Friday, August 24, 2007

The Israel Experience, Part 3: An Hour for Three Years

Mid morning, day three: In the first week of August, it’s hot in Israel. Everywhere we went, our little herd huddled under the shade of trees, buildings, even ruins. We used ruins for shade.

Today, we’re sitting on a collection of stone blocks under a smartly planted bundle of trees. To my left, a fence keeping the traveling entitled off of first century artifacts. I see the tops of columns and pieces of building archways. I scan back to Mickey. He’s holding his finger in his Bible, standing in front of us. His finger is in one of the gospels—I love Luke and have given much of my life to his gospel, so I’ll just choose to "remember" that Mickey was reading out of Luke.

In Luke 5, Jesus walks into a synagogue to teach, and a man possessed by a Demon begins to yell at him. With simple yet stern words, Jesus casts the demon out, and the people are amazed. I look to my right at a large wall. From the ground to about 3 feet up, it is black. Above that, the stones are white. My vision focuses as Mickey continues to speak. This is that synagogue. And the black stones at the base are the same stones that stood when Jesus sat in this place day in and day out to teach.

This is Capernaum.

It seems small to people like me, this town. The Roman Catholic Church owns half the land, the Orthodox Church owns the other half. The synagogue sits in the Roman Catholic side. It is a large synagogue; Luke 7 explains why.

Of course, our bus had pulled up alongside two other tour-buses. Despite the large number of people walking the streets of this town that covered no more than an acre or so, it was quiet. I saw many "holy sites" in Israel. Capernaum stirred my soul unlike any other.

Jesus was only in Jerusalem for a week. He stayed in or around Capernaum for nearly 3 years. I was in Jerusalem for 4 days. I stayed in Capernaum for an hour or less. The quiet of it, the reality of Jesus’ footprint on it… Somehow, though my mind has returned to the rhythms before me in Colorado, my heart is still lingering in Capernaum.

Mickey finished his brief lecture and we were released to explore. I felt I couldn’t walk quickly. I sauntered to the back wall, outside the synagogue. My spirit trembled within me. I turned my back to it and looked at the rolling hills just outside the town wall (cue the verses that say "Jesus went to a mountainside to pray."), this is what he saw every day. Everything in me wanted time to move slowly so that I could enjoy this spiritual meal. But it wouldn’t (thank God for blogs, where the passage of time is paint on my brush, eh?), so I rounded the synagogue and walked in.

There was much of this day that moved me. That moment in the synagogue, the place Jesus taught the men and women of Capernaum every day, has left a stretch mark on my soul. Its walls were tall and white, much larger than I imagined any 1st century synagogue. Perhaps the stones at the base could still remember his confident voice addressing the crowd, "The kingdom of God is like…" and the people go silent. "When this Rabbi speaks, things happen," they whisper to one another. "Did you hear he healed Peter’s mother with a word?" "Yes, right over there, where she was dying in his home!" More of the crowd gathers. "That’s nothing," a bold retort: "The Centurion who built this synagogue had a dying servant. Jesus healed him without ever stepping foot in that Gentile’s unclean home." And from multiple people at once: "Who is this?"

By now I’ve wandered to the place they say Peter’s home was. A chapel is built on top of it, with a glass floor to see the remains of Peter’s walls. Chapels and churches are on top of every potentially significant site. Like Peter himself, we want to build stone alters where organic life happened. I can’t take it in fast enough.

I lift my eyes and notice all the people slowly walking these streets, like me. None of them are in my group. Without another glance at the place Jesus spent more time than any other, I hurry back to the purple bus, frowning at this downside of tours.

The day to follow fed my soul, though breakfast was best. We never went far, but instead visited all the towns and significant areas that surround the Sea of Galilee. To finish, we climb in a wooden boat on one side of the large lake and sail across. I furrow my brow as the crew raises an American flag—not quite the view Jesus would have had, but nonetheless. I look out at the little towns in the haze, and then down at the smooth water. Thanks to Luke (and his three fellow Evangelists), and thanks to this trip, I’ve heard Jesus speak in Capernaum.

Now I squint across the waters he calmed with a word, the waters upon which he walked. Now they—and my soul within me—are quiet as the mid morning

Monday, August 20, 2007

Israel Experience, Part 2: Mickey and a Big Purple Bus

I couldn’t have planned my first morning in Israel any better. When I tried to go to bed at about 10:30 the night before, it was 1:30pm in Denver. My body wasn’t sure what I was trying to make it do. Thank God for sleeping pills, eh? Anyway, the next morning, when I woke up before sunrise, I was ready to go. I milled around my tiny room, journaled, did pushups, and hoped the coffee would be tasty at breakfast. And I looked out my window a lot, anxious to see what this foreign world looked like. In science fiction, sometimes the sky in other dimensions is a different color…maybe I expected the same thing. The sun came up gently. It was blue. The sky, the Mediterranean, the roads. I could look up the coast at downtown Tel Aviv. I opened my window and took as many big swallows of fresh Israel air as I could.

I needn’t say much about breakfast except this: one of my biggest fears going into the trip (if I’m to be honest here) was that I would not be able to maintain my pathetic coffee addiction. When I walked into the dining room to find little ketchup-looking packets with "Instant Arabic Coffee" in them, my heart sank. It seemed not all my fears were unfounded (so I don’t have to keep this plot-line going, I’ll just say now that it was merely this particular hotel with crappy coffee. You all can rest easy).

I walked outside with my bag to find several giant tour buses. In the windshield of the most gaudy one was placed a placard that read "Pilgrim Best of Israel Tour." When I say "gaudy," I mean… well, take a look at the picture. The travel books I had purchased before the trip recommended trying to blend in… if we were aiming to be inconspicuous, we missed. The noisy color of the bus was a let-down, but it was tempered by the short, round faced man with glasses who approached me as I stared at it. "You must be Michael!" He smiled and offered his hand. "Yes…" I muttered as I examined him. "I’m Mickey. I’ll be your guide. Welcome to Israel." Nothing about Mickey was "commercial" (another one of my fears). He looked like a MA Biblical Studies student, like someone who might enjoy a numerical comparison between Peter and Paul’s usage of first personal pronouns, and the like. I was instantly thrilled.

Behind the wheel of our "loud" bus sat a well dressed, large, dark Israeli man with big black sunglasses. He looked like he had just rolled off the set of a major motion action movie. His name was Yossi. He turned out to be a master at driving that big, fancy tour-bus. I rarely noticed him for how well he was doing. Part of that was because I was so taken with Mickey.
We climbed into the bus. I had spent significant time praying that I would have a grateful attitude and exceeding patience with my tour group. God was gracious: and so were they. There were about 30 of us, aged 14 to 79. The youngest and the oldest were brought along by their baby-boomer parents or children…and yes, I was surrounded by boomers, with a few X-ers and maybe 3 millenials. If you don’t know these titles for different generations, don’t worry about it. I’ve digressed.

So, the bus. Right when we started, Mickey’s voice came over the loudspeaker. His English was easy to understand, clear, even "marvelous," but he also had an accent that was slightly Russian and slightly Yiddish. I later came to learn that he was a Russian Jew who moved to Israel when he was 17 out of his Jewish fervor, only to find Christ through an Anglican friend once he got here. Mickey deserves a whole entry, but since he flavored almost every event to follow, I had to introduce him here. Front to back, he was an incredible guide: very knowledgeable, very careful not to step on theological or political toes (it was an evangelical tour, by the way), and very good at holding our attention. If ever you are planning to take a tour in Israel, I highly recommend Mickey. Send a comment, and I’ll give you his contact info.

He first took us to Caesarea. This was a Roman city, later controlled by Crusaders, now a site of historical ruins. It sits on the beach of the Mediterranean, had a track for Chariot Races (Ben Hur, anyone?), had rooms underground where the wild animals would be kept…which were used for Gladiatorial games. I loved the movie Gladiator, but when Mickey straightforwardly and rightly criticized that form of "entertainment" (referring to real gladiatorial matches), I knew I would be enriched and challenged. We looked at a stone found here with Pontius Pilate’s name carved in it. Evidence of Biblical accuracy, before my eyes.

Back in the bus, we continued on. I began to recognize that everywhere I looked was history thousands of years older than anything I’ve ever known in the States. We drove past a tomb on the side of the road, in passing, Mickey explained that it is probably 1900 years old, at least. Our bus climbed a mountain, to a monastery. "Welcome to Mt. Carmel." Here we were, on top of the mountain where Elijah had a standoff with the prophets of Baal. A huge statue of Elijah swinging a sword marked the territory. We climbed the stairs to a platform and looked out upon a breathtaking valley. It’s name is Jezreel. The book of Revelation calls it "Armageddon." Dozens of major, history changing battles have already been fought here…as recently as 1948. As Mickey taught and we gazed, fighter planes screeched overhead, a reminder that this land is still in great tension, and will be until that final battle. It was so green, and so big.

Next it was off to the ancient city Megiddo. The ruins of this city date back to 4000 BC. This city had been built and rebuilt, and it stood on top of a hill. The hill is taller now, because newer parts of the city were built right on top of the rubble from older parts. We could see evidence of the layers—of which there were around 20! This city, on top of this hill, controlled the entire valley of Megiddo (aka, Jezreel; aka, Armageddon) for centuries.

Our last stop for the day was a Palestinian city called (you may have heard of it) Nazareth. Though it is now a tightly packed, modern city, it still has history. We drove to a site where a 1st Century wine-press and threshing floor had been found. The YMCA bought this site, and converted the land around it into a village replica of life in the 1st Century. I expected to be disappointed as we heard about actors and role players…thankfully, they did not distract at all from the scene we saw. To walk in an area where Jesus most certainly spent his childhood! I rarely spoke; speaking would have slowed my intake of this scene.

As we drove away, I couldn’t help but to smile and gaze out the window. My day had begun with fantasies about a world where nothing was the same as my home, not even the sky. It was ending with a pleasant ride northward, through streets I had never seen but somehow seemed familiar. Our bus was headed to one of the most beautiful areas I have ever encountered in all my life: the Sea of Galilee. We would spend our next two nights the shores of the sea upon which Jesus walked, and around which he did the lion’s share of his ministry.

Before dinner I hurried to my room and threw on my bathing suit. I had to get in it. Many have already asked, "did you walk on it?" [Be sure to read that question with a goofy tone] Well, no. I walked into it. The floor of the "sea" (it’s actually a lake) is very rocky, the rocks are very sharp… so I stood knee high in it and didn’t move. If you can picture it, you can picture what it's like to travel alone. You're halfway across the world, in a bathing suit and no shirt, standing still 15 feet out from the beach, saying nothing, trying not to be awkward. In truth, it was so, so good. I just stood, watching the haze rise of the water in the heat, watching the sky begin to turn orange and purple in the sunset. My heart flooded with thankfulness. As I look back on my journal for these days, it is very simple: records of the places I saw, and gratitude. The gratitude remains, and with every passing day back in the norm, it grows.

Israel Experience, part 1: The Arrival

(This is Part 1 of My Israel Experience. Who knows how many "parts" there will be... Enjoy. By the way, I haven't figured out how to add captions to pictures... this first one is a view of Tel Aviv, and my mug, from my first hotel room. Behind the left side of my head? Oh, that's just the Mediterranean Sea [insert schmarmy tone]...)

For most of my life, the whole concept of world travel had been little more than a passing thought. I was content to mill around the small areas I knew well—uncomfortable even when I had to spend a few days alone somewhere "foreign," such as a stint of house-sitting a few miles away or a day’s worth of travel to California. "Uncomfortable" meant I wouldn’t find my routine: coffee at such and such a time, reading at such and such a time, getting about my "to-do’s" in such and such a way, you know. I digress (wow… a digression in the first paragraph? Buckle up).

Throughout my life, I can faintly remember people asking me where I would go if I could go anywhere in the world . I think a few of those questions received the answer "Israel," but for the most part I just made something up. It changed every time: Europe, Africa, New Zealand. Never with any clear intention. So when the perfect storm began to brew—my boss offering to me a two week vacation to decompress from school and my parents offering me a paid trip to anywhere as a way to celebrate finishing school—I had little more than weak ambitions. One of my best friends and I began daydreaming about a trip to Europe or New York. That was in March… I think.

Fast forward to a Thursday morning in late May or early June. I had begun attending a weekly prayer gathering at the church. This particular morning, the presence of God was there in such a way that I was energized to my core. This, I have since discovered, was to become a theme, and an addiction, throughout this adventure. In those times, I begin to understand what "life to the full" means. At any rate, while I drove home from that time of prayer, I continued to commune with God in the car, and a word exploded into my mind: "Jerusalem." It was so loud, so rich, and so right. My spirit lept within me. Of course! What better way to finish Seminary?

A few other things had to fall into place. I needed to go soon. I was still planning on a trip with my dear friend, but surely the cost of such a trip was beyond his means at the time. A couple days later, I went up to see him, convinced after more prayer that he’d tell me that night either 1) he was excited to go to Israel and would make it work, or 2) he realized he wouldn’t be able to do a trip. Right when I got there, he sat down and explained why a two week trip wasn’t feasible. "That’s all right, man. I’m going to Israel." The way the trip itself came together continued to confirm the voice I had heard. The timing of the arrival of my passport, the availability of a spot on a tour, the flexibility of the church to shift the dates I had asked for to be gone… all of it screamed at me: yes, this is right, go!

After that, life sped up. I began to take on more and more responsibility at the church. I’ve been planning on launching a DNA-changing aspect of our church-life, and the planning was being compressed into a small amount of time. By a few days before the trip, I had done precious little to prepare. I hadn’t brushed up on any Hebrew vocab. I hadn’t browsed through any travel books. I didn’t even have the appropriate luggage. My heart-rate sped up for a few days, but all in all, things came together.

I was set to leave on Monday, July 30th. I would arrive in Tel Aviv (which means, roughly, "Old and New") on the evening of the 31st. This was my first international flight, certainly my first flight over an ocean. I flew to Atlanta, where I waited ten hours. In the concourse for international travel I discovered a baby grand piano playing itself. Nice. I walked around a bit, and when I returned, I heard the piano playing a jazz song, "Dancing Cheek to Cheek," with some clever improv. "That’s one crazy electronic piano," I thought. As I drew nearer, I discovered an older man crouched over the keys. A jazz pianist. A legit jazz pianist. I sat and spent the next 4 hours or so lost in his music. What a fabulous way to wait. What a fabulous way to forget my fears. Thoughts of language, safety, group dynamics, and the rest faded into the little-joy of this gentleman’s music.

By the time I boarded, I was given an exit row, where I could stretch my legs. Everyone around me was speaking Hebrew. I dug my Hebrew Phrase Book out of my bag and hid it by my side (for some reason, embarrassed to be caught reading it…why?). What was I in for? I had no clear expectations—perhaps a result of my little to no preparation, perhaps a good place to be. I didn’t know what to pray. "Open my eyes, Lord. Help me to see what you want me to see."
Security seemed minimal to get from the US to Israel (a misleading preparation for my journey home, but that story will come at the end). I stood in a few lines, had to explain my reason for travel to exactly no one. Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv is the most high tech airport I’ve ever seen—it makes DIA look old. My mind spun—I ducked into a bathroom at the baggage claim to put on my money belt. I clung to my satchel in front of me so no pick-pockets could ruin my tour before it started. Apparently, I expected to be greeted by a literal den of robbers in the terminal. First time travel fears.

When I walked out into the Terminal, I wandered for a few minutes through a crowd and then saw a man in a black shirt with dark sunglasses (we were still indoors…) holding a sheet with "Michael Wright" printed on it. I walked up to him, pointed to the sign and then pointed to my chest: did I expect he wouldn’t know English? "I’m Hoffer. We are waiting for one more, so you can go sit at that coffee shop. Just stay in sight." I eased a bit. "Okay." I walked to the coffee shop in the terminal. Everything was written in Hebrew (in my discombobulation, I couldn’t see that everything was also written in English). I knew I needed water, but I walked away, intimidated. A vending machine stood in the corner. It had bottles of water in it, and a slot for a credit card. Perfect. I slid my card, pushed the appropriate button, and nothing happened. I did it again. Again nothing. Apparently, I was doing something wrong, but all the instructions were in Hebrew. Great. I’m alone in the Middle East, and I can’t figure out a vending machine. A line was gathering behind me, with some amused people watching. I walked away. No water.

Eventually I grew the courage to ask. Of course, everyone at the coffee shop spoke English. I had my water for seven shekels, and I sat to wait for Hoffer and the other arrival. He never showed up (I later met him on the tour. A wonderful Mexican American named Fernando), so it would be Hoffer and me driving to the hotel. It was an hour or so, driving along the West Bank (so he told me), and into the city. Eventually, we began to chat. I found out that along with driving a shuttle, Hoffer made Techno (or Trance) music. He played some for me, very loud. It seemed to ease him that I was interested. It eased me that he was talking… and settled my conspiracy theory that he was actually working for some terrorist organization and was taking me to a place to decapitate me. Like I said: no preparation, no expectation. And some ridiculous fears.

The hotel was on the bank of the Mediterranean Sea. It was late. I had no idea if it was safe to walk around or not. I walked around the hotel for a while, spoke to no one, and went to sleep. It took some smuggled sleep medication to put me out, and I woke up at 4:45. I had spent a night in Israel. Who knew what the morning would bring. My thoughts were becoming more and more profound…at this point, if you could hear my monologue, you’d hear "I’m in Israel. I’m actually in Israel. This is Israel. Look at that! That’s Israel. I’m really in Israel."