A Brady Bunch Of Sorts

What is it like to travel around the Middle East with a group of 83 people?

Sure, there are those moments when the line for the women’s restroom becomes unnerving or you swear that you are going to use your camera as a weapon the next time someone’s big noggin jumps into your viewfinder just as you press the shutter release. You have to wait while the couple with the Baghdad citizenship takes extra time at the border crossing in to Jordan, and the buffet lines at times make you want to use the dinner plates as Ninja throwing stars for those people that take more than ten seconds to dump some pasta on their plate.

But then there’s the guy who makes you laugh almost every time he talks because of his nasality and ridiculous stories. He’s worn an original Rambo t-shirt 40% of the trip and proclaimed divine healing as he’s been able to walk without his cane. Now if only God would heal the (self-reported) leprosy on his back side.

There’s the woman who told us about her prophetic dreams, and the kind lady who let us borrow her towel at the Dead Sea so that we didn’t have to rent one for $10. Thank God for the friendly military couple who had the same camera that we have, but who also had the wherewithal to bring their battery charger with them on the trip. We met another woman who was one of the creators of The Jesus Film, a film that has been translated into over a thousand languages and has been shown in over two hundred countries so that literally millions of people around the world could learn about the story of Jesus. Over a plate of falafel I learned that a former news reporter currently living in Virginia went to my Alma mater, used to live within twenty minutes of where I live now, and has a close friend who attends my church. I enjoyed the conversation with the gentleman who writes about photography and had some good insight on getting in to the business of stock photography.

I was inspired by the eighty-year-old woman who handled every physical challenge with relative ease and without complaint. More impressively, I could not resist observing the wonderful way she interacted with her spirited mentally retarded daughter.

Speaking of not resisting, I had to be careful not to get caught staring at this man. If I were a doll maker I would design a doll after his face. A big, plush, stuffed Chinese baby boy doll.

A non-spastic Whoopi Goldberg was always handing out compliments. She was so genuine, yet I knew she couldn’t mean what she said. How did I know this? Well, my first clue was when she said that she liked my cooking even though she had never even met me before. She kept me smiling when she saw us in the morning and shouted, “Hey, Pennsylvania!”

We shared dinner twice with a sweet couple. The wife could usually be found asking questions to whomever she was talking to or fervently jotting down notes. At first her husband seemed like he didn’t care or wasn’t tracking with any given conversation, but then, slowly but surely a comment would pour out of his mouth like honey and you knew that he was both following along and enjoying himself. His whole body laughed when he did. I loved that.

The stories go on and on. People are unique and interesting and funny. So much to learn and enjoy from a group.

Lon and our Israeli guides did an amazing job making 83 feel like 10. Shuffling on and off buses, in and out of hotels, and through sites was almost always quick and fluid. People in the group were kind, patient, and usually very considerate. There were few times where we really felt the weight of 83.

On Monday after visiting Lithostrotos, the group entered St. Anne’s Church in Old City Jerusalem. The church was built by the Crusaders to commemorate what had happened just outside the church a thousand years before their time – this was the site of the Bethesda Pools where Jesus healed the crippled man (John 5). We sat in the pews of St. Anne’s and I prepared for Lon to give a little blurb on the historical data, the Biblical story, and the relevance of this story to our lives.

Once he started talking though, I strained to understand him through his profound echo. Having been here many times before, he quickly acknowledged the reverberation and explained that this church was horrible for preaching. It was horrible for preaching, but it was great for singing. With that invitation we all sang praise songs and hymns together. Rambo fan, doll-like, elderly, requiring special needs, serving in the military – a group from all over the country with 83 very different walks of life sat together as one congregation. I know for a fact that not every one in the group was a top-notch vocalist, but you would not believe the unity, perfect pitch, and harmony in our song. At this moment any less than 83 would have been too few. I didn’t want the singing to end. It was a glimpse of the unceasing worshipful song in heaven and I thought – okay, I’m starting to get how this can work for eternity.

Holy Ground

On our first full day in Jerusalem (Monday, November 3rd), we boarded our buses punctually at 7:30 am, knowing very well that Lon had no problem leaving us behind if we weren’t ready to go on time. “The early bird gets the schnitzel,” he would say. He was right. Countless times we were the first tour group to many sites, and as we left other groups arrived. I didn’t mind the brief moments of crowdedness as we waved good-bye to the several groups that poured in to small spaces. For this convenience, I willingly shifted from night owl to early bird on this trip.

I hadn’t had a chance to read over the itinerary for the day. We were going in to Jerusalem, of course, but I didn’t know what sites were ahead of us. Our bus ride from hotel to Old City Jerusalem was short. Ezer announced over the bus PA that our first stop was Lithostrotos, and he explained that this translated to “paved road.” I was half listening.

As we filed off the bus and through the bumpy, cobbly streets of Old City, I hoped my camera battery would make it through the day. I wondered how my outfit looked on me. I hoped lunch wasn’t too late on the schedule because I skipped the free hotel breakfast that morning. Don’t slip on these uneven steps and have a (second) embarrassing fall. How did I let so many people get in front of me? Where are we going anyway and why is it taking so long to get there?

We eventually entered this tiny little church-like thing that was built in to a wall. I usually take a picture of the outside sign of the sites that we see, but too many people were in the way this time and frankly, I didn’t understand the importance of this Lithostrotos thing. I knew that every site we had seen so far had been astonishing, so it’s not that I was cynical about this one. I just didn’t catch the significance of this place, and I couldn’t imagine how it would be able to impress me more than other places we had already seen.

Low ceilings, narrow walkways, dark. As we wound our way passed another group, through hallways, and down stairwells, I had to remind myself out loud that I am not claustrophobic. Finally, all 83 of us plus guides stacked in to small, dim quarters. Once we settled, Lon turned to those on his left and said to them that they were standing/sitting on the floor of the original Antonio Fortress. We were below the city of today, standing in the city of two thousand years ago. Antonio Fortress is where Pontius Pilate tried Jesus. Pilate found no basis to convict Jesus of any crime, but the Jews insisted that he be crucified. Here on this floor Pilate had Jesus flogged but declared again that he had no basis for a charge against him. The Jews shouted, “Crucify, crucify!” As Lon retold the events, he had my closest attention.

Lon turned to his right, where Brian and I stood, and he said, “And you, you all are standing on the very street – the Stone Pavement – where Pilate gave Jesus over to the Jews to do with him what they wanted. Here Jesus carried his cross on the way to Calvary. You are standing where Jesus walked with the cross. You are standing on holy ground.”

Lon went on to give more details about the area and their historical relevance – the Romanesque grooves in the stone pavement, and so on – but he didn’t say as much as he had at other sites. He didn’t need to. My heart swelled and my eyes filled. I was so humbled by and grateful for and overwhelmed at the events that took place here. Right here. I heard one man saying after we left the site that this was the most important moment of his life. Another woman said how emotional she had become here. Biblical knowledge and emotional sensation collided with a spiritual presence. There was not a soul in the group that was not feeling the power of the moment, the power of this holy ground.

It is hard to vocalize when you have been silenced, nevertheless we mustered our voices together and sang:

We are standing on holy ground
And I know that there are angels all around
Let us praise, praise God now, praise him anyhow
For we are standing in his sweet presence
On holy ground

And then we sang it again:

We are standing on holy ground
And I know that there are angels all around
Let us praise, praise God now, praise him anyhow
For we are standing in his sweet presence
On holy ground

Thank God for the undeserved sacrifice that took place on this holy ground.

(John 18, 19)

A Promised Land

Last night, Brian and I boarded a massive, double-decker jet and flew halfway around the world to Israel.

This tiny scrap of land about the size of New Jersey is celebrating its 60th birthday as a new nation this year.  Ever since its rebirth, Israel has been a political and religious battleground.  Enemies within the country fight for territory.  Middle Eastern neighbors surrounding Israel would be pleased to remove this country from the map.  In fact, the battling over this land began long before 1948.  Disputes trace back to the Biblical accounts of Genesis and continue through the Old and New Testaments.  So much attention given to a land whose size pales in comparison to the countries around it.  It has hardly known a time of quiet and stillness.  Yet, amidst the wars and the invasions and the changes of power, over two millennia ago a baby was born in Bethlehem who forever changed the face of this Holy Land.  He was Jesus, the Prince of Peace.  Such a good and perfect gift in Jesus arriving in such a tumultuous place.

This vacation, although I have brief moments of concern for plummeting myself into a contentious part of the world, I am mostly just thrilled to celebrate the life that offers peace and hope to a struggling world and to examine the events of Jesus’ time where they actually occurred.  As we left the Tel Aviv airport earlier this evening and boarded our bus for the 2-hour drive to Tiberias, Lon Solomon prayed, among other things, that we would have a life-defining experience on this trip.  You know, if we are following hard after Jesus, I’m wondering if it’s even possible not to have a life-defining experience.

Newbie

The last weekend of June my family and I traveled to Idaho/Washington for a Cousins Reunion. My mother was looking forward to sleeping in her first morning in Seattle after a long, exhausting day of travel from Ohio to the West coast with my step-dad and grandmother, both in their 80s. Mama did not get her wish. Grams’ memory has been deteriorating for the past five years or so. Alone in her hotel room, surprised that she had slept in until 9:30, Grams called my mom’s room at 6:30 in the morning and spouted, “I don’t know who I am, I don’t know where I am, and I don’t know why I’m here.” Whether she knew it or not, those were profound words for a jet-lagged senior citizen.

I can identify with this mantra – not so much in my existence on Earth, but more like in situations that I thrust myself into, big or small. Whether I’m pushing my limits, responding to a divine calling, or just living life with reckless abandonment, I sometimes stand aghast in new surroundings thinking I don’t know who I am, I don’t know where I am, and I don’t know why I’m here. Like when I found myself swimming in the middle of the San Francisco Bay. Like on the first day of my doctorate program. Like when I was asked to take a quiz on Facebook to find out which Disney Princess I am (Cinderella, by the way). And much like now. I have thought about running my own website for quite some time. I eventually want to create a website that has several features in addition to a blog, but taking my first step with a URL and a blog leaves me feeling a bit sheepish and confused. Right now I’m not sure of my place in this cyber world, or exactly why I chose to be a part of it for that matter.

But here it goes…