benefit in learning even the legends. One of the legends concerning Lalibela, is that at his birth, a swarm of bees descended and surrounded the infant. If this would happen to you as a mom, you may scream in terror, but Lalibela’s mother interpreted it as being a sign that the boy would one day be the Emperor of Ethiopia. It was because of this that his mother bestowed upon him the third name, "Lalibela." This name means, "the bees recognize his sovereignty."

It is also widely accepted that Lalibela lived part of his youth in the Holy Land, and had visited and come to know the city of Jerusalem during his younger years. So deeply moved was he by his experience there, that it became his desire to build a spiritual replica of Jerusalem in Ethiopia when he would return there.

Part of his motivation for this was, knowing most of the Christians from his homeland could not realistically ever travel to Jerusalem, he wanted to establish somewhat of a replica of Jerusalem, or perhaps better said, a spiritual representation of the city, so that the early Christians of Ethiopia could instead make their pilgrimage to that place.

The result is a city unlike any in the world. The buildings of this portion of the city are actually churches, eleven in all, that are each cut from one single block of scoria basalt rock. Each one in some way is said to represent humility and the spiritual life of the Christian faith.

Many of the patterns of the buildings and their names are also said to be representations of the spiritual life that Lalibela the man is said to have observed in Jerusalem during his youth. The names of the buildings have mostly Biblical names, and even the river of the town became known as the River Jordan.

But there was yet another event that was to happen at that time in world history that made the founding of the town known as Lalibela even more critical for the time. I will write about that in the next post.