Traveling Companions

Every day in Israel has been full of surprises — the beautiful and excellent food, the wide variety of geographical features, the incredible detail of the archeological finds, and today, the leathery knees and elbows of camels.  However, the best surprise I have had is the quality of the group that I am traveling with.

I’ve already mentioned Hela, our guide, a Messianic Jew from New York City; she is rich in knowledge of Israel after extensive training and twenty-two years on the job.  She keeps spewing out facts, answering questions, and throwing in an occasional pun. Oy. Then there’s Dan, a friend and colleague from Ann Arbor; this is his fourth trip to Israel. He started planning this trip about eighteen months ago, brought John into the plan over a year ago, and added me last Spring when the number of students necessitated a third chaperone.

Of course I am thrilled to have my husband and best friend, John, on this trip of a lifetime.  He is very conscientious, not only of me, but of everyone on the trip.  He is so aware of what everyone’s needs are and anticipates how he can best be of service on the trip.  He’s our Johnny on the Spot.  Beyond that, he is fun to be with.  He is always ready to try something new, like float on the frigid deep sea water before breakfast this morning, climb onto the back of a camel with me and ride it across the sand of the Negev, or eat candied mushrooms — I promise you, they were amazing!

But most amazing of all? The students we are traveling with.  I gotta admit that in the days leading up to the trip, I might have had some reservations about traveling to the other side of the world with thirty college students.  I had met almost half of them in Ann Arbor, but the rest were absolute strangers to me.  Not only would I have to co-exist with these people, who, by the way, are aged 19 to 56, but I would be responsible for leading ten of them in small group meetings every evening, keeping track of them throughout the day, and being available for any crises that might arise.  What if we had one (or more!) high maintenance travelers? What if roommate conflicts arose? What if students got lost?  What if they refused to follow the rules?  Well, I thought, we’ll cross those bridges when we come to them.

All of my worries were unfounded.  Seriously, all of them. From the moment we gathered on the morning of January 6, these students have been easy going, friendly, receptive to one another, willing to lend a hand, and genuinely interested in all the information they are being exposed to.  Granted, they are getting a grade for this adventure, but they could still be apathetic.  Many students are, but these kids are engaged. Let me show you what I mean.

Almost every day, they have had to be up, packed, finished with breakfast, and on the bus by or before 8am. They ALWAYS are.  We have not had to wait once for anyone. Several times a day, we stop at a site, Hela says, “bring your Bible and your camera,” and all thirty jump off the bus, follow Hela, and start taking pictures and notes the minute she starts talking.  When she says, “go,” they disperse and milk the site for as much information as they can squeeze out of it.  If Hela says we are staying together, they stay together.  If she says, we are going to eat falafel, they eat falafel.  If she says, “You should order the St. Peter’s fish,” they order the St. Peter’s fish.  I am telling you, they don’t whine, they don’t complain, they don’t wrinkle their noses, they are all in. Always.

And in the evenings, after we have all had dinner and Hela has retired to her room for the evening, the rest of us convene to worship and debrief.  Again, no one has ever been late. Two of our students take turns playing the guitar and leading worship.  Others have volunteered to pray or read Scripture.  After some announcements and singing, we break into groups of ten — the same groups every night — where we share about the experiences of the day, ask questions, and encourage one another.  This all happens at 8pm, twelve hours after they boarded the bus!  And they are still engaged and invested, sharing their hearts and listening to one another.

I know, I know, I sound like I am gushing.  And, yes, I know, I always am bragging about my students; it’s like I think I have better students than anyone else in the world. And, you know, I think I do!!

This morning, when John and I walked down to the beach to float in the Dead Sea, we passed two young men who were working out together, one coaching the other.  We found another girl, sitting alone, practicing the Hebrew alphabet.  In the water, we met up with three students who hadn’t met before this trip, who were floating, laughing, and taking pictures of one another.  While we were in the water, others joined, then Dan walked down to the beach to take our picture for the video he is publishing online most evenings.  Because the water was very cold, John and I left the beach and walked inside the hotel where there is a pool full of filtered, heated Dead Sea water.  In the pool, we joined Dan, some other students, and the last member of our tour, our driver, Elan.

Let me talk about Elan for a minute.  He is a Jewish native of Israel in his fifties. His first language is, of course, Hebrew, but he speaks English rather well, too.  The guy can drive that bus, a fifty-five passenger Mercedes,  in places I wouldn’t drive my car. Today he wound us through hairpin curves from 700+ feet below sea level to 2500 feet above sea level and back again.  He fits that bus through gates, into parking spots, and past busses and truck with inches to spare — I promise I am not exaggerating.  He joins us at dinner and in the pool, cracks jokes, and is quick with a witty response.  Two times he has missed a turn and said, dead pan, “I went a different way to show you the cows.”

If I had to interview and hand-select traveling companions, I couldn’t have compiled a group this magnificent.   They are becoming members of my extended family — people who will matter to me for the rest of my life.  I wasn’t anticipating that; it is a bonus blessing. I am so thankful for these traveling companions.

“walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called,

with all humility, bearing with one another in love,

eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”

Ephesians 4:1-3

 

First glimpse of Israel

My eyes are bleary.  I’ve got a headache.  I could really use a shower and about eight hours of sleep, but I’m smiling.  In the past twenty-four hours I have travelled via a fifteen-passenger van, an Amtrak train, the Chicago L, a train at O’Hare International Airport, and two jets.  Within the hour, thirty-two of my travel partners and I will land in Tel Aviv Israel.

When the group from Ann Arbor met up with the group from Mequon last night, we all grabbed something to eat then broke into three smaller groups of ten students and one leader each.  I don’t know what the other groups talked about, but my group and I did some round robin discussions, one of which was, “What are you most looking forward to?” The responses included:

Ride in a first century boat on the Sea of Galilee;

Float in the Dead Sea;

Ride on a Camel;

Visit Calvary;

Go to the old city of Jerusalem.

As we shared, we were practically giddy.   Some of these students have travelled much more than I have; some have travelled very little.   Some are excited to try new foods and meet new people; some are uneasy with all the newness surrounding us.  Yet all of them have chosen to invest a great deal of time and money and set any insecurities behind in order to walk where Jesus walked and see what Jesus saw.

It’s now almost four hours later.  I have had an extremely satisfying dinner (I am sure one post this week will be all about the food.); I’ve finally satisfied my thirst with many glasses of water, so my headache is gone; I’ve showered; and I’m resting in clean sheets and jotting down a few things before I nod off. We’ve got a 6am wakeup call so that we can get up, shower, dress, and have our packed suitcases outside our doors by 7am.  Porters will move them to the bus while we eat more delicious food and then board for our first day of touring.

Get this:  We are going to Caesarea where we will gather shells on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. Then, we will see a Roman Aqueduct, Megiddo, and Mt. Arbel before we hike the Jesus Trail and spend the night in Galilee.  That’s all tomorrow.

Because we flew in to Tel Aviv after dark, and probably because I’m so exhausted, Israel feels like many other places I have been.  For Heaven’s sake, we saw McDonald’s, Pizza Hut, Toys R Us, and even an Ikea on our drive to the hotel.  However, I can hear the waves of the Mediterranean hitting the beach below my window, and I’m promised an amazing view when I awake in the morning.  I’m going to fall asleep now to the rhythm of the tide and try to imagine what tomorrow has in store.

When Jesus came to the region of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples,

“Who do people say the Son of Man is?”

 

Turn, Turn, Turn

In the midst of The Great Sunglasses Search, I may have lost my sense of humor.  Now, you could probably guess that it wasn’t just the sunglasses, or the way a friend called me out for being inconsiderate, or the way I reacted to someone else being inconsiderate, or the many errands I have run over the past couple of days, or even my obsession with the Minimalist Challenge (I’ve completed 15 days in 2 days — that’s 120 items so far, but who’s counting?).

No, it wasn’t any one of those things that made me lose my sense of humor — it was a cumulative effect. I was chugging along with tons of energy, feeling very positive about this trip to Israel, when I suddenly noticed that the space between my eyebrows was wrinkled, my jaw was set, and little things were starting to bug me.  Eh, whatever, I thought, so I’m a little irked.  I’ve still got to mail two packages, stop by the library, pick up a few things at Target, print out two documents, and doggone it, did I look in those other suitcases?  Maybe my sunglasses are in there!

Yes, yes, I know, I need to pace myself.  How many times have we been over this.  Fortunately, my body hasn’t revolted and flung me on the couch.  That is probably due to the fact that although I accomplished all of the above, I also sat at the puzzle table for a few hours last night and had the satisfaction of completing a 1000-piecer, tossing it back in the box, and adding it to the donation pile. (Yes, I’m a little out of control.) Also, I know myself well enough that I made sure to do yoga twice last week and twice this week already, following each 75-minute session with a soak in the jacuzzi.

Nevertheless, I’ve got to calm down a little.  I mean, we are leaving TOMORROW  with THIRTY STUDENTS for TWELVE DAYS! The one thing I can’t leave at home is my sense of humor!!

So, you know, in the spirit of my commitment to Return to the Lord, I came home after yoga this morning, did three more things on my to-do list, then grouchily opened my Bible Reading plan. If you have read this blog more than three times, you know what happened.  I was convicted right in the middle of my reading, “Now the works of the flesh are evident: …enmity, strife,…fits of anger, …dissensions, divisions,…and things like these.” Darn flesh.

Keep reading, Rathje, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” Well, of course not, silly. Who would outlaw kindness or gentleness? patience? peace? Nah, we don’t have to outlaw those things — those are the things we forget to do, the things we turn away from.  The things that need to be outlawed are the ones we are bent on doing — like getting irritated and ticked off!

So, what’s a girl to do?   Ahem, keep reading, “…those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” Really? Because my flesh seems to be alive and kicking, “If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.”

There it is.  My flesh is alive and kicking; it’s true.  It’s got to be crucified moment by moment.  It’s a continual act of turning away from the flesh and toward the Spirit.  That’ll probably be easier to do in the Holy Land, right? Ha-ha.  That’s funny.

Alright, guys, I’m headed out one more time this afternoon.  I’m not coming home tonight until I have located one pair of sunglasses, two travel umbrellas, a pile of cash in small denominations, and a well-fortified sense of humor.

Because tomorrow, my friends, we go to Israel.

“…the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ,

will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.”

Amen, Come, Lord Jesus.

(I Peter 5:10)

 

Sigh.

It all started with me wanting to find the sunglasses that clip on to my prescription glasses.  I picked out these glasses because they came with magnetized sunglasses that I can just attach whenever I am in the sun.  I purchased them in August and enjoyed them on our trip to South Africa in October.  Because I am prone to lose things, I mechanically placed the sunglasses in their case and slipped them into the same compartment of my purse over and over again so that I would not lose them. It is no small miracle that they made it back from South Africa with me. However, I think it was within the week of returning that they went missing.

So much happened that week.  I unpacked and immediately went back to teaching and tutoring.  I switched so many bags around.  I have a travel purse, a tutoring bag, and a teaching bag.  I am sure the glasses were moved around from bag to bag, but then what happened?

Because we returned from our trip at the end of October, which was midterm, I didn’t spend the time I should’ve spent to find them immediately.  I kept thinking that surely they would appear.  They didn’t.

Then Thanksgiving happened.  After that, we had five family birthdays and Christmas in December.  Finally on New Year’s Day I started thinking about packing for our trip to Israel. Near the top of our packing list I saw the words, “bring sunglasses, you will be surprised how bright it is.” Sigh.

Sunglasses are particularly important to me.  A complication of my autoimmune disease is that I have struggled with ocular herpes and, more recently, scleritis.  I have not had a flare of either of these conditions for over six months, however, even when I am not flaring, I am no longer able to wear contacts as I had for over thirty years.  Also, even when I am not flaring, my eyes are particularly sensitive to light.  Hence the purchase of prescription glasses that come with ‘clip on’ sunglasses.

Most reasonable people would’ve called the optometrist long ago to secure a replacement pair.  Not me.  I have lost so many things over the years.  My philosophy is, “hang in there, it’ll show up.”  Now it’s forty-eight hours before we leave for Israel and I don’t have sunglasses. Sigh.

I started yesterday, the morning after the last visitor left, cleaning out my office.  It seems that my office was the last known location of the sunglasses.  I really cleaned.  I got on hands and knees, I pulled out everything.  I took items off shelves.  I dusted.  I vacuumed. I inverted every bag I own. Nothing.

Well, in the process of doing all of that cleaning, I got sidetracked into making a pile of donations.  I mean, who needs all this stuff anyway?  As my donation pile was growing, I thought to myself, “you might as well do the minimalist challenge.  It’s been two years.  Clearly you have enough stuff here.”  So, in true Kristin fashion, I got three plates spinning at once — packing for an international trip, searching for my sunglasses, and accumulating a mountain of stuff to donate. (Insert eye-roll here.)

The good news is that my bag is packed with a short list of last-minute items placed neatly on top.  The other good news is that I’m already thirteen days into the minimalist challenge after only two days of cleaning and packing!!  The bad news?  Still no sunglasses.

I really hate making phone calls, so I tried one more strategy this morning.  I was in the shower thinking of  other places I could check when I thought to myself, “hey, my eyes feel pretty good!  maybe I should try my contacts today!  wouldn’t it be great if I could wear contacts the whole time I am in Israel?”  I got out of the shower and put them in.  Hey, they didn’t feel too bad!  So, I headed off to our last Israel trip leaders’ planning meeting feeling very hopeful.  Two hours later I was headed straight to the bathroom to get them out of my eyes.  Scratch that.

I mean, I could call the optometrist, but what are the odds that they can help me? What are the odds that they are going to have a replacement pair of magnetized sunglasses in stock? Sigh.

I’m dialing now. All opticians are currently with other patients.  I’m on hold.  Wait, wait! The optician came to the phone, heard my request and didn’t laugh at me!  He’s going to check to see what they have in stock.  No, no they don’t have any.  If they order now, they won’t be here in time. Yeah, I know. I should’ve called sooner. Sigh.

So, what’s a girl to do?  I have no idea.  I guess I’m gonna keep cleaning and putting things in the donate pile.  A miracle could still happen, couldn’t it?  If not, I’ll squint my way through Israel.  Who knows, maybe it’ll be cloudy the whole time we’re there.

Matthew 6:34

Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.

 

 

Resolving to Return

My daughter and I spent yesterday morning together at a “Breathe out 2016, Breathe in 2017” yoga class and afterward talked briefly about resolutions — the positive thrust toward change and the set-up for unrealistic expectations and imminent failure.  The yoga instructor, intentionally or not, seemed to suggest that we could will good things to come to us by just opening our arms and our spirits to them.

Oh, that it were so.

Last night, at a New Year’s Eve worship service where my husband was filling in for local pastors away for the holidays, we sang the words, “Christ has done away with sadness,” and my daughter turned to me and cheekily said, “has He really done away with sadness?”

Oh, that it were so.

Truly, we don’t need to look far to see sadness. Every day we witness hatred, violence, murder, poverty, chaos, and, yes, sadness.  Just last night in Turkey, thirty-nine people were senselessly murdered as they attempted to ring in the new year.  The past year has had more than its share of sadness.  Indeed, the coming year will not be immune.

So what are we to do? Wear sackcloth and ashes? Walk around wringing our hands and gnashing our teeth? Shall we shake our fists at God in anger, demanding that He do something?

Nah.

We should do the same thing He’s been telling us to do since the Creation of the world — return to the Lord our God.  That’s all.  Our salvation is not in losing our holiday weight, in getting our finances in order, or in building a better portfolio.  It’s in recognizing that God is still God even when He hasn’t done away with sadness.

When my husband asked the congregation last night to write down one way to connect with God in the coming year, I wrote down the same thing I wrote down last year: return to daily Bible study, return to daily prayer, return to regular writing.  I had to write it down again this year because, as we have established, I am bent on turning away and am in constant need of returning.

The world, which is full of sadness, needs Jesus followers to immerse themselves in the Word and in prayer, because when we do this, we can’t help but reflect His mercy and His grace.  We become beacons when we allow His light to take residence within us.  We point to our Source of Hope and spread love rather than fear.

Will you commit with me to return to the Lord and allow Him to use us to shine His love into the lives of those around us?   Imagine a 2017 that is filled with hopefulness that comes from Christ’s light shining in the darkness.

Isaiah 43:19

Behold I am doing a new thing…

I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.