Israel 2012 – Day Nine: The Kiss

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Click Here to Link to Day Two
Click Here to Link to Day Three
Click Here to Link to Day Four
Click Here to Link to Day Five
Click Here to Link to Day Six
Click Here to Link to Day Seven
Click Here to Link to Day Eight

(A Side Note to Americans: Though it is the same day for you, it is a different day for us, so please make sure you did not skip over Day Eight: A Miracle in the Upper Room)

We were all but guaranteed that it would rain this morning – even harder than it did yesterday.

But it has not rained one big. And this morning, there was not even one cloud of the sky. It emphasizes to me: just how sporadic and unpredictable the rain can be in this region, and just how fortunate we have been with the weather this week.

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We went on to The Garden Tomb. Yes, we did visit the rock of the tomb believed to be where Jesus was buried. To transition, please allow Casey Baggott:

“In 1837 American seminary professor, Edward Robinson travelled to Palestine to research and identify Biblical sites. He noted then that the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, traditionally considered to have been constructed on the site of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus, would have been inside the Roman city walls at that time. As execution and burial sites were never located within city walls, he argued that the Church of the Holy Sepulcher could not be located on the authentic site.
Some years later, British General Charles Gordon t, travelled in Palestine and noted, in 1882, a hill face outside the walls of Jerusalem that looked like a skull. (Skull in Hebrew is “Golgotha”.( Nearby he found an ancient tomb, dating to the first century, which seemed to fir the Gospel descriptions of Jesus’ tomb.
Now called the “Garden Tomb,” this site has become a popular one for visiting Protestants. We can be no more certain, however, of the site’s authenticity than we can of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.”

The Garden Tomb

I’m not trying to convince anybody of anything, please know that as I relay to you my experiences of the day.

That being said, this site LOOKED much more like what I would have expected (hoped) the tomb to look like. It is amazing to me how much of this area has been marked sacred or holy as it is covered and shrined behind rails, glass, bars, and churches.

It is a different kind of tradition in terms of preserved land than what I am used to in America. Further, it seems that in this area, there is a bit of a race to secure and build upon every holy site, before another religion/culture claims it for themselves. There is but so little space and so, so much holy history.

The site of this Garden Tomb is at the foot of Mount Golgotha (the Skull) as the Bible says Jesus tomb would be, and near what have had to have been a vineyard (olive press?) owned by a wealthy man like Joseph of Arimathea, who the Bible said used “lent” his tomb to Jesus.

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Further, the foot of the mountain is at the intersections of two major roads going into Jericho and Damascus from Jerusalem. It was critical for Roman’s to crucify outside of the city and at major intersections to be able to give it as much exposure as a display of power as they possibly could.

As we walked up to the tomb, I’m sure all in our group had different perceptions of what we were seeing. There was, however, one thing we could agree on, as our tour guide reminded us:

the tomb was empty.

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Just as the one in the Holy Sepulcher, we stared at at least a much more realistic inside of a tomb that was so tiny we had to crouch to enter. Christ was not in one tomb or the other.

He has risen! He has risen indeed!

We went up the steps, still on the edge of Golgotha for a closing communion worship.

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Casey’s message was incredible.

I could never do it justice. I fear that as I attempt to summarize it, I would only do the message she shared less service than would serve how amazingly affective it was.

A Paraphrase of a Closing Message by Dr. Casey Baggott

Dr. Richard,Selzer, a surgeon, tells of a story in his book “Confessions of a Knife”, about a surgery he performed to remove a tumor on the cheek of a woman. He had to be very careful so to not nick one of the nerves in her face. Doing so would cause her permanent facial disfigurement.

However, in order to completely remove the tumor, Dr. Selzer did have to nick a nerve.

When the woman woke up and was handed a mirror, she immediately became very disappointed, and I’m sure, very self-conscious. I can imagine her saying “who could ever love me with a face like this?.”

With that, her husband leaned over and said, “You are still so beautiful to me.” He leaned in, further contorted his face to mirror hers, and gave his wife a kiss.

At this point in the story, we were all very moved.

Dr. Selzer stared at the ground, saying in his book, “One is not bold in an encounter with God.”

Regardless of what we think we deserve, or what those around us deserve, we are reminded that in his last supper, Christ called his disciples to go forth representing the daily bread, the living body of his spirit.

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For 9 days, we have walked in the footsteps of “A Man From Galilee”. We have been walking the paths, been where miracles have been, and seen a few new ones along the way. We have studied and searched, prayed to and celebrated the living flesh, the embodiment of when God contorted God’s face and kissed us with love and presence.

No matter how badly we may feel disfigured, our God has reached out to us. Despite all the ways we have seen that humankind can be violent, destructive, and unloving, still we get that kiss.

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So What Now?

On our first night, Phil expressed his intention for our trip. He wanted to experience with his five senses something that had always made sense to him, though he had only known it on paper.

Well, he has seen, heard, felt, smelt, and tasted the reality of Jesus of Nazareth.

But Casey reminded us as we took our communion together that it is now up to us to search for that Christ, that kiss from God, in two other places: ourselves, and those around us.

As for me, well, I came to find a bridge. A bridge between the old and new. A bridge between what was and what is. A bridge between ignorance and knowledge, war and peace, what Christianity IS, and what it COULD be.

And I suppose I made strides in that direction.

What I experienced though, was a bridge from who I was, to who I am called to be. I experienced a bridge from what it means to tiptoe around a calling, and dance in the light of where God has called each and every one of us.

I walked in the steps of a man that showed grace, humility, love, healing, joy, compassion, strength, discipline, and more. I will try to do the same.

But he never showed apathy, and he never made excuses. He never negotiated or qualified his calling. And I will do my best to not do that either.

When and if I ever return to this holy land, I pray that I will be with students. What joy would be found when these students cross the bridge from who they thought they were into the limitless land of who they can be.
May the footsteps, life, and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth bring peace and purpose to the next generation of pilgrims, as it has done for me.

And now, it’s time to return, not to end the trip, but to begin the next step in the journey.

But first, maybe one more falafel for the road.

A Pilgrim’s Prayer for Silent Reflection When Returning Home

Lord Jesus, your feet made the land holy when you came as a pilgrim of peace to Israel. As we have followed your septs in these past days, so may we follow them in the years ahead.
We have seen the ancient sites and the old stones of your land. Let our memories of these places provide a firm foundation for lasting faith, and may our faith rest upon you, s its cornerstone.
Write your Gospel in our hearts. Help us to proclaim its joy with our lives. Give us the frace to return now to our homes, less full of flat facts than of your buoyant love.
And may our spirits come to reflect your own, even as our words of prayer reflect your words:
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be they name. Thy kingdom come, they will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day, our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtor. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom , and the power and the glory, forever and ever. Amen.(written by Casey Baggott)

Shalom, friends.< 20120112-185521.jpg

Israel 2012 – Day Eight: A Miracle in the Upper Room

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Click Here to Link to Day Two
Click Here to Link to Day Three
Click Here to Link to Day Four
Click Here to Link to Day Five
Click Here to Link to Day Six
Click Here to Link to Day Seven

I’ve never been good at geometry or geography, but I know enough about both to know that Jerusalem is not technically the center of the world. However, long ago, in ancient times it was believed to have been indeed the center of the world, and geography and geometry aside, many people still refer to Jerusalem as the center of the (religious) world today.

And I can understand why.

The Wailing Wall

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Today was very cold.

Very, very cold.

We began our day by heading into the gates of Old Jerusalem on the side of the Western Wall. For most Jews, who were not allowed to enter the site of where the Temple, the Holiest of Holies stood, the wailing wall represented the barrier at which they stopped.

With this being as close as they could get, they would stand up close to the wall and pray. And so it is to this day. 24 hours a day there are people praying at what is commonly referred to as the Wailing Wall.

There were people of all shapes, sizes and colors moving towards the wall. There was a sectioned off area for women, and another (much larger) one for the men. Trying not to judge a place and tradition so foreign to the one(s) I know, I tried to suppress the discomfort I felt with this requirement. It made being asked to wear a yarmulke as I approached the wall no big deal.

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Inside the many cracks of the wall are thousands of letters stuffed tight as I’ve ever seen anything stuffed. I’m sure some of them are personal prayers and perhaps some of them are prayers of those unable to make the pilgrimage, carried to the wall by a pilgrim friend.

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I certainly was very mindful of all those that asked me to pray for them or “drop them a line” as the case may be. I even learned that the state of Israel has people who watch the internet for those who type in their prayer requests so that they may go stuff their requests in the wall as well.

I thought to myself, what if I started every day as eager to pray for those I know well enough to share my trip to Israel with, but not well enough to have any other reason to pray for them daily. I may need to expand my prayer practice a bit. Even when I am not traveling half way across the world.

We then gathered and walk past a much more technical security check point with x-rays scanners and metal detectors. We were on our way to the Dome of the Rock, the third-most holy Muslim site, built on top of the ruins of the old Jewish temple.

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Dome of the Rock

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After Jerusalem was conquered by the Turks in the 7th century, the holy site atop the Temple Mount has been considered a Muslim territory. Since the Intifada in 2000, Christians and Jews have not been able to enter the Mosque or Dome and Bibles, Hymnals, Non-Islamic Prayer are not allowed on the grounds outside either. At 10am every morning, all non-Muslim visitors are instructed to leave so that the rituals of the Muslim day are not interfered with.

In many ways, it looked like a very holy site. The architecture, the people, the beauty.

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As I looked around at all the beauty, I never had a few without several armed Israeli soldiers. Some of them were in uniform with guns hung around their chest. Some were in plain clothes with guns hung around their chest. And still even others were in plain clothes watching every move made on the premises.

There are places in the world where a scuffle could diffuse itself on its own without the world noticing. This as certainly not one of those places.

That all added to the tension that I felt, maybe that we all felt. What a shame that such a holy place for all three Abrahamic traditions Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – thus meaning, we all agree on something – has to be surrounded with such animosity.

Generations, regimes, and centuries worth of wars over the site that we were standing on now. It was perhaps the most surreal moment of my trip. Only time would tell if this land had seen it’s last battle.

I would’ve never figured something so much rock and limestone could be so fragile?

It was hard to leave. But at 10:00 am, it was necessary to leave.

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On we went, to the Via Dolorosa.

Via Dolorosa

I was certainly looking forward to this. To what? Well, let’s let Casey Baggott summarize it for you.

Tradition has claimed as few and seven, and as many twenty places along the Via DOlorosa (the Way of Sorrow) to be authentic Stations of the Cross. Many Catholic Churches depict the last, painful walk of Jesus toward Calvary in fourteen paintings or sculptures adorning their sanctuaries, as a remembrance and a prompt to worshippers to reflect on their own walk with Christ. Today we will follow the traditional path of the Via Dolorosa. Let us consider how our life’s walk with Jesus Christ is influenced by his final walk.

What I didn’t realize about this walk, is that though almost every station is marked at a place of worship inside the Old City (the original, wall-surrounded, smaller, denser part of Jerusalem), this walk is not at all isolated. It leads us through the tiny, tiny streets lined with vendors on either side, clamoring, begging, and even insisting on our patronage.

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As we began our walk, Bob hit the nail on the head. How true is that as we focus on the purpose and fulfillment of Jesus do we get distracted by consumerism, by greed, and by the clamoring all around us?

It was our task and try to focus. And it was not easy at all.

The streets were packed. Many others were tourists, but most were not. As we walked and reflected vendors would shout out prices and walk along side us telling us about their children and how hard it was to buy the milk that they needed.

It was all we could do to focus on the stations that Jesus passed on his way to fulfilling his purpose.

We walked along the streets, stopping as a group at each station as we took turns reading the prayer of reflection.

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The Via Dolorosa Devotion Walk, written by Casey Baggott (parenthesis indicate the contemporary setting of what was the station some 2000 years ago):

1st: Jesus is Condemned to Death (near the Franciscan Biblical School)
Prayer for Reflection: Gentle One, forgive us, for we know not what we do. Foolish and stubborn, we are the sheep you came to save. Good shepherd, we follow in your steps this day, asking that you will lead us on your path, every day of our lives. Amen.

2nd: Jesus Take the Cross (near Ecco Homo Convent)
Prayer for Reflection: You picked up the burden we rightly should carry, Christ. Teach us to carry our own crosses, whatever they might be, with the same courage, stamina, and determination, as we follow you. Amen.

3rd: Jesus Falls for the First Time (near the courtyard of the Armenian Catholic Church
Prayer for Reflection: Weighed down by the great burden you carried, You stumbled and fell, Jesus. We can never take lightly the gift of Yourself, given at so great a cost. Lift us, with You, again and again. Amen.

4th: Jesus Meets His Mother, Mary (near the courtyard of the Armenian Catholic Church)
Prayer for Reflection: O Christ, your mother stood by you through your pain and your death. May we be as committed by our love to you as Mary was. Amen.

5th: Simon Helps Jesus Carry the Cross (on the road)
Prayer for Reflection: God, bleess all those who shoulder burdens not their own. Give your strength to those who give of themselves for others’ sake. Make us, like Simon of Cyrene, a willing helper of Your Son. Amen.

6th: Veronica Wipes the Face of Jesus (on the road, near the chapel of St. Veronica)
Prayer for Reflection: How many simply rushed past you, Jesus as you struggled with your heavy cross toward your death? How few were willing to stop to offer a cup of water, a towel to wash your tired face? Make us willing to stop on the busy paths of our lives to walk nearer you, Jesus. Let us offer what we can, to ease the way of those you came to love. Amen.

7th: Jesus Falls the Second Time (at a busy intersection in the old city)
Prayer for Reflection: We know our own struggles push us off balance and send us reeling. You have stumbled, too. Strengthen us when our legs give way, and we find we have no support. Help us remember you. Amen.

8th: Jesus Meets the Daughters of Jerusalem (near Aqabat el Khanga)
Prayer for Reflection: As you walked to your death Jesus, you turned to speak to the women who followed you in grief. You warned them of fire, of revolt, of violence and destruction. Teach us these lessons. As your disciples, may we work to bring only peace. Let your great kingdom come. Amen.

9th: Jesus Falls the Third Time (near the chapel of the Ethiopian monks)
Prayer for Reflection: Let us not remain mere spectators in this walk of faith. Let us, though we may be weighed down, step up to lift the load for another. May we share in this holy burden of bearing Christ’s gifts to the world. Amen.

10th: Jesus is Stripped of His Garments (The Chapel of the Divestiture, Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher)
Prayer for Reflection: How thoroughly you were stripped of your place in this world, Christ. How methodically all honor and respect was taken from you. Today may we re-clothe you in the richness of our songs of praise and in the beauty of the love we hold for you. Amen.

11th: Jesus is Nailed to the Cross (the Latin Altar, Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher)
Prayer for Reflection: Nails could not hold you at that cross, Jesus. God’s great love set you free. Let us see the marks in your hands and feet. Remind us that the love you bore for us overcomes everything that binds and constrains us. Amen.

12th: Jesus Dies Upon the Cross (at the Orthodox altar, Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher)
Prayer for Reflection: “It is finished” you said, Jesus, as you commended your spirit to God. A life of such grace and such holiness ended. And some who loved you stood near and watched. Are we willing to stand near you, even when admitting our love of you is tiresome, dangerous, or troublesome? Make us your loyal followers. Amen.

13th: The Body is Taken From the Cross (at the place of the red stone and the mosaic depiction, the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher)
Prayer for Reflection: Those who cared for you came to take you away, and laid you in a borrowed grave, Jesus. You had nothing to call your own, not even your own tomb. How dark it must have been when the tomb was sealed. But your light came into the darkness, and the darkness could not overcome it! Help us perceive the brilliance of your love, lighting the paths before us, Amen.

14th: Jesus Rises to New Life (under the altar in the second chamber, Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher)
Prayer for Reflection: No tomb contains the Love of God. No pall shadows the Light of Life. He is risen! He is risen, indeed! Hallelujah! The whole earth is full of his glory! Amen.

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We all met outside the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher at noon as the bells of the churches tolled loudly in the courtyard drowning out (perhaps intentionally?) the Islamic call to Prayer being played in this city. Never a dull moment in this place…

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Garden of Gethsemane

After lunch, it began to rain. It was so bitter cold and windy by the time we reached the top of the Mount of Olives, we were certain we felt a little bit of sleet/snow/slush that was no longer just rain.

We descended down the mountain, looking out over the walk that takes the step of Jesus’ Palm Sunday Processional (it was way too slick and rainy for that!) and went to the Garden of Gethsemane.

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“Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated. Then he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour?” (Matthew 26:36-40)
At the foot of the Mount of Olives is the area known as the Garden of Gethsemane (from the Hebrew word for oil-press). Here Jesus, after eating the Last Supper with his disciples, is said to have experienced the agony of solitary, searching prayer, shortly before his arrest. Today the splendid Church of All Nations commemorates this lonely event with a building that draws people from across the globe. (Who Else? Casey Baggot)

The Church is very dark, very little lighting illuminates the building purposely acknowledging the darkness, literally and otherwise of the betrayal in this garden.

For the first time in Bob’s 23 trips to Israel, we were permitted on the altar to gather around the Stone of Agony to sing a hymn and pray. The church was empty.

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Yet another part of our trip perfectly on cue, at our last verse, the church began to fill up again, and we were on our way back to the bus.

First, we walked through the garden of olive trees much bigger than any other we had seen. Some of these trees were dated to be at least 2,000 years old. Could they have provided the canopy for our savior as he searched above and within for answers and strength? Either way, they couldn’t have been too far away.

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If I remember correctly about trees, perhaps the carbon dioxide, the breath of the man who changed the world helped develop and sustain these trees. Though their was wind and icy rain, I certainly felt renewed by the breath of the spirit as well.

To Hell and Back

We stopped near Mount Zion to look out over the city again. As we did so, Ronen explained alot about the city walls that we could see and what had been revealed in excavations.

After that, Casey pointed out to an area called Gehenna. Gehenna was the first word in the Bible to later be translated into the word “hell”. It was a valley just outside the Jerusalem walls where trash used to be dumped and there are even references to fire sweeping through to destroy anything in Gehenna. Thus, when it was threatened that someone would be thrown into the fires of Gehenna (now translated “the fires of hell” this valley was what they were referring to.

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Many people have told me that I was going to go to hell…

Jokes on them. Cuz I’ve been. And I’m back, baby!

A Miracle in the Upper Room

“Down a narrow alley, past arched doorways, up a flight of steps we come to an open room with a magnificent heritage. Though this room was constructed by the Franciscans in the the 14th century, it is said to stand on the site of the original Upper Room where Jesus gathered his disciples for the Last Supper.” (CB)

It was almost too cold and rainy to get off the bus, but because our forecast for tomorrow looks about the same we pressed on.

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This was what I always expected to be the highlight of my trip.

You see, Maundy Thursday is my favorite Christian Holiday. I enjoy Easter, I do, please don’t get me wrong.

But for me, Jesus’ fulfillment of his calling begins on Maundy Thursday when faced with one last opportunity to take the way that nobody could’ve blamed him for taking, Jesus gathers his friends and tells them, to their surprise, I’m sure, that he must complete the task he’d been sent to do.

It’s one thing to plan to leave, I’d imagine it’s much harder to leave when you see the devastated faces of your twelve best friends.

My mentor, Drew, and I have a tradition. Every Maundy Thursday we call each other and talk for sometimes hours about Jesus choice. The humility he showed in the face of those mocking him and spitting at him. The grace he showed in praying for their forgiveness. And the courage shown, choosing the path of most resistance, because love… had… to… win.

Drew has given me so much of who I am today. And I would give the world to him in return. When I told him I was coming to Israel, I told him I would go wherever to get whatever he wanted. “Just soak it in, brother.” he told me. “But there is one thing. Now, I don’t want you to deface anything, but if there is anything, ANYTHING – a rock, a stone, a pebble – in the Upper Room, I would cherish something that has been in that spot.”

I had one mission to fulfill my entire trip, and there was only one person on my heart as we entered the Upper Room.

There must’ve been about 50 people in the room with us, two or three other tour groups. The echo was so loud it was hard to make sense of anything. As my group sat down to read our devotions, I continued to scour the room.

There was nothing.

Though there who two cats in the room that had straggled in to save themselves from the cold, they seemed indifferent to my search.

That’s cats for ya, eh?

I ran my fingers over the floor. In the low light of the room, it was hard to differentiate between what could be pebbles and what actually were dust bunnies.

My heart began to race, I could NOT go home empty-handed. It’s the one thing he asked me for! I needed something. ANYTHING.

As the rest of the groups had cleared out, our group began to sing hymns from our devotion book. Not me, though. I kept searching. Having scoured the floor, I ran my fingers along the edge of the floor and the back wall, hoping for a miracle.

I kid you not, as I ran my finger no more than four feet, all of a sudden, a stone of the edging at the bottom rolled loose. I had used only my index finger (tip, not nail) to make sure that I would not scratch or scuff, this rock had been waiting to roll loose.

I felt such joy! “Wouldn’t it be cool to have one for both of us?” I wondered. I looked within the area I found my rock, and saw/felt nothing more. I reminded myself that the most important part was done, and put the rock in my pocket and headed back to our group. Would I call that a miracle? (Sigh)… Probably not.

As I joined our group, I proudly leaned back, and put my hands in my pocket. Apparently I put my hands in a little too roughly as the rock broke off into two pieces! How’d that happen? One for each of us! Too Cool!

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Would I call that a miracle? (Sigh)… Prolly not.

We had the whole room to ourselves, and as long as that was the case, Bob was going to keep calling out hymns.

We wondered if he was pushing it a bit, going back to his Baptist roots with “Softly and Tenderly”:

Softly and Tenderly, Jesus is Calling
Calling for you, and for me.
See on the portals he’s waiting and watching
Watching for you, and for me.

Come home, Come home.
All who are weary, come home.
Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling
Calling, “O, sinner, come home.”

Apparently, we had pushed it just a bit too far, as one verse into the song, a large group entered in.

Bob was determined, though, to finish the song, and so we sang the last two verses with him. When we finished, I could’ve sworn Casey had tears in her eyes. Apparently, she looked over and saw the group in the front of the room singing along with us.

I looked over at the group that I later learn would be mostly Indonesians. “Really?” I asked. “I think so.” she said. That’s what it looked like to me.

And then, all doubt was removed.

The crowd began making a noise. In the strong echo of the room, we struggled to make out their sounds. Their words were definitely not English words. Yet, the melody they sang rang in a universal key.

They too, were singing “Softly and Tenderly”, so we joined in with them to sing one final verse together, each in our own language.

(Sigh)

We began the day in the cold, icy rain, and the cold icy reality of knowing that we were visitors in an unfamiliar land. We ended our day being reminded of how Great and Big our God really is. Not in the sense that he is only “ours”, but rather, in the sense that though the world is so big we may never see our choirmates again, God is not mine, or theirs, God is ours.

What a better cure for a frigid day than joining in song from others around the world, in the room where Christ called his disciples to continue on, each as if bread broken from his one body, basking in the warmth of God’s love

Would I call that a miracle?

(Sigh)

Yeah, I would.

Perhaps it’s even just a relatively small one.

But when God reveals God’s face in a miracle, big or small, I don’t think it really matters.

Shalom until tommorow, friends.

Click Here to Link to Day Nine

Israel 2012 – Day Seven: Once in Royal David City…

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I began today as a tourist, shopping, supporting the Bethlehem Christian community. I felt the rush that we all feel as we purchase and receive, what control!

I was quickly humbled by the reminder that there is so much outside of my grasp that I have no idea how to control.

Once in Royal David’s City

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The scenery into Bethlehem (“house of bread”) from Jerusalem reminded me of how the scene change must’ve been for the same rout 2000 years ago. Bethlehem looked much… poorer, weaker, more humble? Perhaps. Compared to the largest city in Israel, it didn’t seem desolate, but definately outmatched in terms of resources.

2000 years later, it’s still a humble town.

Bethlehem is in Palestinian occupied territory and we needed to drive through security to get there. We were told we may need our passports to get back in when we return to Jerusalem. With an economy based almost completely on tourism, the Christian population of Bethlehem (roughly 40%) were happy to see us arrive in our luxurious tour bus.

After making a shopping stop, we headed to the Dheisheh (pronounced De HAY shuh) Refugee Camp.

When we arrived in a neighborhood with graffiti walls and trash all over we were lead off the bus into the gates of the camp. We did not see what we were expecting.

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Instead of tents we saw apartments (they looked like multi-story barracks to me). Instead of people working fields, we saw almost no bare grass at all. We didn’t see fencing surrounding the camp, instead there was a wall whose gate, at least for the time being, was left open.

We were met by Ishril, a 22 year-old man who was born inside the camp. As he led us inside the center of the camp, I decided that these conditions were actually worse than I might’ve expected.

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Ishril sat us down in a room full of “trinkets” that the women of the camp made to sell. He explained to us that in 1948, Palestinians were forced out of their homes with force by the Israelis. For one year the refugees camped outside the border, unwilling to just give up and walk away from their home land that had been taken from them.

One year later, in 1949 the United Nations brought in tents for them to sleep under and the refugees remained steadfast that someday soon, their help would come and they would be allowed to return home.

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Some seven to eight years later, the U.N. began to help construct housing “apartments” that despite their small size, are still shared between several families.

Today, despite two U.N. Resolutions stating that the Palestinians be allowed to return home, they are forbidden to do so.

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Some 13,000 residents of the camp live in a walled-in area roughly 1.5 square kilometers.

There is one doctor.

There are 20 teachers that share two schools (one meets in the morning, and one in the afternoon) because there is not enough space for the 3500 kids in the camp to attend at the same time. None of the 20 teachers are qualified as we would define it which is just as well because nobody in the camp can afford to pay for any type of what we would call “quality” education.

The majority of the camp has water and electricity, although it is more expensive because they have to pay the Palestinian authorities who have to pay the Israelis for the water.

Two times a week the Israeli army comes into the camp. Sometimes to make patrol or make arrests, and sometimes to train.

Ishril told us a story about when he and his friend were coming back through the checkpoint and three Israeli soldiers asked to see his ID. His friend showed his first. Realizing that they were born in the camp, the Israeli soldiers decided to “play a little game.” They wrote on a few pieces of paper and folded it up.

Ihsril’s friend picked the one that said “Break his arm.” Two of the soldiers grabbed his friend from either side while the third feigned pistol whipping his arm. All three soldiers laughed at how frightened he’d become.

When you face that type of treatment in that type of environment, Ishril pleaded, there are only three ways a young person can react.

1) They can become psychologically broken and give up aspirations, dreams, potential, and confidence.
2) They can become defiant and even violent. He talked about the kids who throw rocks. Even those who wake up in the middle of the night to go outside to throw rocks. “It’s not what they make it seem on TV, please know that,” he warned. Or
3) They can educate themselves and others to try to work towards a solution.

This very sweet, articulate, caring young man was quite honest about his trust in those leaders and officials that claim they want peace and equality. Since 1948 his family has been kept from their homes and even some 65 years later, there is no hope for anything different in the near future. Thus, despite all the talking, there wasn’t much trust to be had.

I was overwhelmed by what I had heard. We stood to follow him out the door for a tour of the camp.

It grew hard to hear him, though.

We had to stay in a narrower, deep pack because there was not a wide space between the housing and the wall. It grew harder and harder to hear Ishril, but frankly, I didn’t really know how much I could hear.

I became so angry, I could kick the wall.

I thought of what I would write to explain the situation or my feelings.

It is not my intention to advocate for a certain political view or even religious culture. I know far too little about politics AND religion. I’m not even able to offer a solution. The closer I get to understanding the conflict in this region, the more I understand how little I know.

As the thoughts raced through my mind, I hear a polite, “Hello, excuse me please.”

A man with his daughter by the hand was trying to walk through us to get wherever they were going. I shook my head. It’s just not fair. It’s just not fair for that little girl to know what she already knows and see what she’s already seen. It’s just not fair for that father because I KNOW he wants something different for her than what he has and had. It’s just not fair.

I choked back tears in some mix between grief, shock, and anger. What I was feeling wasn’t political. It wasn’t religious. It was human.

The kids began to come out of area. 6 to 8 of them. They came up to us playfully almost like dolphins in the sea approaching the boat of spectators. They seemed happy, joyful, and certainly not shy.

They tickled each other, posed for our pictures, and kept saying in broken, high-pitched English, “Hello. Hello. Hello!”, hoping that everybody in our group would acknowledge them.

Once our group started heading back towards the bus, I stayed back to compose myself. These kids, so happy now, have such an uphill battle to climb. I wondered if the climb is even possible.

As I went to catch up to the group, a pack of boys began to run along side my fast walking steps.

“What’s your name?” One boy asked boldly. I turned around and stopped. Abruptly as they could, the five boys stopped too.

I laughed but I’m not sure why. Maybe it was that I was surprised at his English. Maybe I was touched by his courage, his spunk. He sure was cute.

“My name is Neal.”

He looked at me like I just said supercalifragilisticexpialodocious.

This time it was much more confused. “What’s your name?”

“Ne-Uhl” I said very slowly, with a smile.

He repeated it over and over, each time with a little less help from me, until he had it.

“What’s your name?” I asked slowly. He looked almost panicked. This conversation turned to a part of English he was not prepared for. He turned to the tallest boy behind him who told him something in Arabic. Immediately, he looked relieved and regained his confidence.

“My name is Mohommed.” he told me proudly.

Mohommed is a name that scares many Americans. Mohommed is also the psuedonym many of us use when we’re using jokes or slurs.

This Mohommed was not a threat. This Mohommed was not a terrorist. This Mohommed was an eight year-old boy.

Each time I went to talk to Mohommed, it became a little more impossible to make a sound with my choked back tears. I made sure on my way out I made sure to hug Ishril goodbye.

Bob told me to hang back and take my time.

Bob gets me.

I turned back to the boys again. Ishrim – one of Mohommed’s friends – and I exchanged pleasantries as well.

I asked, “How old are you, Mohammed?”

It was like I threw him the hanging curveball he’d been hoping for.

“I am eight.” he said.

“I am twenty eight.” I showed him with my hands. God, I miss when my age and my hands made easier sense.

He repeated again, as if he was trying to memorize it.

Bob came up to talk with us for a few moments too.

Ya know, it wasn’t the most complicated conversation that I had today. It might not have even been the most interesting. All we did really, was try to memorize each other’s names. (“Bob” made much more sense to their tongues than “Neal.”)

But it will forever be the most memorable conversation I had in all of Israel.

As I turned to get back on the bus as the kids chased after me, (“Please one money, one money, please!”) I couldn’t hold back the tears.

Phil was there, he got pictures of the whole conversation. There’s a great picture of us old boys talking with those young boys, laughing and goofing.

I can’t show you any of the pictures though, Phil has pretty strict standards about posting pictures of kids on the internet without parental permission.

You may still get to see that picture though. It will be framed on my wall, and I will look at it every time I think of how fortunate and lucky I am to be where I am with who I am with. I will often look at it and pray for justice, and peace, safety and deliverance from evil. And when I do, I will be sure to pray for Mohommed too.

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The Cave of the Nativity

There is no transition from my conversation with Mohammed to our visit at the Cave of the Nativity. And in our day, there was no transition either. He was all I thought about even as I exited the bus up to the church (now, churches) built on top of the cave (stable) and exact spot where it is believed Jesus was born.

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Standing in line, I bought a few candles to burn in prayer inside the church. This whole time I have been praying for me and my loved ones, but I knew exactly who I would be praying for this afternoon.

I lit the candle and said my prayers not just for the ones I love, but for Mohommed and the ones that he loves too.

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My heart began to open up to the similarities between one strong little boy born with nothing, in the middle of near obscurity, with a steep hill to climb.

We climbed practically moving from a line 10 people wide, narrowing into a single file line as we climbed into the cave where the nativity took place.

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During my descent into the cave, it hit me. Yes, God does small miracles in small ways. But, staring at the manger, I felt a sense of peace. In the tinyest, darkest of places, God, can, and does, BIG miracles against BIG odds, too! Thanks be to God.

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Our group huddled together in the corner of the cave, had a prayer, and sang Silent Night. I will never forget it. In all the ways God gives us birth, rebirth, new life, and life renewed, I am truly humble and thankful.

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The Nativity Cave was not what I expected, it was better, and just what I needed.

We went downstairs into through the catholic church into the caves where St Jerome, against the will of many religious authorities, translated the Scriptures from Hebrew to Latin.

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I guess writers cramp is a small price to pay for the good of the people, eh?

From there we had lunch and headed to the shepherds fields.

Shepherds Fields

It’s not really possible to top the Cave of the Nativity, but we found a good way to wash it down for the day!

Near the Boaz fields (as in Boaz, Ruth’s husband) were the fields many believe hosted the Angel’s proclamation that Jesus had been born!

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We walked past the fields where the Shepherds were watching their flock and most likely sleeping right beside them (in this cold weather, I am easily reminded of how nice if not necessary it would be to snuggle up with some extra wool) into a chapel on a hill. Noting the incredible acoustics and the fact that we were miraculously alone, we circled around the chapel and sand “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear”. Noting our intonation, it occurs that we still have reason to believe in miracles after all.

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After that, we headed towards the cave where the first church was on these fields. In almost near darkness but complete stillness we read the Angel’s proclamation (“And in that region there were shepherds watching over their flock by night…” Luke 2:8-17).

Casey reminded us: perhaps these humble shepherds, so willing to drop what they were doing to see what had happened in Bethlehem. Or perhaps, the call was not just for them, yet, they were the only ones who were able to hear it. So many times in our lives we are busy, cluttered even. May we be able to break away from the binds of stress and that which is not as important or urgent as it seems to be able to see, experience, and revel in, what God is doing now!

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Amen, right?

Our Way Back

On our way back in to Jerusalem, we stopped at the checkpoint where two young men in fatigues boarded the bus. The one who walked past me with an automatic weapon hanging from his neck could not have been anywhere close to my age (28). He said, “hello, how are you doing?” as he smiled, assuring us that we had nothing to worry about. In that strange setting, I think many of us felt safe and secure.

I immediately thought of Mohommed. Would he have felt the same way? Would he have gotten a smile and a wave?

I’m Just Thinking

It’s been harder for me to sleep at night, and I suspect it has been for many of us. For me, I think it’s the anxiety.

Half of it is the anxiety behind knowing that my time here is almost over. Half of it is because of the cultural climate, intensity, and tension of this city.

I wonder how Jesus felt during his last time in Jerusalem because certainly both were true for him.
I do calm down when I remember and embrace the home that I am going home to. Did Jesus do the same?

Though so much has changed in 2000 years, I feel very much a part of the emotional terrain of the holy land, then and now.

And speaking of emotion in the holy land, on to the culmination.

Tomorrow is the biggie.

We will head into the Old City (of Jerusalem), visit the Dome, the 3rd most holy Islamic site, then head off to Via Dolorosa (The Way of the Cross), The Garden of Gethsemane, and The Upper Room.

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Friends and Family, please know that as we experience the emotions of these final days we bear you in our hearts and prayers and give thanks for you.

Shalom until tomorrow.

A Prayer for Mohommed

Faithful, Everlasting God, you have reminded us time and time again of your ability to do huge things in tiny places, to do grandiose miracles amidst meager circumstances. None are as big of a reminder as that tiny baby Jesus in that tiny cave, in that tiny town, two thousand years ago. May you continue to remind me, and the adults of this world, that it is not our might that conquers, but your love. In the midst of steep climbs and odds that seem insurmountable, grant us the humility and courage to rely on you and claim you, and your miracles. Keep us ever attentive to when our arms, feet, shoulders, or time, will be needed in bringing that miracle to light. May we come running to your call as quickly as the shepherds did, and may we be willing to leave behind whatever we thought we knew as quickly as they did two thousand years ago.

For a boy that right now knows no better than to smile, may you give him confidence and courage to smile, love, and persevere. Will you give him the comfort when he begins to look up that mountain he has to hike. Will you give him patience when he realizes that education is not at all the easy way out. When he feels afraid and abandoned I pray that you will comfort and shelter him. Will you inspire in his giant-sized heart, the power to bear your love to others around him.

And God, when he feels abandoned, as if the rest of the world has forgotten about him, please, let me be living my life in such a way, where he isn’t right.

Amen.

Click Here to Link to Day Eight
Click Here to Link to Day Nine