Monday, May 28, 2012

Cyprus, AD 365: What an Earthquake Could Not Destroy

Therefore, since we receive a kingdom which cannot be shaken, let us show gratitude, by which we may offer to God an acceptable service with reverence and awe … Heb 12:28
Just after dawn on July 21, AD 365, a major earthquake devastated the city of Kourion on the Mediterranean island of Cyprus. It also struck southern Greece and Egypt. A fourth-century historian, Ammianus Marcellinus, referred to it in his writings. When archaeologists In the 1980s excavated Kourion, they made a remarkable discovery.
The well-preserved skeletons of a young family of three that had perished that day were lying under the rubble of their collapsed house. The woman, estimated to be about 19 years old, clutched a small child of about 18 months of age to her chest. Her arms were raised to protect the child's head, which was tucked under her chin. The man shielded the woman with his body, stretching his left arm across her to hold the child's back, and putting his left leg up over hers. What a precious picture of a family facing a crisis together.
Their deaths were sudden, violent, and brutal. The neck of the woman was broken at a right angle by falling plaster and stones. The man had his skull crushed by 500-pound stone blocks which were found on top of him. Life is fragile and can be lost in a moment. Natural disasters can destroy everything they touch, whether people or their possessions, in which so many seem to put their trust. Young or old, healthy or ill, rich or poor, ready or not – no one is able to stand in his own strength in the face of such an onslaught. 
            That is not the whole story, however. You and I know of an earlier “earth-shattering” event that took place in Cyprus. In AD 47, when Paul and Barnabas departed from Antioch, they sailed to Cyprus as they began their missionary journey. They proclaimed the gospel in the synagogues. They confronted a magician so that he became blind. The proconsul believed when he saw this, being amazed at the teaching of the Lord (Acts 13:4-12).
            How might the two events – Paul’s visit and the later earthquake – be connected? Those three skeletons belonged to a family that followed Christ. Evidence from the excavations provided decisive proof for all to see. There was a bronze ring near the man's left hand, inscribed with the Greek letters Chi and Rho (the first two letters of the name Christ ) and Alpha and Omega (Rev 1:8; 21:6; 22:13). Because Paul (and later others) spread the gospel on the island of Cyprus, that family could face death with confidence. Nothing could separate them from the love of God in Christ (RRom 8:32-39).
            In a similar way, the passing of each Christian reminds us that God still brings triumph greater than tragedy. Jesus Himself underwent a horrible, brutal death, and overpowered the grave by rising the third day. Therefore He can grant each of us the victory that overcomes aging, cancer, bereavement, and death. As He told John, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living One; and I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and of Hades” (Rev 1:17-18).
            Child of God, accept the fact that tragedy may strike, but live with the blessed assurance that you belong to the One greater than death.  Build your life on that kingdom which “cannot be shaken” (Heb 12:28), and share that hope with those who need it so desperately.
-- Cory Collins

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Hunt is On! Seeking Those who are Astray

Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted.  Bear one another’s burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ.  Gal 6:1-2

The Wall Street Journal called it a case of “Bambi meets James Bond.”

It's a true story of espionage, high-level undercover operations, disguises, and escapes.  The facts revolve around the most exciting, dangerous, and unusual deer hunt in history.  The Israeli government was determined to do whatever was necessary to sneak four fallow deer out of Iran and bring them to Israel in 1978.  The “deerlift” required drives through the desert, secret hunting trips, and accommodating anti-Israeli Germans.

In the 1970s Israel had created a program to bring back to their land biblical species thought to be extinct. One of these was the fallow deer.  Lev 11:3 and Deut 14:5-6 list the deer as one of the hoofed animals the Hebrews were allowed to eat. 1 Kings 4:22-23 says that King Solomon’s daily provisions for food included the deer, brought by his subjects.

The fallow deer stands about 3 feet tall at the shoulder, with a tawny coat, white spots and flattened antlers like those of a small moose. It had been hunted to extinction in the early 1900s, or so people thought.  There were apparently none left.  Then in the late 1950s a small herd was discovered in Iran, just before the Shah’s government was exiled. 

A year-long series of painstaking negotiations between Israeli leaders and the Shah’s family in Iran procured four of the precious deer. Then the Iranian revolution broke out, the Shah and his family fled, and Ayatollah Khomeini’s government, hostile to Israel, took control.

That’s when General Avraham Yoffe ordered the “cloak and dagger” mission to capture the animals. Yoffe, a zealous, tough, and effective military leader previously, was appointed head of the newly created Israeli Nature and Parks Authority.  He applied his war-time determination to win this battle as well.  The 1978 Iranian "deerlift" is his most daring feat and his biggest success.

On Nov. 28, 1978, as Iran was hurtling toward Islamic revolution, Dutch zoologist Mike Van Grevenbroek landed at Tehran's Mehrabad Airport, coming from Tel Aviv, Israel.  He carried a blow-dart gun disguised as a cane and secret orders from the general. His mission: to capture four Persian fallow deer and deliver them to Israel before the Shah's government collapsed.

Yoffe also employed Itzik Segev, Israel's last military attaché to Iran.  He told him, “Segev, you will get me those deer.”  Fearing the angry mobs chanting "Death to America," Segev ditched the Chevrolet Impala favored by VIPs for a low-profile Iranian-made Paykan coupe. He says he exchanged his starched military uniform for civilian rags as he moved stealthily about the city. "There was shooting all over the streets, and here I am, an Israeli general, going to the zoo," says Mr. Segev.

At dawn on Dec. 8, after a harrowing experience that included tracking the deer for five days and moving their crates through the streets while the revolution ensued, the deer's crates were nailed shut, loaded onto trucks and taken to the airport. They were loaded onto the last El Al flight out of Tehran, packed between mountains of carpets and valuables that fleeing Iranian Jews and Israelis were taking with them.

The Wall Street Journal reported that General Yoffe was waiting at the Tel Aviv airport with tears in his eyes as the four fallow deer were unloaded.  Today, there more 500 fallow deer living wild in Israel—a restored piece of the Holy Land’s past. 

According to Jesus, the most important deer - make that sheep - is the one in the foreign country who needs to be brought back home (Matt 18:12-14).  What joy it gives the Father when we plan and implement a strategy to bring back home those who have drifted away.

If you consider yourself a spiritual person, restoring inactive Christians is not just your privilege.  It is your responsibility.  Do not wait for someone else, even church leaders, to take the initiative.  If you are a Christian, this is your job.  Do not neglect it!  Look around you in the worship assembly.  Play "Monday morning quarterback" with your church directory.  

Here are four practical steps you can take:
1. Identify those who were once active and strong, who may need to be reclaimed.
2. Invest your time by praying, visiting, listening, and caring.
3. Involve each one in low-key, encouraging activities with other strong Christians who will provide a positive influence.
4. Invite each one to worship and Bible study, followed by a meal.

The hunt is on!  Operation Deerlift depends on you and me.

Cory Collins