Swan-dive to Mundane

I was sitting in the waiting room of my physical therapist’s office yesterday morning, thumbing through a People magazine.  I was early for my 8:15 appointment, so she was still moving around me, tidying the office.  She greeted me, of course, and I continued to “read” meaningless celebrity “news”.

“Have you done any blogging lately?” she said out of nowhere.

“No,” sigh, “I’ve been kind of in a funk.  Writing would probably get me out of it, but I just haven’t found my way there in a while.”

“Yeah, it really centers your spirit, doesn’t it?”

Man, we haven’t even started my PT yet and she’s already getting at the core.  How does she do that?

The last time I blogged, I was sitting in Jerusalem.  Today I am sitting, still in pajamas, on the futon in my office in my little house by the river. Then, I was floating high on the experience, the relationships, the food — have I mentioned the food?  Today, I am back in the mundane — classes, laundry, tax preparation, and the like.

It’s a lot easier to write about the fantastic, isn’t it?  It’s lovelier to live in the beautiful. However,  we do most of our dwelling in the ordinary, so coming down from the extraordinary sometimes involves a crash landing. And crash I did.

Some of the crash was circumstantial.  I went from touring brilliantly-farmed land lush with oranges, strawberries, and figs to trudging across frozen tundra.  I transitioned from touring on a bus full of enthusiastic learners who scored one another’s jokes, sang together, laughed together,   and cried together, to spending a lot of time on my own sorting receipts, preparing for class, and putting away suitcases.

Some of the crash was self-inflicted. My doctor had recommended before the trip that I do a 21-day elimination diet to see if any foods were causing my pain and/or inflammation.  I postponed it until after the trip (yes, the trip where we ate like kings three times a day), but started immediately when we got home.  For the past three weeks, in addition to not eating gluten or dairy (both of which I have avoided for three years), I also eliminated soy, corn, citrus, peanuts, pork, and it seems like most everything else.  Oh, and at the same time I finished weaning myself off Zoloft.

Yeah, I’m nuts. I mean if you’re going to come off the mountaintop, you might as well swan-dive, right?  The thing about swan-diving, though, is that you can go pretty far down pretty darn quickly.

The casual observer might not detect the shift in position — from mountaintop to deep, dark valley.  The physical therapist?  The husband?  Oh, they saw the shift.  I did, too.  I could feel the snark, but I couldn’t shake it.

It probably didn’t help that we came back right before the presidential inauguration and all the virtual “noise” that ensued , because I certainly have difficultly not engaging with all of that.  And, rather than turning to my writing, which I know is an outlet for my emotions, I instead turned my gaze to the other things that need my attention — grading, a project I started for my in-laws a year ago, unfinished tax prep — and I thought to myself, it would be pretty selfish of you to sit down and blog for an hour right now.  You have other people depending on you.

And I believed that voice.  I muted the truth that says, “Oxygenate yourself first.”  I forgot that “in repentance and rest is my salvation; in quietness and trust is my strength.”  I trudged onward, avoiding my need for self-care, while attending to tasks that preserved the facade — cleaning the house, preparing for teaching, ironing clothes, cooking…anything but taking the pause that refreshes and centers my spirit.

So, after a sermon on Sunday about suffering and the encounter with my physical therapist who noted that my body is “all over the place,” I give up.  I turn to the keys.  I am honest.  I’ve been struggling, but I’m turning, guys.  I’m turning.  It might take a minute, but I’m turning.

Psalm 30:1ff

I will exalt you, Lord,
    for you lifted me out of the depths
    and did not let my enemies gloat over me.
Lord my God, I called to you for help,
    and you healed me.
You, Lord, brought me up from the realm of the dead;
    you spared me from going down to the pit.

Advertisements

Jerusalem Juxtaposition

This entire trip has been illustration after illustration of juxtaposition.  For instance, today, day eight, ended with a visit to the Israel Museum and its Dead Sea Scroll exhibit.  We entered through a narrow cave-like passageway, as though walking into the caves in which the scrolls were found – the very ones that we visited under a week ago.  The passageway took us to a large exhibit which displays tools that the Essenes would have used both in their daily life and in the production of the scrolls. It has case after case of artifacts including replicas of the scrolls themselves and the very jars in which the scrolls were found. Our group spent about thirty minutes in this exhibit examining the artifacts and the pages and pages of copied text.  We exited the room that housed the ancient and entered a very small exhibit that housed the modern – the NanoBible.  This silicon chip, really not much larger than a grain of sand or two, has printed (yes, actually etched on it) the entire Bible – Old and New Testaments.  Two Scriptures. Ancient and Modern. Massive and miniscule. Juxtaposition.

On our drive to the museum, we passed a monastery near Jerusalem that houses a sect of monks who don’t speak.  They take a vow of silence.  Not too surprising, right?  But how about the fact that the monastery houses a concert hall where many famous performances are given every year – including Handel’s Messiah?  The silent is home to the celebrant. Juxtaposition.

Earlier today, we visited a 750 square acre city built within caves that had been carved out of enormous hills of chalk.  For 1400 years, Sidonians lived and worked in these caves, mining the chalk and worshiping idols.  The caves were several stories tall in some sections, and our guide, having witnessed our group singing inside many churches and synagogues over the last few days, asked us to sing inside one of the larger caves.  Indeed, the acoustics were phenomenal and the sound reverberated beautifully.  However, it felt a little strange bringing our sacred music into a place formerly used for idolatry.  The contrast, the mismatch, is tangible.

We’ve gone from mountaintops to valley floors.  We’ve, within the space of hours gone from wearing multiple layers with hats and gloves, to shedding it all, donning swimsuits, and getting sunburned.

Last night, the Sabbath, we wanted to witness the observant, or religious, Jews at sundown at the Western Wall.  Our trip leader had done so on a previous trip and said it was not to be missed.  So, we walked from our hotel through streets crowded with Jews, Muslims, and a mixture of tourists. Vendors lined the streets offering everything from baby clothes to pomegranates to olive wood nativity sets to beautiful scarves.  The colors are indescribably vibrant.  And right beside us, in the narrow space between us and the vendors, traveled single-minded Jews clad in black and white from their hats to their shoes.  They traveled with purpose to the Western Wall.  There, hundreds of them crowded into the courtyard right in front of the wall where they prayed, sang, and danced to celebrate the Sabbath.

Today, we were leaving the old city one more time.  We are quite obviously American tourists.  We travel in our group of thirty-three, led by our guide who carries the flag of Texas high in the air for us to follow.  We snake through the narrow streets with purpose; we know we are on a schedule.  We glance side to side at the gaudy and the beautiful, the ornate and the plain.  We move between Jews, Muslims, and Christians of all denominations and all nationalities.  We approached the Jaffa Gate a few minutes before our bus arrived to gather us.  There, just outside the wall, was a Hassidic Jew, in traditional garb, playing an electric violin, his case open beside him to gather tips.  If that isn’t a picture of juxtaposition, I don’t know what one is.

It is not lost on me that Jesus himself is the ultimate juxtaposition.  He is at once Lion and Lamb, King and Servant, Mighty and Humble. He is God and Man. I’ve seen his place of birth and his place of death. He reigns with God in heaven while

residing within us. It’s unfathomable, isn’t it? Yet, I didn’t come here to see so that I could believe.  Instead, because I believe, I came so that I could see.

“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard,

which we have seen with our eyes,

which we looked upon and have touched with our hands…”

I John 1:1

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

 

Grace upon Grace

Yesterday morning, we got up at 6am, showered, repacked our bags, ate breakfast, jumped on the bus, and drove around the Sea of Galilee where we boarded a large wooden boat. Yes, we rode on the same water where Peter fished and where Jesus calmed the storm. Each of us says about a hundred times a day, “Can you believe we are here?”  “Can you believe we are in Israel?” “Can you believe we are in a boat on the Sea of Galilee?”

In the past two days we have also visited Caesarea Phillipi, Bethsaida, Capernaum, Magdala, and Korazim – all places where Jesus walked and spoke.  Our guide, a Messianic Jew, has been giving these types of tours for twenty-two years.  Although she grew up in New York in a secular home, not practicing faith of any type, she became a Christian after losing her husband at a young age. She decided to move to Israel where she has become a messenger of the gospel to people from all countries who come to the Israel to tour the Holy Land.

In each place we visit, she asks us to bring our Bibles and our cameras.  She starts by reading a passage (or several passages) of scripture to connect the site to its significance. She often asks members of our group to share in the reading.  She has given us a timeline that begins with Adam and Eve and outlines key periods in Israel’s history to help us make sense of all that we are seeing. She also inserts historical and geographical facts to give us context to aid our understanding.

This morning, we visited a national park that housed both an altar from the reign of Jeroboam (around 900 BCE) and the Canaan Gate which dates all the way back to Abraham over 2200 years before the birth of Christ.  We’ve seen ruins from the Roman Period (63-243 CE) and from the time when Jesus lived, the first century.

It’s difficult to keep it all straight.  However, some truths are evident over time — man is corrupt and bent on his own desires;  God is gracious and continually pursues his people.

Today, we were near the Sea of Galilee, and our guide reminded us that it was near this very location that Jesus, not long after his resurrection, not long after Peter had denied him three times, reinstated Peter.  How did He do it?  He gently reminded Peter of his humanity, asking him three times, “do you love me?”, and He offered Peter a gracious opportunity to “feed my lambs.”  It’s not difficult to draw the connection, is it?  Don’t we also deny Christ in our words and, even more often, in our actions or lack of actions? Doesn’t Christ also gently restore us and ask us to feed his lambs?

It’s fairly easy, my small group and I discussed last night, to keep our focus on Christ as we witness all the evidence of His existence here in Israel.  Will it be easy when we return to our daily lives – with its due dates, obligations, and stressors?  Probably not.  We will likely deny Christ and determine to go our own way.  Not to worry; Jesus will pursue us.  He will offer us grace, as He did Peter, time and time again.

Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given.

John 1:16

 

Wowed by Ancient Technology

Although I carried my iPhone —  a device that is a computer, a camera, a phone, and a fitness tracker all in one — I marveled today at the technological feats of people who lived across the centuries.

We started this morning in Caesarea, a breathtakingly beautiful city on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea.  Before King Herod, Israel was unapproachable from the sea because the shoreline was inlaid with swamp land.  But starting around 25 BC, King Herod began a project to build a deep harbor that would allow ships from all over the world — Europe, Asia, and Africa — to port in Caesarea.  I know I don’t remember all the details because today was a fire-hydrant flow of information, but just take in the idea that a man, before the birth of Jesus, conceived of a way to sink enormous pylons deep into the sea bottom to fortify a break wall and create a harbor.  Not only that, he built a luxurious castle for himself, right on the shore, complete with a swimming pool!  Now, we won’t get into his labor tactics or his political ideologies, but the technology was phenomenal.  Excavations keep revealing more and  more of Herod’s work including a 4,000-seat auditorium and a hippodrome!

And Herod wasn’t the only technician to impact Israel.  From Caesarea we travelled to Megiddo, an ancient city that was established and destroyed more than a dozen times over the centuries and has become a tell, an archaeological site housing twenty-some layers of ruined civilizations dating back before the time of King Ahab; yes, I’m talking about the King Ahab that lived over 800 years BC. Across the centuries, Megiddo was a contested city because of its location at the crossing point of many key travel routes.  Although it was a walled city, as many cities were, Megiddo was vulnerable because its water source, a fresh water spring, sat outside the city walls.  No problem for King Ahab — again, we won’t discuss his lack of humanitarianism, just his technological ingenuity — he (or perhaps one of his men) designed a way to dig an enormous tunnel to connect the spring to the people inside!  We walked down over 180 steps into this hand-hewn tunnel today. Yes, I said hand-hewn — you can still see the chisel marks on the walls!  I can’t properly describe this feat with words.  Just imagine that all thirty-three of us marched down these steps, walked along an underground boardwalk, and all stood together and looked at the pooling water of the underground spring.  It’s inconceivable. Again, archaeologists continue to unearth the layers of history at Tell Megiddo — our guide remarked that it would take hundreds of years to fully study this one mound. We picked up shards of pottery ourselves and marveled at the knowledge that they were crafted thousands of years ago.

I wasn’t really expecting to see technology in old Nazareth.  I was expecting to see first century homes and stables and hear stories about the kind of town Nazareth was at the time of Jesus; and that did happen.  Our guide, a young Israeli man, told us what people wore, where they lived, and the fact that most inhabitants of Nazareth were farmers.  If you know anyone who farms, or has farmed, you know that farming involves a lot of technology — today and in first century Nazareth.   Although we saw carpentry tools and an ancient wine press created out of rock, most impressive was the lever and mill stone system used to press olives.  Again, I’m sure that my detail-addled brain can’t fully articulate the many step system that used a giant stone turned by donkey-power and a multi-stage lever crafted from a large wooden pole and stone weights, but let me just say that the whole system involved a lot of mathematical calculations that I am sure I wouldn’t understand.  Again– a technological feat!

It’s 2:40 am here, I’m already 600 words in, and I’ve only discussed three ancient technologies that we witnessed today.  I haven’t told you how when one of our students stood in Herod the Great’s auditorium and sang for us her sound was amplified by the design of the structure. I haven’t told you about the six-mile long Roman aqueduct in Caesarea that dates from the time of Herod. I haven’t begun to explain the ongoing elaborate archaeological projects — 30,000 of them —  in Israel. And I certainly haven’t explored at all the religious and spiritual components of our tour…I’ll get to that, but not tonight.

Let me just put a little teaser here — our guide is a Jewish woman, near 70 years old, who grew up in New York City, converted to Christianity on a visit to the Holy Land in the 1970s and has been living in Israel, giving Biblical tours for the last twenty-two years.  Think that has any impact on our tour at all? Yes, yes it does.

I could think and write all night, but tomorrow is another packed day, starting with a sailboat ride from Tiberias onto the Sea of Galilee.  Yes, a sailboat ride from Tiberias onto the Sea of Galilee.

Our guide asked me, “What took you song long to visit Israel, why have you never come before?” You know, I never conceived that a trip like this would be possible for me.  I wasn’t longing to come here, or sad that I had never been.  We have a very good and full life, and while Herod could imagine a deep water harbor and Ahab could envision a tunnel carved by hand, I never imagined that I could ride a bus into Nazareth, get splashed by the waves of the Mediterranean, or ride a boat on the Sea of Galilee. And yet, here I am.

I’m going to get some sleep now so that I can fully take in the experience and see what God has in store for us here in Israel.

Psalm 40:5

Many, Lord my God, are the wonders you have done, the things you planned for us. None can compare with you; were I to speak and tell of your deeds, they would be too many to declare.

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?”