Uplifting Grace

Today’s trip began with breakfast in Santo Domingo, followed by a bus ride to Casa Bethesda in Barahona. As a first timer to the DR, as with many others who have never been, this bus ride was surprising. Our bus was one of the larger vehicles on the road. Because of this, we would honk to signal smaller vehicles that we were passing. This honking was a signal to scoot over or move out of our way. In addition to this different tradition, we say motorcycles with three and four people on them speed down the shoulders of the road. I was thankful we hadn’t decided to travel by 13 bikes instead of the bus.

We then arrived at Casa Bethesda and unpacked quickly because Madre Belkis was ready for us to eat. Because my own Madre always asks and I’m guessing others may wonder…we had some delicious pork (that had a teriyaki/BBQ flavor), white rice, beans, mango juice, Coke,  Fanta and/or sprite with the best ice cream for dessert. After dinner we covered ourselves in sunscreen and headed out to tour the local COTN head quarters and join the I love baseball team and children in one of the local bateys.

Now I have to admit, our youth by the time we had unpacked at the Casa, were taking a sigh of relief that we had arrived at our final destination and it felt like our energy was dipping. This all changed after we met the Niños De Las Naciones (Children of the Nations) staff here in Bahrona and then proceeded to the batey. As we arrived, the bus driver honked in a rhythmic pattern beckoning the children to the baseball field. One of our venture leaders Franklin had to get out of the bus to ask children to move as they stood in the road, wide-eyed and waving in anticipation of these Americanos who were about to arrive. As we got off the bus, I quickly took a photo of the batey sign before children surrounded us. Each and every one of our youth and chaperones had at least one child on each hand. It was a joyous and beautiful moment. We proceeded to play with the littlest of children and some older ones. We played baseball with the I Love Baseball program. The group’s momentum, attitude and demeanor instantly switched directions. We were so uplifted by the love of these children. The Dominican children’s joy, love and smiles were more than contagious. It was something that changed something in our group. We felt like our hearts, smiles and emotions were literally raised up. Our smiles beamed from ear to hear. Our hearts were overflowing. It was incredible.

We then came back for dinner and took the evening to reflect on our experience and cool off in the pool. As I sat, I thought and thought about how to write this post. I didn’t know how to express how we were so affected and how our compassion for these people had so greatly swelled. So I opened up my camera to the first photo I took getting off of the bus (see below). The name of the batey we played in was “Batey Altagracia”. My Spanish isn’t good, but I am told this means high or lifted up grace. And I couldn’t help but raise my hands, head and heart to thank God for this trip. It was a reminder that God had called us to this place. Thank you Lord for the Dominican children, these youth, the opportunity to be on this trip, the COTN staff and the grace that showers us. God, all the glory be yours! Amen.


Taran Denning


Embraced by God’s Love

We last posted with the hopes of our journey on the horizon. We chased that horizon by boarding an 11:00 pm flight from Phoenix to Charlotte. Getting some rest on the plane ride to Charlotte, we then boarded our last flight to get to the Dominican Republic. Many of us thought this third flight flew by (pun intended). We napped and filled out our customs forms in route.

As we touched down and walked into the airport in Punta Cana, our senses were on overdrive; the smell of island air, the bright colors of the painted walls, and the jubilation that we had finally arrived in the Dominican Republic. After gathering our checked bags (and using Maria’s Spanish abilities to track down an oversize-bag) we walked out to find a string of dozens of friendly taxi-drivers competing for our attention. For me personally, it felt like the seas parted when Edwin and Franklin stepped through the crowd. The COTN logo embroidered on their polo’s was like a familiar face among the whirls of sights and sounds. Franklin saw our matching COTN shirts and beamed with joy. He literally picked me up off the ground with a hug.

Our group was then continually showered with God’s love through Franklin. We loaded a charter bus and drove to Santo Domingo. On the way we sang “Feliz Cumpleaños” to Carson who’s birthday it was today. Franklin said, “Welcome to Our Dominican Republic which is also now your Dominican Republic.” He so abundantly shared God’s love with us and was so excited we were there, it reignited our group in incredible ways.

Further extending this open-arm embrace, we checked into our hotel and were treated to a Dominican style buffet and some chose to cool off in the hotel’s swimming pool. We are off to bed to get a full (hopefully 8 hour) night of rest. Tomorrow we will arrive at Casa Bethesda, settle into our rooms and jump right into our schedule (which Edwin has readjusted incredibly) to grow and meet others as the body of Christ.  Thanks and praise be to God.

Taran Denning


Good afternoon, St Luke and friends!

I once served on a church committee where we started each meeting with the following prayer:

“Disturb us, Lord, when we are too well pleased with ourselves, when our dreams have come true because we have dreamed too little, when we arrive safely because we have sailed too close to the shore.
Disturb us, Lord, when with the abundance of things we possess, we have lost our thirst for the waters of life; having fallen in love with life, we have ceased to dream of eternity; and in our efforts to build a new earth, we have allowed our vision of the new Heaven to dim.
Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly, to venture on wider seas where storms will show your mastery; where losing sight of land, we shall find the stars. We ask you to push back the horizons of our hopes; and to push into the future in strength, courage, hope, and love.” – Sir Francis Drake

When I copied that down before the trip, I thought I’d be reflecting on it from the DR. But, here I am unexpectedly sitting in Phoenix, Arizona, when I thought I’d be on a bus right now on our way to the Casa Bethesda in Barahona, Dominican Republic. And somehow it seems more appropriate than ever.

Our logistics for this trip blew up last night like a thunderstorm over the Arizona desert, or in fact, because of a storm over the Arizona desert. The storm wiped out our flight from here to Miami, and we were forced to give ourselves to the mastery of our Lord. We are now rerouted to Charlotte, and then to Punta Cana. And our drive to Barahona has now doubled. The shores we had planned to visit have not so much changed, but our journey has certainly been disturbed.

But, despite our many challenges, our youth remained infectious in their enthusiasm during our 2:30 pm to 1:30 am stay in the Phoenix airport, our chaperones built relationships over bad jokes and good times with Sean at the American Airlines customer service counter, and all of us gained a greater appreciation and heart for Taran as our “chaperone of chaperones,” friend, and mentor to our children. We have been blessed along the way with care and support from Sean at AA, Seattle and in-country staff for COTN, and the incredibly hospitable Sleep Inn in Phoenix.

Our dreams for this trip and final destination and service in the Los Robles and other bateys are still 48 hours away, but our “horizon of hopes” has become more clear. We yearn for the smiles of the Dominican youth, the rewards of service work and partnership in the bateys, the care and hospitality of the COTN staff and Casa Bethesda, and the continued community we are building with each other.

We ask your prayers for us and those we will encounter in this journey for strength, courage, hope, and love!



Travel Day(s)

Good morning/night!

C069C7FD-This was a beautiful sunset photo taken before heavy rain and lightning storms hit Phoenix. We have incredible youth who weathered this storm – the rain and the long layover. Unfortunately our plane was unable to handle the storm and our flight from Phoenix to Miami was canceled.  God placed the right people on this trip and in our path. These youth (as you all know) are incredible! We played games, got to know one another through conversations, braided hair and are still excitedly looking forward to our rescheduled journey to the DR. We will be arriving in the DR on Tuesday afternoon. I will post our updated itinerary in the comments tomorrow morning, (and email parents) but for tonight we are resting in a nearby hotel. Sorry for the short post, but I am headed to get a few hours of sleep. Further details tomorrow.

Lord, thank you for these youth. The joy and patience and humor and hearts for you and for one another are evidence that they are the body of Christ. Thank you for these incredible chaperones and their adaptability and patience with me. Remind us to keep our eyes on you and keep the clouds out of the sky tomorrow!



Day 5 – On the Mend

So far this vacation has sucked! But I think it’s going to change now. After two long days of travel I was with our group for one day of site seeing. The next two days were spent in my hotel room. Yesterday we left Bethlehem/Jersusalem and traveled north to Tiberius on the Sea of Galilee where we are staying for two days. On the way we stopped at Caesaria Maritima (Herod the Great’s city called Caesar’s City on the Sea), Mt. Carmel where Elijah hid from Jezebel after defeating the Baal prophets, Nazareth and the Church of the Annunciation, Cana and the Church claiming to be the place Jesus turned water into wine, and finally to our hotel in Tiberius where we look out over the Sea of Galilee with Mt Hermon on the horizon – it’s beautiful. 

I didn’t get to enjoy yesterday’s sites as I spent the time in bathrooms at every stop. Last night they took me to a sketchy walk-in clinic where I saw a doctor that spoke Arabic and wrote me a prescription in Hebrew. I have no idea what I have or what I’m taking, but he said I would be fine in a day by taking these meds for two days. So I’m going to brave it today and try to pilgrimage with the group around the Sea of Galilee on this Day of Our Lord. Blessings to all as you gather to worship Him wherever you are.

Day 2 – Sick!

Today our group went to Jericho, the Jordan River, the Dead Sea (to float in it), and Qumran (the caves of the Dead Sea Scrolls). I was not able to attend with them. I became violently ill last night with a stomach bug or food poisoning. I haven’t been that sick in 25 years! Since I stayed at Lori’s family’s home when I met them the first time. Lori and I had been to the State Fair and I got food poinsoning. I spent the night on their bathroom floor – a great first impression! I’m feeling better, but I haven’t braved eating again – yet. I should be able to join them tomorrow. At least I’ve been here before and have seen those wonderful sites and had the experience of floating in the Dead Sea (which, once is enough).

Day 1 – Jerusalem

Wednesday, January 25. Downloading the pictures didn’t turn out in order – geographically or chronologically  – to represent the day, so the explanations may be scattered as well.

The top picture is of a room where Hasidic (Orthodox) Jews meet to pray in front of what is called: King David’s Tomb. Located on what would be called Mt. Zion, even they recognize that this isn’t actually his tomb, but it is a place to commemorate him and so they gather to pray. The video of it didn’t download either, but it shows them chanting, rocking, while praying.

The 2nd & 3rd pictures are taken from the Mt. of Olives, across the Kidron Valley, looking at Old Jerusalem, Mt. Moriah, and the Temple Mount where today the Dome of the Rock sits – once the place where Herod’s, and before that, Solomon’s Temple sat. Taken from the Church commemorating Jesus weeping over Jerusalem – the most picturesque place around.

Below that church is the Garden of Gesthemane, at the bottom of the Mount of Olives, down in the Kidron Valley. There is a church here too, commemorating the place where Jesus prayed before being betrayed. Here there are a few olive trees left that date back at least 2000 years! Those trees would have witnessed that fateful night.

The next picture is of some Orthodox Jews at the wailing wall who were gracious enought to talk with some of our group – men from our group, for the women’s section is separated by a wall.

The next picture is the front of our hotel. Evidently it’s always Christmas in Bethlehem! We are staying in Bethlehem, about a 20 minute drive into the Old City of Jerusalem. We are staying here, not only because of costs (much cheaper than staying by the Old City), but to help support the Palestinians as well. 

The next picture is of an ancient stairway from the Kidron Valley up to Mt Zion. If Jesus had his last supper on Mt. Zion in an upper room of a house there (which is likely, but not certain), then he would have walked these steps. 

The next picture is from the Wailing Wall, or more commonly referred to here as the Western Wall. It’s actually on the east side of the Old City, but it’s the Western side of the Temple Mount. People put prayers, folded up, into the cracks of the rocks.

The second to the last picture is a view from Mt. Zion looking out over the Valley of Gehenna. The Kidron Valley, on the East side of Jerusalem, and the Henon Valley, on the West and South side of Jerusalem meet south of the city to form the Valley of Gehenna, which goes all of the way out to the Dead Sea. In Jesus’ day it was a garbage pit where they burned the garbage. There were always flames seen from Jerusalem above – “the fires of Hell.” It was nice of the neighbors below to actually be burning some garbage so we could get the sense involved in our viewing. Besides sight and smell, we also engaged our hearing. On Mt. Zion, next to each other, there is not only a place commemorating Jesus’ last supper (upper room), but also Caiaphas’ house, where Jesus was first taken before being brought to Pontius Pilate. This is supposedly where Peter betrayed Jesus after the cock crowed. The neighbors also had a rooster that kept crowing! Oh, and they had a colt tied up too – just like Jesus telling his disciples they’d find that to celebrate the Last Supper! And no, this wasn’t set up – just coinincidence.

The last picture is of the Eastern Gate. This is supposedly where the Messiah will enter Jerusalem when he comes. On the other side of that is a large chair – the throng for the Messiah, built by the Crusaders. When the Muslims took over they cemented in that entrance and put graves in front of it (for an observant Jew wouldn’t walk on graves).

The one thing that sticks out as you first see this land is how many rocks there are – everywhere! My first reaction is: “And why do so many people fight over this land?” Of course it’s because of the history, not the beauty of the landscape. Rocks, rocks, everywhere! What does it mean that Jesus named Simon “Rock” or “Peter?” Was it because he was a nuisance that Jesus wanted to kick out of his way (“get behind me Satan…” or “you of little faith!”)? Or is it because Peter will be foundational to the Christian movement – like the rocks supporting the Temple, the presence of God? One certainly gets a new perspective of Luke 19:40 – when the Pharisees tell Jesus to stop his followers from yelling Hosana, Jesus replied: “I tell you, if these were silent the stones would shout out!”  We are his living stones.

Two Days of Travel

I left my brother’s house for the Seattle Airport at 5:30am on Monday morning, January 23rd and arrived at our hotel in Bethlehem, West Bank (Israel) just before midnight Tuesday night, January 24th. Two long days of travel to finally arrive! 

I’m on a one week familiarization tour with Good Shepherd Travel out of Texas. Elias, who visited our church last October selling olive wood ornaments, crosses, nativities, etc. to support Christians in Bethlehem, invited me on this trip. He works for this travel company that his relatives run out of Bethlehem. They sponsored 50 people on this trip – mostly pastors and some spouses, mostly Lutheran but not all, and mostly from the eastern parts of the US with a few of us westerners. It is their hope that if/when we decide to take groups from our congregations to the Holy Land we will consider using their services. They’ve been great.

Elias is a native of Bethlehem. He is a Palestinian Christian. He grew up in the Lutheran church in Bethlehem. He met his wife Katie when she visited the Holy Land with her dad and a group from their congregation. He dad is a Lutheran pastor in Polson, MT, which is where Elias and Katie now reside. They came to St Luke last October to sell their olive wood pieces – that’s when Elias invited me on this trip. Elias also has a volunteer ministry of taking supplies (blankets, toiletries, etc) to Christian refugees from Syria who are in Jordan. Since he is not paid for that, 100% of donations go directly to purchasing supplies he takes to refugee families.

Though I’ve been to Israel once before in 2009, it is not a place I would tire of visiting. I’m incredibly grateful for this opportunity, and to get to know sisters and brothers in Christ – fellow pilgrims.

A day in Transylvania

Jan Engkasser, the leader of our team, happen to be staying a couple extra days and had rented a car and driver to take him to castles up in the mountains in Transylvania. Jan was kind enough to invite me along and we split the cost. What an amazing experience! The fall colors were spectacular as we wove our way through these alpine villages that look like Leavenworth, WA in the midst of these majestic mountains. Snow was starting to blanket the tops of the mountains and in a matter of weeks these sleepy villages will be destination places for thousands of skiers descending upon them and their slopes.

First we visited the Peles (pronounced Pellish) Castle built by King Karl I (also known as King Carol) in the late 1800s. It is one of the most ornate, beautiful castles I’ve ever seen. The detail in craftsmanship is remarkable. This is the castle pictured at the top.

Next we visited the Bran Castle, often referred to as Dracula’s Castle. This castle was built in the mid 1300s – 550 years older. It’s not as impressive. It’s simpler, colder, not as well kept, but largely because it’s much older. It’s similar to the experience of visiting the Wartburg Castle in Germany (minus the grand ball room) and then visiting Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, Germany. Neuschwanstein is probably more impressive on the outside, but not nearly as impressive on the inside. 

Why do they call it Dracula’s Castle? Bram Stoker’s fictions novel character Count Dracula is taken from the historic character Vlad Tepes, or Vlad the Impaler who had stayed at this castle for a short time. Stoker used this castle in his novel as the setting for his story. There were all sorts of kitsch trinkets one could buy as vampire memorabilia, but the history, architecture, and landscape I found to be much more interesting than the myths, legends, and fictions.

Next, our guide took us to an out of the way lodge nestled up in the mountain above a skiing village where we ate in a room that reminded me of The Halls of Rohan in The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers. We ate in one of their dinning halls; a cozy, log room with with an open fire in the center, with pelts lining the walls and ceiling, and long open seating tables with wood chairs covered in sheepskins. We had bear, deer, and wild boar as our main course (pictured with the waitress bringing it on a flaming cutting board), where they bring you a selection of raw meat from which you cut your portion and choice of meat. And did you see the bread? Waaaay too much food for two people! The Romanians, in their pride of hospitality, feel they’ve have not amply provided for their guests if there are not leftovers, so they tend to prepare too much. We see it as wasteful, they see it as hospitality. 

We also visited a series little hunting lodges up in the mountains that our driver was very proud of, but they were unfortunately closed. It gives you a picture of the grandeur of the mountains (that at the moment of this picture are hidden in the clouds). I was so thankful I got to see more of the beauty of the country and historic sites. What a great day!