Month: August 2018

Israel Part Four: “You Are Peter”

The sun shone and the breeze blew and I stared hard at the shore before me. The Sea of Galilee. A piece of history unburied beneath churches or rebuilt roads. This was the actual spot, preserved and waiting to tell a story. And I was all ears.

Out of all the biblical moments that happened in this place on this sea, there was one scene in particular that faded into view. As I watched it unfold in my mind, I called my imagination into action, wanting to hear the crackling fire for myself. To smell the charcoal, the fish, the sea.


Only a chapter over from last week’s story of Mary Magdalene, I stepped into John 21 and found Peter climbing back onto a boat and shoving out to sea.

“Simon Peter, Thomas (called Didymus), Nathanael from Cana in Galilee, the sons of Zebedee, and two other disciples were together. ‘I’m going out to fish,’ Simon Peter told them, and they said, “We’ll go with you” so they went out and got into the boat, but that night they caught nothing.”

One of my annoying habits in life is projecting feelings onto others based on my own assumptions, so maybe I’m way off-base here, but allow me a little “sanctified imagination” as my dad likes to call it. When I read the verses above, I sense a littlefrustration from Peter. Do you hear it?

His declaration isn’t an invitation to an easy night of fishing with friends. It sounds more like an “I have to get out of here and clear my head” statement. Artists use paint brushes, writers use pens and computer keyboards, runners strap on their running shoes. We all have a place we go to unwind knotted up thoughts. For Peter, it was the place he knew best—the sea.


As I stood on that shore, I wondered what Peter must have been thinking out there on the boat. What did he need to clear from his troubled mind? What thoughts pressed in like closing walls around him? Did his vision give way to the shadows and flickering flames in his memory from his hour of shame in Caiaphas’ courtyard? Did the rooster’s cry still ring in his ears with crystal clear clarity? Like a movie montage, I imagine the memories that must have crowded Peter’s mind.

“‘But what about you?’ [Jesus] asked. ‘Who do you say I am?’” Simon Peter answered, ‘You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ Jesus replied, ‘Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church…’”

-Matthew 16:15-18a

We don’t know exactly how long it had been since the night Peter denied knowing Jesus, but I am certain it had not been so long that he had forgotten the weight of what he’d done. In Jesus’ greatest hour of need, Peter had cowered before the consequences that would come from being associated with this man he had called Teacher. Hauling in an empty net in the dark hours of the morning, did the voices of shame sneak in for their attack on his vulnerable heart?  

You are no rock. That might have been true once, but after your cowardice, nothing can be built here. You are just a worthless fisherman. And judging by this empty net, you are not even a very good one. Good job, Peter. You blew it.

I leaned down to touch the water lapping the stones on the shore and felt deeply connected to Peter. I thought of what those voices have said to me before. I thought of how my shoulders have often bent beneath the weight of fear and failure. The accusatory voice of shame, whispering lies about who I am, who I will never be. But a lump caught in my throat when I remembered what happened in this spot all those years ago. How Jesus answered those voices for Peter. How He answers them for me.


Dawn was coming over the hills around them. After a fruitless night of fishing, after sleepless hours of hauling in empty nets, Peter looks to the shore where I now stand and sees a man there calling out to him. Though it took the disciples a minute to realize who He was, the light bulb eventually clicked on and they knew Who was filling their boat with fish. While the other disciples rowed quickly to shore, Peter just couldn’t wait.

Scripture tells us that he vaulted himself into the water and began swimming toward shore.

His shame was heavy, but it could not hold him to the ship. It propelled him over the edge into the water, swimming toward his Savior. Maybe the burden of what he’d done, of what he’d seen and experienced still weighed him down as he swam, but he could not be stopped. The joy of seeing His risen Savior eclipsed all that old shame. He took it to the only One who could lift it. The only One who could set him free.

Psalm 34, verse 5 says, “Those who look to him are radiant; their faces are never covered with shame.” We cannot simultaneously be covered with shame while looking at the face of Jesus. Peter experienced that firsthand when he sloshed out of the waves, dripping with adrenaline, and looked at His Savior. His shame fell from his shoulders when he locked eyes with his Friend, Jesus, and saw the forgiveness waiting for him there.

“Grace exposes then forgives, confronts then comforts, commands then enables, never leaves you to yourself, but will deliver what is needed.”

-Paul David Tripp

In the verses following, Jesus restores Peter and tells him how he will be used in the kingdom going forward. Because he will be used. His sin and betrayal didn’t count him out; the blood of Jesus answered for him. There on the beach, Christ reminds Peter that there is still a place for him to serve. Still a commission to be fulfilled.Feed my sheep. Not because Peter is anything special, but because Jesus is the One who declared it so. “You are Peter,” He says. “This is Your name. This is who you are because of who I am. Because of what I have done for you.”

On that Galilean shore, I stood in overwhelming gratitude that the blood of Jesus speaks for me, too. He is not done with me after failure. He takes the broken pieces of my life and reshapes them into a frame that will display His glory. Nothing is wasted. His gaze on me removes all shame and makes my face radiant.

So maybe today is the day we need to jump out of our brooding boats, swim right past the voices of shame and fear, and emerge from the water right in front of our friend Jesus. We step onto the shore with our eyes locked on His and our ears tuned in to what He is saying about our identity and let every other voice fade away.

“With the arrival of Jesus, the Messiah, that fateful dilemma is resolved. Those who enter into Christ’s being-here-for-us no longer have to live under a continuous, low-lying black cloud. A new power is in operation. The Spirit of life in Christ, like a strong wind, has magnificently cleared the air, freeing you from a fated lifetime of brutal tyranny at the hands of sin and death.

God went for the jugular when he sent his own Son. He didn’t deal with the problem as something remote and unimportant. In his Son, Jesus, he personally took on the human condition, entered the disordered mess of struggling humanity in order to set it right once and for all. The law code, weakened as it always was by fractured human nature, could never have done that.

The law always ended up being used as a Band-Aid on sin instead of a deep healing of it. And now what the law code asked for but we couldn’t deliver is accomplished as we, instead of redoubling our own efforts, simply embrace what the Spirit is doing in us.

Those who think they can do it on their own end up obsessed with measuring their own moral muscle but never get around to exercising it in real life. Those who trust God’s action in them find that God’s Spirit is in them—living and breathing God! Obsession with self in these matters is a dead end; attention to God leads us out into the open, into a spacious, free life.”

-Romans 8:1-6 (The Message)

Israel Part Three: With the Memory of Mary

On the Sunday after our arrival, we set out after church toward Magdala, the hometown of one Mary Magdalene. It was an excavation uncovered only a few years ago, ruins of the city unearthed after all this time. I stepped out into the dust of an old, forgotten town and tried to imagine what it was like when she was there. I saw the remaining stones of the synagogue young Mary would have frequented, and I tried to imagine her there as a child. Was she precocious? Did she squirm or whisper or daydream? Or did she sit as still as the stones around her, enraptured by the idea of a coming Savior?

We don’t know when this happened or how old she was when it did, but Scripture tells us that Mary suffered from demon possession. Though it doesn’t give us the details of how the affliction manifested itself in her, there has never been a case of “mild” demon possession. I let my imagination fill in the gaps of Mary’s story as I walked through what remained of her city. She must have looked atrocious. Fierce. Out of control. She was a prisoner in her own skin. Trapped like a frightened animal caught in a cage. Isolated and oppressed with no hope of escape.

We don’t know much about her family or her community, but I have to wonder about how they treated her in her illness. Did they see her as a threat? As a liability? As an embarrassment? Was she kept behind closed doors or sent far away?

Walking around the ruins of that city, I wondered what her first encounter with Jesus was like. Had she heard the whispers about Him? Had the demons inside her become more violent and demonstrative because they sensed their time in her body was nearing an end? Did she long to get close, or did she try to hide her infirmities?

I don’t know how they came to be face-to-face. I don’t know if she met Him on the road or heard Him in the synagogue or hosted Him in her family’s home. Wherever it was though, Jesus stepped right into the middle of her sickness, her hopelessness, her loneliness, and commanded the storm inside her to be still. At the sound of His voice, the demons fled. And for the first time since the siege had begun on her body and mind, Mary breathed a sigh of relief. Reeling with her newfound freedom, she lifted her face and locked eyes with her Savior.

Not just the Savior she’d heard of all her life. The One who was coming for the salvation of her people, for the entire human race. Oh, it was Him alright. That same Savior who was the promised Messiah from the big picture prophecies. But I wonder if in that moment, looking into His compassionate countenance, she realized that He was also the Savior who had come for her specifically. For Mary of Magdala. He was the Savior who had come to set her free.


This wasn’t the first time I’d thought of Mary Magdalene on this trip. In last week’s blog, I mentioned my moments at The Garden Tomb on the first day, but I didn’t tell you that while I was there, her shadow slipped in and sat beside me on that bench in the shade. I thought of how terrified she must have been in those moments alone outside the tomb. I wondered if she slept a wink that first night after her Savior and friend drew His last breath. I imagined she tossed and turned with fear. While the other disciples cowered behind locked doors and slammed shutters fearing political repercussions for their associations with Jesus, Mary might have been terrorized by even more gruesome prospects. Who could think of Roman capture or religious scorn when the memory of an enemy far greater and more oppressive lingered at the door of her mind. I wondered if she turned over unthinkable questions as she grieved. Would the demons return to reclaim what Jesus had set free? Now that He was gone, was she no longer safe? Would the peace she had known since her liberation be coming to an end?

Sitting there on a wooden bench listening to the Gospel presentation, I went in my mind to the scene in John 20. Mary stands in the garden weeping. The body of her Savior has been stolen, and the wounds of her grief, still raw from the past three days, are ripped wide open.

“…she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus. He asked her, ‘Woman, why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?’ Thinking he was the gardener, she said, ‘Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Mary.’

He called her by name, and in that instant, she knew it was Him. He was alive, and she was safe. The ghosts and shadows of old demons disappeared in the light of His presence, at the sound of His voice.

I’ve talked about this before, but it still grips me with such power when I think of it. Jesus knows our names. He is simultaneously the Savior of the whole, nameless world, and the Savior of each one of us specifically. Individually. Personally. He is the God who stepped into humanity’s collective mess, and He is the God who steps into my mess. And because I know the whole story, I don’t cry at the tomb for same reason Mary did in John 20.

My tears spill down my cheeks out of overwhelming gratitude.

Gratitude for broken chains.

For debts paid.

For life when I deserved death.

For a personal Savior who looked on me with compassion and called out my name.

And sitting there with the memory of Mary Magdalene close by, I heard Him call it again. Take a moment, and be still, friend. Sit with us here, and listen closely.

Don’t you hear Him calling yours?

 

 

 

 

Israel Part Two: In the Shadow of an Empty Tomb

At 11:30 AM, we stepped off a crowded airplane after fifteen hours of travel and immediately crammed onto a tour bus. The melatonin I’d taken on the plane had done little to aid my rest, and it was a dark and sleepy 3:30 AM back in Tennessee. Bleary-eyed, I stared through the window, trying to soak in this reality. I was finally here.

Somewhere old. Somewhere new.

After lunch, we started with the Mount of Olives and walked down through the streets on the Palm Sunday route. The overlook outside the church on the Mount of Olives stood opposite the Eastern gate once opened for the entering Savior. Days before He was crucified, Jesus rode into Jerusalem, through that gate, under the high praise of the people who would call for His life to be taken only a few days later.

This was the view Jesus saw as He wept over the city that would reject him. Yet He rode on anyway, steadfast toward the cross.

Out of His great love, He rode on.

On our trek down the mountain, we stopped at the Garden of Gethsemane. It was Thursday, and that was not lost on me. I began to imagine that Thursday all those years ago. My Savior in this place, the night before His crucifixion. A lump caught in my throat as I read aloud the Scripture describing His moments in that place. “And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly…” (Lk. 22:44a)

I saw Him there, kneeling in the dust beneath the shadow of a tree. This was the garden that had watched great drops of blood fall from His forehead and stain the earth below. I saw Him there, rocking back and forth slowly in agony.

Agony. I couldn’t let go of that word as I stared into the garden. Agony on my behalf. On behalf of every human heart and the cost redemption would require.

There are two sites in Jerusalem where they believe Jesus’ burial and resurrection may have occurred, and truthfully, the one we saw a few days later has a few more geographical points in its favor. But I wasn’t here to double check for absolute certain that the tomb was empty. I believed the answer to that question a long time ago.

I was here to worship.

Once I crossed the threshold of our final stop for day one, my heart snapped to attention. The Garden Tomb. This is what I came for, I thought. I can’t miss it. I cannot miss this moment.

But oh, how I was weary. The sights had been heavy and hard to process while moving so quickly through each stop, and the day had been unbelievably long.

I was jet lagged and exhausted, and the Israeli desert had been relentless; I was inching closer to dehydration and ready to find a cool place to sit for a while.

And wouldn’t you know, I found rest in the garden.

We were ushered into the shade of gracious trees and allowed to sit and rest our aching legs and feet.

And as I recount this story, I think how very right that is, that we should find rest there outside the empty tomb.

Because the empty tomb means rest for more than aching bones. It means rest for tired hearts who are worn plumb out from fighting for their own freedom. It means rest for the broken spirits who are weary from striving toward perfection. It means rest for all the lost and abandoned souls who have worked hard to be found worthy of finding. It means rest from grief, from loss, from shame.

The empty tomb means victory. Release. Life instead of death.


We sat in the garden just outside the tomb listening to a tour guide named Caesar share again the story of redemption. Its familiarity made it no less overwhelming. That a God like that would love a girl like me. Would love me so fiercely and unconditionally that He would wrap Himself in human flesh, live a sinless life, and die on a shameful cross, all to pay the price for my sin.

To redeem me.

It’s the greatest story ever told. The whole reason we were there.  

It was a powerful moment hearing that truth spoken in the very land where it all happened, and I will never forget that experience. But here’s what is absolutely, without a doubt true: it’s a powerful story anywhere. It’s a powerful love that finds you wherever you are today. You don’t have to fly all the way around the world to find rest at an empty tomb. You don’t have to have a passport to experience peace.

The beauty of the Gospel is that Jesus came to us.

And because the tomb is empty, because He is alive, He comes to us still.

Wherever you are, whatever circumstances hem you in today, whatever battles you have looming in the distance, Jesus will meet you there. Right there in the middle of it. He has not forgotten you. He has not abandoned you or written you off as a lost cause. He has come close, and He invites you to sit in the garden, unload every burden, and rest in the shadow of an empty tomb.

Israel Part One: Welcome Back

When I arrived home from my world travels a few weeks ago, I was greeted cheerfully by my $10 doormat that reads cheekily, “Hello Gorgeous.”

I was not in that moment.

I was filthy with the grime of 20+ hours in airports, on planes, above oceans. I had spent an entire day in the company of thousands of other tired, gross voyagers, so I knew with certainty that my welcome mat was being intentionally hurtful.

But I didn’t really care, because I was home.

If you’re reading this and wondering where I’ve been recently, I’d point you to everywhere. July was all over the map. Truthfully, 2018 has been all over the map. I worried last week as I pulled up to the Nashville airport for the gazillionth time that they might start charging me rent.

But if you’re asking about the only trip that required my passport, I’d point you to a sliver of land between Jordan and Egypt.


I was offered the opportunity to join the team going to Israel less than twenty days before the departure date. A spot had opened up, and I had about three hours to decide if I wanted to take it.

Because I am who I am and old habits die incredibly hard and slow deaths, I began immediately thinking of all the reasons not to go. There was a whole crew of them but the one at the wheel, the captain at the helm of the ship, was a familiar face. Fear herself, barking orders to hoist the sail and ride the wind of doubt right on out of this idea.

It was risky.

I hadn’t seen an agenda after all, and if you don’t already know this about me, listen close: I DO NOT LIKE TO TRAVEL WITHOUT AN AGENDA.

It makes me crazy not to have the details typed neatly out in all the trip’s color-coded glory.

But I had no itinerary, no plan, no idea what was ahead of me. All I saw was a door swung wide open and an opportunity to walk through it. In a matter of hours, I had to decide if I was going to be brave enough to get on the plane.

The only option was a blind yes or no.


Do you know that feeling right after you decide to jump straight into the pool instead of easing into the water? The feeling of nervous anticipation? You know the water will be cold, a shock to your system. You know it will take your breath away and be a little uncomfortable the minute you hit the water. But you’ve already decided to jump. You’ve made the preliminary decision to be brave, and there’s no backing out now. All that’s left to do is close your eyes, hold your breath, and jump.

That’s how I felt when I arrived at the airport on our departure date. Completely out of control in the best way possible. I got on the plane (still) without a color-coded agenda and with only a handful of informational tidbits as to what the next two weeks would hold. But I had already decided to trust the Lord with this trip; now it was time to put my feet in the water, and watch Him fold the river back.


A few days before I left, I picked up a pen again. Not a metaphorical pen. A real one. My favorite actually—a Pilot G-2 07.

(Pilot, if you’re listening, give me a shout if y’all need a spokesperson. My supply is running low, and my sponsorship fee can be paid in pink and purple ink.)

Though I normally gravitate toward a keyboard, a blank Word doc, and a blinking cursor, I felt like I needed to remind myself of what it felt like to hold the instrument in my hand.

And the truth is, the blinking cursor had been taunting and intimidating me for months. I haven’t published anything since Christmas for a lot of different reasons: busyness with work, the aforementioned all-over-the-mapness, responsibilities, deadlines, etc. All valid and understandable, season-oriented reasons. But I’d be lying if I didn’t mention Fear as well. There’s always a persistent, low whisper in the back of my mind that wonders if I’ve run out.

Maybe the last creative thought I had was the last creative thought I’ll ever have. Maybe the last cohesive piece I wrote was the best it’ll ever be. Maybe the gift and joy of writing has run dry.

So the command to write has lived in perpetual purgatory on my to-do list for the last seven months. Some days, it barked bossily at me to get up and put some words on a page for crying out loud. Other days, it just looked mournfully up at me wondering what it had done wrong to make me desert it so completely.

But a few weeks ago, as I sat with my notebook in my lap and my pen in my hand, I began to remember some very important things. I began to remember how much I needed it. Watching the life-blood of my favorite pen run out behind my thoughts, I remembered that this was my best chance of untangling the knots in my head and in my heart. I remembered that this is my best hope of unloading what’s heavy.


The Lord used my trip to work out a lot of things in my heart and mind, but each one fit inside a constant theme: Would I be brave? Would I trust Him enough to take Him at His Word? To follow Him into the unknown without an itinerary or agenda? Would I be obedient and take the next right step, wherever that led?

For me, in this moment, the next right step is to ignore Fear and write it all down. To pull out my pen and spill some ink.