In a way, the image for this post reflects some of the extremes I’ve been experiencing lately. There is so much beauty around me, yet I find myself drowning in the surrounding view or the darkness of night when I feel like I can’t see at all. The flower in this picture is indeed beautiful. After a bit of work and editing to focus on it, I like the way the photo came out. However, I didn’t really appreciate the fine details and its intricate design until I tried a portrait mode setting on my iPhone, enabling a studio black background that accentuates the incredible detail of a flower hanging from a tree.
The black feelings kept me from seeing the wonder of what God is doing
These past few weeks have been rather bleak for me. I’ve been battling some very real physical issues, and with my 66th birthday drawing near, I was starting to realize that I’m not so young anymore.
Everything seemed like a battle, from preparing my English lessons for the Chinese Church to getting up and going to work every day. Granted, it was not all due to my bleak mood… but in a way, it was connected. I’ve had some challenging intestinal issues, and my right knee has been bothering me on and off. The intestinal issues have no easy solution, and the knee seems to be headed towards replacement surgery in November. Dealing with it all is exhausting in and of itself… where is there beauty in all this struggle? Over and over, trying not to think about how old I am, not wanting to think about future retirement, not wanting to think about how much I need help at times, how much I need others in my life…
I am so thankful for my Chinese friends who arranged a surprise birthday party for me, the kind I needed. Just a bunch of friends, a nice card, a couple of small gifts, and lots of love and laughter. For a few minutes, I was able to break out of my self-absorption and be thankful for what God is doing in my life. But, I also realized that I’d gotten into a very bad rut. I needed a break.
A couple of days in the Galilee
This week I spent a couple of nights in Magdala Hotel – a new hotel on the Sea of Galilee, built literally on the archeological site of Magdala. I went with no plans, and no expectations, just a longing – to somehow meet with the Lord and draw near to Him, to gain a new perspective. A friend of mine, Nancy, joined me. She, too, needed some time to just rest and be quiet.
It was a wonderful and encouraging time. Lots of little things happened. We arrived just on time to attend an evening worship service there. The priest reminded us that the object of our faith is Jesus… but somehow, the way he shared it made me realize that even there, it is Jesus who gives me faith, and it is HIS faith that carries me. My faith is the mustard seed that says to Him, “I’m yours.” The rest is all Him. I felt like a heavy burden had been lifted from me.
From that point on, nothing worked out quite the way we’d hoped. Nancy and I had wanted to visit a couple of favorite sites along the Sea of Galilee, but most of them were closed. Due to the lack of tourism, most of the sites were only open a few hours a few days a week – and not when we were there!
Plan B was, where can we go that is open? Another nearby site, the Greek Orthodox Church of the Twelve Apostles, was open. Nancy had been there, but I hadn’t. So we went. I have to be honest; I had never wanted to go there. I’d figured it would be filled with people praying to icons and lighting candles. I was wrong.
With hardly anyone else around, we were able to enjoy the beauty of the place. Despite the heat of the day (it was around 90°F), everything was green, and flowers were blooming. We came across a tree with amazing flowers hanging from the branches, so I took a few minutes to try and get a good shot of one (the flower in this post). Finally, we entered the church. It was empty, and we could take the time to look closely at the artwork inside it.
We asked the priest a question about one of the paintings, which I was certain I’d seen in Istanbul. He smiled. I was looking at the only duplicate of that painting in the world. It’s an amazing painting showing Jesus descending into hades to take “captivity captive” and bringing the captives to heaven – which, according to most church traditions, is the prophets, judges, and righteous people who had died before Jesus rose from the dead.
Then the priest proceeded to give us a full explanation of everything we were seeing. Suddenly, we saw the iconic art in a whole new way. But what really impressed me was his obvious joy in talking about his savior, Jesus, and what He has done for us. I realized that this was a brother whom I might not meet again here in Israel, but for sure, we will meet again in heaven and worship together the Lamb of God.
Outside of the church was a lovely area by the shore. Nancy and I sat there to sing and praise the Lord. As we sang, all the birds around us seemed to join in and even seemed to dance in a private aerial show just for us. A peacock had followed us and sat listening. He scurried away when some other people came to see the area. But as soon as they left, the peacock returned.
We sang until we ran out of voice (and water), and decided to see what was open in Tiberias.
Visiting a favorite museum for the first time in 30 years
The day’s surprises were far from over. There was a small museum I had once visited when I first came to Israel in 1982. I’d always wanted to go back. However, despite visiting Tiberias dozens of times since then – the museum had never been open when I was there.
To our surprise, it was open! What a treat – to enjoy the area’s history, some of the best-preserved mosaics from the 2nd-3rd Century, and hot springs, some of which reached 60°C (140°F)!
But perhaps what impressed my heart the most strongly was my last morning at Magdala. I had wanted to visit the church there (we still had not gotten to see the huge painting they have that represents the woman touching the hem of Jesus’s robe and being healed). However, it was locked shut… again, a different schedule because of the lack of tourism.
“He is not here, why are you looking for the living among the dead?”
I went to sit on a wall looking into the ancient synagogue there. Based on scripture, it was highly likely that Jesus had been there. As I thought about the history of Magdala, the wealth of the town, and the opulence that had been found in the synagogue, I wondered if Jesus had even been welcomed there. Or would people have wanted to rush him away… a poor dusty man with no attractive appearance to draw them. I wondered if Mary had been the only one who knew she needed Him, and I caught myself wishing I could have heard the few words Jesus might have spoken in this ancient town.
Then, as clear as a bell, the thought filled my mind, “He is not here – why are you looking for the living among the dead? This is not your final resting place.”
I realized that I had come here seeking Jesus, but Jesus was not to be found in the ancient stones of history. As beautiful and inspiring as Magdala was, if I had thought I’d find the rest I needed there or meditating in front of the beautiful artwork in a chapel, it wouldn’t happen.
I had found Jesus in fellowship
I needed to change my focus. When had I experienced Jesus on this trip? It was in listening to the Catholic priest share a deeper perspective of faith; it was in the joyful words of the Greek Orthodox priest as he quoted beloved scripture to explain the stores in the artwork we saw. It was in singing praises with a sister in the Lord and rejoicing together in His goodness to us.
All the morning meditations during my quiet time had been possible because of what I’d enjoyed with others, what I’d learned, and what I was praising God for and giving Him thanks for.
Where was I going to focus? On the blackness in my life? My inability, my waning health, my aging, my (very real) losses, my lack of strength, and my failure… or was my focus on the beauty of what Jesus was doing and being thankful that He had not left me alone in the journey?
Was I seeing the beautiful petals he had so intricately bound together? The petals of myself, my sister Nancy, and the priests we’d shared with at Magdala and the Greek Orthodox church? Together we had celebrated the wonder of the faith God has given us, and rejoiced in the divine Jesus clothed in humanity to save us.
The wonder of the Church Universal
I realized that we, together with them, and the entire body of Christ – the Church – is part of a greater plan, each one a petal of an intricately designed flower, delighting the eyes of those with eyes to see – a flower whose beauty is unique because of its dependence on the tree from which it grows, a tree that provides the way for it to bloom, a tree that gives true nourishment, a tree that is the life.
We forget that God wants us to need each other
I have realized that I’d forgotten that needing other people in our lives is from God. That is why He established the Church. I’m not talking just about the local congregation, the place where we meet for worship. I’m talking about every believer in Jesus who comprises the Church – the Body of Christ.
The Church is so much bigger than we realize. As I ponder this, I think about the people I’ve been particularly missing lately, friends, Rich, even my parents – though they’ve been gone for decades! I miss precious saints who have gone before me. Somehow, during this trip, I’ve been reminded of the greater body of Christ – the Church Universal. We all need each other, and in a very amazing way, Jesus has made us one in Him… we are one by faith in Jesus with all those who also believe – those who are alive physically now and those who are alive but with the Lord!
We can and should treasure and rejoice in each other. But maybe we should also start to celebrate our differences, because, despite them, God is making us into a vast number that no man can count. We need each other. I need you and you need me. We challenge, inspire, and encourage each other.
But we have brothers and sisters around the world whom we’ve never met. We need them too. We need their testimony, their faithfulness, their love of Jesus. It encourages us, and God works in all of us in an amazing way beyond our comprehension.
Every believer in Jesus is connected to the same tree
But I had to see that flower in the black. To see how intricately each petal is created and how each petal is dependent on the other. Some are not even aware of their connection to each other, yet we are all connected to the same tree. What a beautiful thing God has created in making you and I members of the body of Christ – a part of His church. I hope these musings encourage you today.