The Cancer – COVID Connection

2020 definitely is one for the books. Especially for the Ruel family, it’s been one thing after another. One thing is always certain in times of trial – God is good and He is in this with us.

But what exactly is God doing in the midst of trial? Most of the time, we don’t know.

We know generally that He is working all things for His glory and our good. [Romans 8:28-29] Sometimes, we can get a little obsessed with trying to figure out exactly what it is God is trying to teach us in the middle of the trial, thinking that if we learn all the lessons quickly – He will end the trial.

It usually doesn’t work like that. God is doing BILLIONS of things at all times, and every once in a while we get to see a few of them.

On January 7, 2020 God saw fit to allow me to have been diagnosed with Metastatic Squamous Cell Carcinoma, at the exact same moment that my wife was with her father in Florida as he was passing away.

Now, after months of grieving, 3 surgeries and weeks of radiation there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Has God taught me anything in this trial? Yes, absolutely. Is He still teaching me things? Yes, absolutely. I’ll share with you one of them.

As the light at the end of the tunnel grows brighter, the temptation increases to find my contentment at the end of the trial. The lesson is this – contentment needs to be found in the midst of the trial, not when the trial is over.

I’m quite certain you are all painfully aware of another star player for 2020 – the global COVID pandemic that has literally shut the world down. This is like nothing we have ever seen – everyone working from home, stores and restaurants closed, schools shut down and moved to online learning, professional sports on hold, or playing to empty stadiums, churches not able to gather in person, have all exclusively moved to live-streaming their services.

Right now, as we are over three months into this COVID lockdown, what is the biggest question on everyone’s minds? “WHEN will everything get back to normal? I can’t take this anymore!” What are we really saying in that sentiment? I’ll be OK when everything returns to normal.

There is the cancer-COVID connection. The lie is this: contentment is found at the end of the trial, not in the middle of it. The whole idea of contentment is that we are at peace in the midst of troubling circumstances, not in the absence of them!

There is a very powerful verse in Proverbs that speaks to this truth –

“Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.”
(Proverbs 13:12 ESV)

If we keep setting our hope in what keeps getting pushed off…what is the result? A sick heart. If all my hope is set on how happy I’ll be once cancer is over, it’s the wrong place to put your hope. Because guess what? Setting my hope there is unrealistic, because it is inferring that once this is over, everything will be OK. That’s just not the case. Will life be easier? Sure. Will everything be OK? No.

When the COVID lockdown is over, will it be sweet? You betcha. Will everything therefore be OK? Nope. Things will still go wrong, trials will still come, fear, worry and anxiety will still come knocking.

So the biblical idea is to train our hearts to hope in what is sure, true, and eternal. To not hope in circumstances getting better, but to hope in the God who is behind the circumstances.

A biblical worldview is one that explains that in this life, things will never be totally OK. This world is broken and we see the symptoms of the brokenness every day in things like COVID and cancer. It’s broken because we rejected God as our rightful King and in so doing not only fractured our relationship with him, but opened pandora’s box and out came sin and all its effects. Sin, therefore, will always be infecting, staining, stealing some aspect of our earthly lives. To put all our hope then in this life, is to end up with sick heart.

So what should be the object of our hope? The biblical solution to sin – Jesus Christ – whose sacrifice is the only thing that can make “everything OK.” That through faith, we might experience a hope, a bulletproof hope, that goes beyond this life and what awaits us in eternity. The reality is that some things will never be made right in this life, but in Jesus, all will be made right in the next. COVID and cancer will be gone. My wife will see her dad again in heaven.

Therein lies our hope in the midst of trials, not that everything will be OK because the trial will be over, but we hope in Jesus when the trial is at its darkest.

Book Review: Finding the Right Hills to Die On

I saw this book fly by and it caught my eye immediately. As a Pastors/Elders, one of the frequent tasks we are called to is untangling false teaching. How can we do that in a way that is gentle, and sensitive [2 Timothy 2:24-26]…yet still fulfills the Biblical command to “protect the flock from wolves?” [acts 20:28-30]

Finding the Right Hills to Die On: The Case for Theological Triage, is written by Gavin Ortlund. It’s my first time reading anything by Gavin, but I have been immensely helped by his father Ray’s writings and teachings.

Gavin rightly points out from the jump, that the term “theological triage” is something that Albert Mohler developed, which the author does a masterful job of taking further and theory and application.

All doctrines are not created equal and it is actually essential that we make accurate biblical distinctions. You would think that a focus on doctrinal distinctions would create more division, but Ortlund rightly points the dangers of simply equating all doctrines “What is at stake? For starters, equating all doctrines leads to unnecessary division and undermines the unity of the church.” [43]

How do we do this well and not make everything a heresy hunt…because [gasp] not every doctrinal difference is heresy. [Despite what the pitchfork-weilding mobs on Twitter may say.]. Christians have to find a way to unite, without compromising on what is actually heresy. Ortund’s heart is seen quickly in this book, calling us to examine our own hearts, asking “Do we want unity? Is it a value to us, as it is to Jesus?” [59]

Yes, we do. Or…at least we need to want unity. We should. Christians aren’t the only ones who read the Twitter wars, you know.

What buckets do we separate doctrinal issues into? [Chapter 2]

  • First-rank doctrines are those that are essential to the gospel itself.
  • Second-rank doctrines are urgent for the health and practice of the church to such a degree that they tend to be the cause of separation at the level of local church, denomination, and/or ministry.
  • Third-rank doctrines are important to Christian theology, but not important enough to be the basis for separation.
  • Fourth-rank doctrines are unimportant to our gospel witness and ministry collaboration.

I genuinely loved Chapter 3, which was a transparent testimony of Ortlund’s own journey through the waters of doctrinal triage. I loved how he worked through big issues, like baptism, creation…with an open Bible and lots of conversations. That’s the thing I think we are missing in all this – we need to have more conversations. Not skirmishes. Conversations.

That being said, Ortlund is calling us to overlay some very important clarifying questions on top of the doctrinal triage buckets: [129]

  1. How Clear is the Bible on this doctrine?
  2. What is the doctrine’s importance to the gospel?
  3. What is the testimony of the historical church concerning this doctrine?
  4. What is the doctrine’s effect upon the church today?

Ortlund immediately gives us some practical handles to grab on to this concept. As always, it isn’t always black and white. “We should distinguish between what must be affirmed and what most not be denied. Related to this, we must distinguish between what must be affirmed when someone becomes a Christian and what must be affirmed as a characteristic of growth in Christ over time.” [131]

Why? Because people are in the middle. One of my favorite quotes nails this “We must distinguish between confused sheep and active wolves.” [133]

In the world of “first-rank” doctrines, we are talking about things like the virgin birth and justification by faith alone. When we start exploring the implications of alternate views based on the clarifying questions above, it quickly becomes apparent, there are definitely some hills worth dying on. Just not all of them.

As for “second-rank” doctrines we look to issues such as baptism, spiritual gifts, and women in ministry. Ortlund immediately notes that these issues are harder to rank and not “ever doctrine fits neatly into one of three or four categories. Doctrines to not exist in a theological vacuum, context and usage matters, and so do attitudes. Theological triage is, therefore, about far more than technical correctness in adjudicating this or that doctrine. It involves our whole posture towards theology.” [167-8ish]

Gavin navigates each of these issues deftly and humbly in the book, bringing in questions 1-4 above to increase focus, teasing out different angles to make us think more critically on these issues, as opposed to just making a call.

“Third-rank” doctrines include things like the millennium and days of creation. The central thought behind it being just because we could fight a battle…doesn’t mean we should. I love that, our default position should not be one of battle, but of humility.

Ortlund thinks the same way has he ends the book with the conclusion chapter “A Call to Theological Humility.” He writes “In doing theological triage, humility is the first thing, the second thing, and the third thing. It is our constant need, no matter what issue we are facing.” [258]

This directly relates to the unity of the church. “If maintaining the unity of the body of Christ is not costing you anything – if it doesn’t hurt – then you probably aren’t adjusting enough.” [266]

What a great book. I could see this book becoming a great resource for new elders, deacons, or small group leaders. It is also a very well researched book. There are extensive chapter end notes, for further study.

This book is not for theological nerds or Twitter hit men looking for a fight. It is for all of us. We should all be wanting to better engage in doctrinal conversations and promote humility and nity in the church. Grab this one and keep it on your shelf!

Israel 2019: Last Day

Welp, it’s finally here: our last day.  And WHAT a day it was.

First, I just dumped 70 more photos onto the Google Photos page.  So…have at ’em.

One of the highlights of the whole trip was today’s visit to Nazereth, Jesus’ home town, and it was grand.  It was a mini-replica of all things New Testament times and there were so many things to enjoy and learn, even though my brain hurts and is swollen.

We saw a replica of a working village – complete with biblical characters, an olive press worked by a donkey, a carpenter’s shop, pottery shop, a replica of a tomb like Jesus’…but the highlight of this highlight was the replica of a synagogue.

My friend Ryan blessed me by asking me to read the section of Luke 4 where Jesus enters the synagogue at Nazareth and reads Isaiah 61 from the scrolls…only to then claim it as pertaining to himself and thus publicly stating he is the Messiah. [photo creds to the abnormally talented Hunter Stevens for snagging this pic. Seriously, check out his pictures from this trip, crazy good eye.  #gpbcisreal on FB/IG]

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This indeed was a special moment, one that gave depth and profound intensity as we thought about that moment.

We then went to Megiddo, where there were many epic battles from the 15th century BC to WWI in the valley there, and boatloads of history there.

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Our final stop was Caesarea, which again…another city just jammed with centuries of history, and is just gorgeous.  Sitting right on the Mediterranean Sea. Built by Herod the Great about 25BC.  So many sites within that spot.  Aqueducts, a hippodrome [think first century NASCAR], a theater, the remains of Herod’s Palace and so much more.

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This trip has been AMAZING.  I’m sure we will be processing all these things for years to come and we are already talking about the next trip…probably in a few years, so start saving your shekels.

A giant thank you to the Highlands family and all the many ways you have made this trip possible for us.  We are blessed beyond measure and can’t wait to share all the many lessons with you soon!

…and now for a 12 hr flight home! 🙂

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Days 7.25 and 8 [ish]

[Google Photos page updated]

We started Tuesday with a morning hike up Mount Arbel, which provided amazing views of everything below. The group is continually struck by how people used to live – like climbing a mountain is NBD to them. People were used to their environment.  We come in from America and wonder how anyone could live in such a harsh place, yet to them it’s just home.

galilee-and-nazareth-from-mt-arbel

People also did what they had to in order to survive.  If an enemy was coming, you climbed the mountain and lived in a cave.  No indoor plumbing, no phone chargers, no Netflix.  Just you and your family surviving.

After that, we went to the traditional site of the Mount of Beatitudes.  In Jesus’s first sermon, he calls Christians to go beyond an empty following of tradition, and “exceed the righteousness of the Pharisees.” [5:20] How can we possibly do that…unless someone is righteous for us. That someone is Jesus and salvation is by faith alone.

After that, we visited the ancient cities of Chorazin and Capernaum. Chorazin was one of the cities that was cursed by Jesus in the gospels [see Matthew 11:21; Luke 10:13] for unbelief.  They saw Jesus’ miracles all over the region of Galilee and yet somehow, still people rejected Him.  Indeed, some reject Him still. [read more about Chorazin here.]

Capernaum was a bit of a different story.  Let’s talk about the history first.  In Capernaum, archeologists have found an enormous, ancient, and beautiful synagogue.

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This synagogue is like many other sites in the Holy Land in that it spans several time periods.  You can see the black volcanic rock of the time of Jesus and then the next layer of white stone of the later centuries, which accounts for the buildings that are still standing today. See pic and sign below.

capernaum-synagogue-foundation-and-sign

We have good reason to believe that Jesus actually taught here during his time at Capernaum.  [Wikipedia has a quick summary here.]

The more difficult part of the site is the alleged house of Peter, where a Catholic Church has been built upon.  The site also includes a statue of Peter, where people waited in line to touch, pray to, and have their picture taken.  I grabbed a quick shot, but didn’t even get it in frame before I was bumped out of the way by someone pushing in.

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This points out a colossal difference in theology that has big effects in life.  Again, as mentioned in previous posts, relics and holy sites can’t help us get closer to God.  Praying to a statue is idolatry and a violation of the second commandment.  Let’s explore how that plays into some of the things here.

The verse on the statue is Matthew 16:18, where Jesus has just wrapped up a conversation with the disciples about who he really was.  Peter confesses “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God. [16:15].

Then Jesus responds –

“And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.” (Matthew 16:17–18 ESV)

In Catholic theology, this is the ordination of Peter as the first pope and head of the church.  However, this can’t be correct.  It’s not Peter who is the head, it’s Jesus. [See Ephesians 4:15, 5:23, etc.] The church doesn’t belong to Peter, it belongs to Jesus, who just said that he will build HIS church, not Peter’s church.

It wasn’t Peter himself that the church will be built on, but rather what Peter said – the rock solid truth of Jesus Christ as the Son of God. THAT’s what the church should be built on.  Not a man, Jesus – the Son of Man. It was difficult to see the desperation of some, clamoring for a connection to God through an empty statue.

Thank you Jesus, who is our righteousness.

After that, we skipped the pay toilets and headed to see a legit Galilean fishing boat that was discovered in the 1980’s and restored.

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What a remarkable find, and a great story of collaboration and hard work that allows us to see a real chunk of history from the time of Jesus.

After a yummy lunch on the water and a bird show, we headed to the Jordan River, the source of water for the Sea of Galilee.

This is a popular baptism site, and indeed there were several people being baptized right then and there in the waters of the Jordan.  Baptism is a critical part of the Christian faith [see post on the Highlands blog from this Summer] and, although I would take issue with the commercialization and out-of-church-context baptismal setting, it was good to see people excited about their new life in Jesus.

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After paying for the toilets this time [and believe me, it wasn’t worth the price of admission] then we had the chance for a sunset boat ride on Galilee.  This was absolutely one of the high points of the trip.  Michael Boys lead us in a time of reflection from God’s Word and it hit me like a ton of bricks that I was looking at the same sights as Jesus did.  The water.  The mountains.  The setting sun.  How many times had he done this?  It was so peaceful and beautiful.

 

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And THAT is why this trip is amazing. We are so thankful that we got the chance to be here. This should be on every Christian’s bucket list. In the midst of the non-stop walking and information overflow, the crowds, the tension of theology overflowing into life – there is Jesus.  It’s all about Him.

 

 

Israel Day 6 and 7.25 – ExtraBiblical History

Day 6 started on a sober note as we spent a few hours in the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum.   What human beings are capable of, by continued and prolonged rationalization and sin.  Even though this was not a Biblical site, we saw the reality of original sin and evil in the world.

In a way, history keeps repeating itself.  When we lose sight of God, we lose sight of a God-centered, Biblical-centered worldview.  ALL human beings – whether they haven’t been born yet, or they are refugees from war torn countries, or they are helpless and poverty stricken in a third world country, or they are a 95-year old in a nursing home – are made in the image of God and have value, dignity, and worth.

What’s the solution to evil?  God provided one in Jesus.  Who dealt evil, sin and death a mortal wound when he rose from the grave and will one day return to bring final and permanent defeat.

From there, we went to Genesis Land, where Mel and I rode a camel to a tent in the desert and sat and more yummy food.

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After that, we made our way, via cable car, to Masada.  The site of incredible history.  You can read all about it here.  But in a nutshell, it was one of Herod’s palaces.  A place of an incredible stand-off with the Jews, stunning architecture and engineering, and tremendous views.

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We then settled into our hotel on the Dead Sea, surrounded by mountains.  After another nice meal, and some more desert that I didn’t need, we hit the sack and got up early to see [most of] the sun rise over the water and then floated in the Dead Sea…which is NUTS, and fun.

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Today we are off to Qumran, where they found the Dead Sea Scrolls, and a few other places.  Word on the street is that there is lots of walking today.  That’s good, yesterday I only walked 6.89 miles.

Israel Day 5 – Tombs

Today was Tomb Day – specifically the Garden Tomb and also the Church of the Sepulchre.  Both of which are traditionally held to be the possible place where Jesus’ tomb is today…for different reasons.

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First the Garden Tomb.  Such a beautiful and peaceful place.  We took a time of meditation and prayer before going in, which was a beautiful and emotional time together with everyone.

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Is this the exact place of Jesus’ burial?  Definitely maybe.  But it DID happen, somewhere very close to here, that is certain.  And the reality of what it accomplished for us – our new life, our reconciliation with God, our forgiveness, is also certain.

In between, we stopped at the Jerusalem Prayer Center and visited with gracious hosts, and simply prayed. It was a truly peaceful place and another profound experience for us to be taken from the hustle and bustle of touring around to being in quiet, and prayerfully contemplating what we had just experienced in the Garden Tomb.  Our hearts were full and content in Jesus.

As a complete contrast to all of that was the Church of the Sepulchre.  It was completely jammed with people.  Almost chaotic.  So many different groups and sects of Christianity clamoring around different parts of the church.

At the center of it all is the Aedicula – or the shrine where Jesus’ tomb is.  There was a line that seemed like it went on for miles, wrapping completely around the circular structure. Different groups speaking all different languages, all anxiously queued up, waiting for their moment.

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Yet all around them, others were pressing their faces on other holy relics at other various stations. Putting souvenirs on top of them in hopes that some of the “holiness” would be transferred to whatever it was.

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In a word – sad.  It is sad that this is where we have come. So far from what Jesus came to do.  So far from the peace and simple worshipful solitude of the Garden Tomb.

People just absolutely desperate – so desperate for healing, or power, or purpose…or whatever drives someone to stand on line for hours just to touch something.

I immediately thought of the 2nd commandment – “You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.” (Exodus 20:4 ESV)

This is no different.  This is idolatry. This is not our God.  This is not the God of Scripture.  This is not the God that lives inside believers as the Holy Spirit when any of us repents of all the ways we try and fix ourselves and simply believe in Jesus and live like it.

Was this the place of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial?  Maybe.  Did it happen at all? Definitely.  Are we supposed to make shrines out of relics and worship them? Not a chance.

I think we all needed to process these two very different sites…and what better way to do that than with more shwarama and falafel.  [and pizza for others].

After lunch, we were released for some free time in the Old City to shop.  Mel and I had a great time just wandering around the market, going with the flow of hundreds of people all scurrying about, buying more things, eating the best dates we ever had, and drinking the greatest middle eastern mint tea.  The sights, sounds, and smells of the Old City are truly to be treasured.

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Tomorrow, we head off to more distant historical sites and may even get to finally float in the Dead Sea.

 

Israel Day 4 – Jerusalem Part 3

OK, so.

Google Photo page is updated…took lots of pics today, so be forewarned.

We started the day by seeing some of the remnants of the original City of David and some of the artifacts. Why is that awesome?  Welp, this is a pretty recent find and it is so awesome because they found things like one of David’s kingly seals that bear the names of dudes that are in the BIBLE.  Check out an article on that here.   Just you know…more reasons to believe the Bible is completely legit, NBD.

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We then walked thru Hezekiah’s Tunnel. This has so much history, I think I blew out a cluster of brian cells. When the Assyrians were making their way toward Jerusalem, after sacking the Northern Kingdom,  in like the 7th century BC.  They figured they needed to fortify the city, find a way of getting food and supplies if under siege, and ultimately creating a way of escape when everything hits the fan.

We walked it, still with water in it, sometimes up to our knees, but mostly up to our ankles and in REALLY tight dark closed in spaces.  The tunnel is 500m or so and leads from the Gihon Spring, where it gets it’s water from, to the famous Pool of Siloam.

Speaking of which, we emerged from the crazy tunnel at the pool of Siloam from John 9.  Well, part of it.  Actually like maybe 10% of it, as the rest is under ground and no one has permission to dig it out…yet.  Maybe we will see the whole thing the next trip.

From there we thought we were done with smelly, dark, cramped, tunnel walks…but NO!  Ryan led us on yet another ~500 meter walk under the streets.  Except now, fast forward til about 70AD when the Romans came in and leveled Jerusalem.  Same deal as the Assyrians, they knew they had to get out of town when it all went down, so the Jews fled the city in the tunnels..drainage tunnels…sewage tunnels under the streets.  Archeologists have actually found old coins and pieces of lamps down there.

It gets more crazy.  The Romans eventually figured out that there were refugee Jews living/fleeing under the streets in the drainage tunnels, so they tore up parts of the street to try and kill them.  The holes in the ancient streets are now boarded up with wood – CRAZY!

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From there we went to the South Steps of the temple mount, or what is left of them.  It was incredible to think that Jesus may have walked up these steps to go to the temple.  What a HUGE structure.  The walls on the corner [which is actually the end of the Western Wall] are crazy high.  They also had seemingly hundreds of the ritual cleansing pools at the base of the steps.

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We then proceeded to the actual public section of the Western Wall. Well, I went on my side and Mel went on hers.  This time we got up close and saw the Jews from all over the world at the wall – their faces on the wall, praying, bobbing, stuffing prayers written on paper into the cracks of the wall – so many that they overflowed onto the ground.

Some of our group became emotional, at seeing the frenzied attempts to be close to God, in basically the historic remains of an ancient building.  God’s presence isn’t limited to a building.  Going there doesn’t bring you closer to him.  Putting a prayer in the wall doesn’t forgive any of your sins.  This is the tension of this trip – a legalistic pursuit of salvation is all so tragically hopeless.

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Jesus actually lived, actually went to the cross and actually rose again as the promised Messiah.  He is the only way to the Father.  He said it simply –

“Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.” (John 14:6–7 ESV)

Tomorrow, the plan is that we see some of the evidences of Jesus’ life and death up close.