Day 365: Four Gardens (a poem from the Garden Tomb)

41 Now in the place where he was crucified there was a garden, and in the garden a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid. 
John 19:41

Through the Bible: Revelation 19-22

I wrote this poem in February, 2022, on the way back to the airport after a week in Israel. The day before, we had started the day at the Garden of Gethsemane, and ended the day at the Garden Tomb. Our pastor for the trip shared that John’s gospel is the only one that mentions that the tomb was in a garden. He helped me see that God’s great story begins and ends in a garden. We fell in Eden. We will be with God forever in the new heaven and the new earth (Revelation 22:1-2). And what guarantees our entry into the new Garden after being driven from the old one are the two gardens we had visited the day before. .

Four Gardens

Once, in the cool of the day, God walked into a Garden; 

Where a serpent hissed, 
and man hid, 
and half eaten fruit lay fallen on the ground. 

Adam, where are You? said the Father. 
And the man was driven out of the Garden, 
head down, 

Once, in the dead of night, Jesus walked into a Garden; 

Where Judas lurked, 
and disciples slept, 
and sweat like blood fell to the ground.

Father, where are you? cried  the Son. 
And Jesus was led out of the Garden, 
head down, 

Once, at the dawn of the morning, Mary walked into a Garden; 

Where angels sat, 
and rocks were split, a
nd soldiers fell stunned on the ground.

Jesus, where are You? Said Mary. 
And the angel said, He is not here. He is risen. 
And Mary ran from the Garden, 
Head spinning, 

Soon, at the last trumpet, I’ll stand at the gate of a Garden;

Where water of Life bubbles, 
the Tree of Life blooms, 
and paving stones  like gold lie shimmering on the ground. 

“There you are!” cries the Son
“Here You are,” weeps His child
And I am led into the Garden, 
Head high, 

The Church of the Nativity

When I went to Israel in 2018, Bethlehem was not a highlight, if I am being honest. It was packed wall to wall with people. The Church of the Nativity felt like a line at Disney World, only without a ride at the end. Our guide gestured over to the steps you could descend to touch the fourteen pointed silver star in the floor, marking the traditional spot of Jesus’ birth. But it would have been a two hour wait to get down there, for little more than a few seconds.

This year, I almost pulled out of the trip. But what convinced me to hang in there was when the trip coordinator said that because of the pandemic, it would be far less crowded at the sites. And I thought, “I’ll go again, if it means I can spend more time at the church of the Nativity and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

And, oh my God, what a difference. I say that in complete reverence. We walked into the Church, and the feeling of awe and reverence and history and holiness and nearly two millennia of prayers lifted up in this place was very nearly tangible.

I put my hand on the star in the floor. I ran my hand across the rough stone above me. I descended the steps toward the room in which St Jerome first translated the Vulgate from the Greek and Hebrew.

Listen, I know we Protestants are skeptical about whether any of these are the “actual” places where the events took place. And I know it can be hard for a lot of people to cut through the layers of tradition and trappings. And in any other year, I probably would have been ok with skipping Bethlehem altogether.

But when I walked through the tiny, narrow door into a church that was completely empty, my spirit soared to the ceiling.

And Lord Jesus, I believed.

Day 313: In Praise of Saint Incognita (Matthew 26, Mark 14)

The nave of the Church of the Nativity (Orthodox side)
9 And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her.” (Mark 14:9)

In the Greek Orthodox sanctuary of the Church of the Nativity, there are two rows of ten columns. Each column bears the image of a different saint in the Orthodox Church. Not being Greek Orthodox, I had no idea who any of them were.

Detail from one of the columns

So I was super grateful for this handy guide on the wall as we were exiting.

Some of them I recognized. Stephen. Elijah. John the Evangelist. Others I had no idea who they were. There was a Saint Olaf? The patron saint of Disney voice actors, perhaps. Saint Theodosia? Saint Humphrey? Who knew?

The key also tells you which saint is where. Ingressus is Latin for “entrance” Navis major is the nave, and basilica is where the altar is. So columns 1 and 11 are closest to the door. Columns 10 and 20 are closest to the Cross.

I was about to turn away from the key when one more image caught my eye.

Saint Incognita. The Unknown Saint. Now, full disclosure: I don’t know if Saint Incognita is simply unknown to the guy who made the answer key, or if her name has been lost to history.

I tried Googling Saint Incognita. There is nothing about him or her that I could find on the Internet.

And if Google doesn’t even know who you are, well, it doesn’t get much more incognito than that!

Of course, the original unknown saint is this anonymous woman who anoints Jesus in Matthew 26 and Mark 14. I know John tells a similar story where Mary sister of Lazarus is the one doing the anointing, but I think this woman was Mary’s inspiration (see Day 284: How Many Times Did a Woman Anoint Jesus?). Jesus prophesied that wherever the gospel was proclaimed what she did would be remembered. And two thousand years later, here we are, still talking about her.

Again, I can’t say for sure that this woman is the one on the column in the Church of the Nativity. But I do think that there are Saints Incognita in every church, everywhere. There are, in fact, numberless infinities of unknown saints:

  • St Incognita: the maker of coffee for the Thursday night AA group.
  • St. Incognita: Stocker of Shelves and folder of clothes for the benevolence ministry.
  • St Incognita: Sweeper of Floors.
  • St Incognita, Keeper of the Nursery.
  • St Incognita: Preparer of Casseroles.
  • St Incognita: single mother working two jobs, who still manages to get her kids to church every Sunday.

Our churches are full of unknown saints. They have never preached a sermon. Not at the pulpit anyway. They have never seen their name on an order of service. But they are there every time the doors are open. They are up before the dawn, praying, interceding, lifting up their pastors in prayer.

They are quietly teaching their kids to love Jesus. They are going to their jobs, living lives of integrity in front of their coworkers and neighbors.

When they pass from this world, streets are not likely to be shut down. Business will not close. Flags will not be flown half mast.

But know this, beloved unknown Saint: you are canonized by the miracles you perform every day. You, O Humble Saint, have bent the ear of the King of the Universe by your tireless prayers. You, Saint Incognita, have accomplished the work of Christ through your calloused hands and weary feet.

And in the oldest church in the world, there is a column with your name on it. If you ever come to Bethlehem, it will be easy to find:

It is the one closest to the cross.

Day 174: Altars of Convenience (1 Kings 12)

Entrance to Tel Dan, in the northernmost part of Israel. About 243km from Jerusalem
“And Jeroboam said in his heart, “Now the kingdom will turn back to the house of David. If this people go up to offer sacrifices in the temple of the Lord at Jerusalem, then the heart of this people will turn again to their Lord, to Rehoboam king of Judah, and they will kill me and return to Rehoboam king of Judah.” So the king took counsel and made two calves of gold. And he said to the people, “You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” Then this thing became a sin, for the people went as far as Dan to be before one. He also made temples on high places and appointed priests from among all the people, who were not of the Levites. And Jeroboam appointed a feast on the fifteenth day of the eighth month like the feast that was in Judah, and he offered sacrifices on the altar. So he did in Bethel, sacrificing to the calves that he made. And he placed in Bethel the priests of the high places that he had made. He went up to the altar that he had made in Bethel on the fifteenth day in the eighth month, in the month that he had devised from his own heart. And he instituted a feast for the people of Israel and went up to the altar to make offerings.”
‭‭1 Kings‬ ‭12:26-28, 30-33‬ ‭ESV‬‬

Through the Bible: 1 Kings 12-14

Today we visited Tel Dan, in the northern part of Israel. We walked to the site of Jeroboam’s altar, mentioned in the passage above from 1 Kings 12. They have constructed a metal framework of the altar to give you a sense of the size of the thing. It must have been quite impressive.

Yair, our guide, explaining the Tel Dan site

1 Kings makes it pretty clear what Jeroboam’s motivations were for building an altar. He was afraid that if people continued to go to Jerusalem three times a year for the annual feasts, he would lose control over them (v 26).

So notice how he sells the people on his alternative altar: “You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough” (v 28).

It occurred to me that Jeroboam didn’t make a command. He didn’t forbid people to go to Jerusalem. He just gave them an easier, more convenient alternative.

I can imagine the sales job: “Aren’t you tired of having to pack up your whole family three times a year and going all the way to Jerusalem? It’s a long journey, filled with peril. Wouldn’t you rather stay home? After all, it doesn’t really matter where you are worshiping, so long as your heart is in the right place, right?”

So Jeroboam builds a substitute altar. He appoints substitute priests. He creates a substitute feast week, “after the day he devised in his own heart” (v 33).

He did this not just in one place, but in two. And the people flocked to these altars (see verse 30). They seem to have loved getting six weeks of their lives back. It’s easy for me to imagine them saying, “This is so much easier! I can just stay home and worship. I don’t have to worry about getting the kids ready. I don’t have to fight the traffic. I’m still worshiping, right?

Sound familiar? How many of us have said the exact same things about our own church, ever since we all went online after Covid?

There was just one little problem. Maybe because it was just so convenient, the people didn’t seem to notice…

  • That the priests weren’t Levites, like they were supposed to be (verse 31; see also Numbers 8).
  • That the feast week wasn’t on the fifteenth day of the SEVENTH month, like Leviticus 23:39 specifies. It’s a month later (v 32).
  • That there was a FREAKING GOLDEN CALF on the altar (verse 28). Did they learn NOTHING from their own history (see Exodus 32).

But this is what happens when we decide we can approach God on our own terms. In yesterday’s post, I talked about the temptation of compromise (see Woe to You, Chorazin!). Today, we saw what happens when we yield to the temptation of convenience. We neglect the object of our worship when we start rearranging it because of what is convenient to us.

It was never supposed to be about what fits our schedules, or which church in our town has the most to offer our family, or what church is most convenient to our neighborhood.

It is about authentic, biblical worship of the sovereign, holy God. And if any other factor is the determining factor for where or whether you attend church, then you are no longer worshiping God. That golden calf up on the altar?

It’s name is convenience.

Day 074: Shabbat in Tiberias (Dt. 10:12-13)

“Israel, what does the Lord your God require of you, but to fear the Lord your God, to walk in all His ways, and to love Him; to serve the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and to keep the commandments and the statues of the Lord, which I am commanding you today for your good.”
Deuteronomy 10:12-13

Through the Bible: Deuteronomy 11-13

We ended the first day of our pilgrimage to Israel on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, and were pulling in to our hotel just as the sun was setting on Friday night.

Which means it is the start of Shabbat, the Jewish sabbath.

I wasn’t sure what it would be like. Would the hotel be graveyard still, while religious Jews everywhere stayed inside, not working, not even pushing buttons on an elevator because of the prohibition against work?

Gentile that I am, I expected a somber mood. Lots of frowns. Lots of serious, observant Jews.

Instead, what I found at this hotel was joy. Families gathered together at the table. The wine flowing freely. I watched one young family as the husband poured the wine into one glass; read a passage from the prayer book, passed the glass to his wife to drink, then she passed it back to him. I watched a family at another table join hands and sing a prayer together with complete abandon.

I watched a father pass the prayer book to a young son learning to read. I watched the son sound out the Hebrew, while the father corrected, encouraged, praised. I watched the mother beaming.

And after the supper, I watched families talking, laughing, enjoying one another. Without a single electronic device to be seen anywhere. The only thing I saw on the table other than the food and the wine was the prayer book.

As I type this, the sounds of singing and laughter ring through the hotel. It is as different from what I expected from Shabbat in Israel as a wedding reception is from a wake.

Oh, how wrong we get the Sabbath! We have made it all about what we aren’t allowed to do. And because of Jesus’ interactions with the Pharisees, I suppose I just assumed Jews would see it the same way.

But the Sabbath is not primarily about what you are kept from doing. It is about what you are enabled to do because you have cleared away everything else. You can invest in your family. You can teach your children what it means to create margin in your life. You can sanctify your bride with a shared glass of wine. You can offer a joyous song of praise to the Master of the Universe, hands joined with those you love.

Beloved, never forget that God’s word tells us the commands He gives us are for our good. I am so humbled watching God’s chosen people truly find the good in keeping the Sabbath.

Shabbat Shalom is the shared greeting here on the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Sabbath Peace. May we all find the peace and freedom that comes from keeping His commands.

Pilgrimage: Day 1

Pilgrimage (n): A long journey to a sacred place for a spiritual purpose.

This morning was one of those happy accidents that God seems to coordinate for no other reason than to give us a shared smile. I was reading Trevin Wax’s excellent devotion Psalms in 30 Days, which uses the Christian Standard Bible as its base translation. I got to Psalm 84, one of my favorites. But I’m used to it in the ESV, where verse 5 reads,

“Blessed are those whose strength is in you, in whose heart are the highways to Zion.”
‭‭Psalm‬ ‭84:5‬ ‭ESV‬‬

So the different language of the CSB jumped out at me:

“Happy are the people whose strength is in you, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage.”
Psalms‬ ‭84:5‬ ‭CSB‬‬

A pilgrimage is a long journey, usually taken with a group, to a sacred place, for the purpose of meditation, veneration, and spiritual transformation.

Today, I join 30 other pilgrims from Prattville, Alabama to Israel. We will walk in the footsteps of Jesus, but also the footsteps of Abraham, Moses, David, and Ezekiel.

We will follow the steps of Jesus, but also of Jerome, Augustine, Richard the Lionhearted, Luther, Mark Twain, and TE Lawrence.

We will walk in the footsteps of Christians, Muslims, Jews, and pagans, across the most bitterly contested and bloodstained and real estate on the planet.

Pray for our band of pilgrims. Pray for safety. Pray for times of reflection, enlightenment, worship, and transformation.

Day 1: Prattville to Atlanta, Atlanta to Istanbul.

Book Review: “Will” by Will Smith and “The Boys” by Ron and Clint Howard

I didn’t set out to read two celebrity memoirs in a row. But when you are using the Libby library app, and you’ve placed a book on hold months ago, then its not really up to you when it becomes available. So it just so happened that these two audiobooks became available one right after the other.

First, some disclaimers:

  1. I’ve loved just about every movie both of these entertainers have made– one (Will Smith) on one side of the camera, the other (Ron Howard) on the other.
  2. I was a little too young to be into The Andy Griffith Show, exactly the right age for Happy Days, and a little too old for The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.
  3. I generally love audiobooks of memoirs from entertainers if they are the narrator. Entertainers are, well, entertaining. And both of these are excellently narrated by Will Smith and the Howard brothers themselves. For Will, there is the added bonus of music clips, and one soundbite from a Fresh Prince episode. For The Boys, there’s an introduction from Ron’s daughter, Bryce Dallas Howard.

So both memoirs are great entertainment. Both tell the stories of an entertainer I enjoy. Both follow the somewhat predictable story beats of rise, fall, redemption. (Although, spoiler alert: The “fall” part of The Boys is Clint’s fall into substance abuse, and not Ron’s; and Will’s fall is more about emptiness and disillusionment than about Hollywood excess, although there is some of that as well).

Now for the differences:

Will is chock full of all the things that, for better or for worse, make Will Smith Will Smith. LOTS of self-confidence. (Read: “he’s pretty full of himself.) Lots of times where he seemed to run out of ways to describe himself as a big deal. I could imagine him saying, “Let’s see, what’s another way to say, “I was the biggest movie star in the known universe?” Lots of self-congratulation for his own considerable work ethic. To his credit, he does acknowledge the almost ridiculous amount of “right place at the right time” luck that has marked his career. And his description of the “love-knowledge-discipline” trifecta he got from his grandmother, mother, and father is lovely. But still, its mostly “look at what I achieved by my relentless hard work.”

I appreciated that Will attempted to communicate Will Smith’s philosophy and worldview. However, that’s not to say I agree with Will Smith’s philosophy and worldview. His drug induced forays into astral projection, in which he finally learned that he is complete and beautiful in and of himself, just made me want to say, “You got a great foundation from your Christian grandmother. Go back to that if you are trying to figure out how to manage your obsession with success.”

The Boys, in contrast, is a humble love letter to Ron and Clint’s mother and father for the values they instilled, the sacrifices they made, and the support they gave the two brothers. Perhaps the benefit of having a co-writer is that Ron didn’t have to toot his own horn– Clint tooted it for him, and vice versa. Still, there is a humility here that is absent from Will. Will is a long highlight reel of how every blockbuster topped the one before. The Boys is mostly about Ron’s desire to become a filmmaker. But rather than a chapter for each film, the story basically ends with the release of Splash, his first true success as a fim maker. He spends much more time on the lessons he learned from making his first movie, Grand Theft Auto, then on the Oscar he won for A Beautiful Mind.

Unlike Will, there isn’t much in the way of spirituality in The Boys, Christian or otherwise. You just get the sense that Ron and Clint Howard, along with their parents Rance and Jean, are normal, salt-of-the-earth people that you would barely know were movie stars if they lived in your neighborhood.

All in all, these are two great reads from gifted entertainers/storytellers. And they are even better listens, if you like audiobooks and are looking for something for your next road trip. But if you are like me, you will come away respecting Will Smith, but genuinely liking the Howard family.

Daily MLJ: February 14, 2022

In this chapter, Martyn Lloyd-Jones is expounding on Paul’s statement that “the name of God is being blasphemed among the gentiles” because of the hypocrisy of the Jews (Romans 2:24). He writes:

[The Gentiles] had no personal or direct knowledge of God, but here was a nation that claimed it was God’s own people, that they were the representatives of God. So the Gentiles judged God by what they saw in the Jews, and you cannot blame them.

From there, MLJ makes the connection to the Christian church today, and those who are on the outside looking in.

And it is devastating. He goes on:

In the same way, you cannot blame people today for judging Christ and Christianity by what they see in church members. And the blindness of many Christians at this point is something I cannot understand at all. People seem to thing that the masses are outside the Christian church because our evangelistic methods are not what they ought to be. That is not the answer. People are outside the church because looking at us they say, ‘What is the point of being Christians? Look at them! They are judging Christ by you and me. And you cannot stop them, and you cannot blame them.

Romans: The Righteous Judgment of God (2:1-3:20), Chapter 11, p. 149.

Sometimes, cliches become cliches because they are true. That’s the case with the cliche about being the only Bible some people will ever read. There is someone in your life that is forming their opinion of Jesus by what they see in you. What conclusions are they making?

This year I’m trying to read through Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ 14 volume exposition of Romans. Lloyd-Jones began teaching through Romans on Friday nights at Westminster Chapel in London on October 7, 1955. Thirteen years later, at the end of chapter 14, he was forced to retire from the pulpit ministry because of illness. He spent the rest of his life editing the manuscripts of his sermons. All his sermons were recorded on tape, and are available at

Daily MLJ— February 13, 2022

In Chapter 10 of volume 2, Martyn Lloyd-Jones is dealing with the question of the centuries of people outside Israel who never had the teaching of the Messiah. They couldn’t fulfill the sacrificial requirements of the law as pre-Christian Jews could. So is there a provision for them? MLJ’s answer is a model of restraint and urgent passion. He doesn’t go beyond what Scripture says. Instead, he reminds us of the mandate of Scripture. Here’s what he says about it:

“… No one can be saved outside the Lord Jesus Christ. And I know no more. But I will go further: I am not meant to know anymore. There would be something about it in the Bible if I were meant to know more, and there is not a word. All I know is that those in the world today who have never heard of the Lord Jesus Christ are under the wrath of God and under condemnation, and that it is my business and your business and the business of all Christians to do all we can to send the good news of salvation to them. “

Romans, vol. 2, Chapter 10, p 136

Mic. Drop.

This year I’m trying to read through Martyn Lloyd-Jones’ 14 volume exposition of Romans. Lloyd-Jones began teaching through Romans on Friday nights at Westminster Chapel in London on October 7, 1955. Thirteen years later, at the end of chapter 14, he was forced to retire from the pulpit ministry because of illness. He spent the rest of his life editing the manuscripts of his sermons. All his sermons were recorded on tape, and are available at

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