Wednesday, March 31, 2010


You know how you can get into a car and drive, then arrive at your destination with no memory of the journey? That's how I felt when I landed in Israel. I have no idea how I got here.

A few months ago Kathy said, "We're going to Israel, and we want you both to come. Will you?" For two people who read the Bible, watch the news, love history and love to travel, Pete and I were shockingly uninterested in Israel. I always assumed that if I went, I would go in my 60's--I guess because most of the people who go to Israel seem to be in their 60's. But who would be crazy enough to pass down a free trip to Israel? We said yes immediately.

A couple months after that, Pete interviewed for a new job. The person he was interviewing to replace was leaving for a two week missionary evaluation, and the company informed him that they wouldn't hold his job for two weeks. When Pete brought up the Israel trip during the interview, his soon-to-be boss said, "We might be able to get you one week off. Possibly. Maybe." Our flights were already booked and the trip was nearly three weeks long, but not taking the job wasn't an option. He took it.

As our the trip approached, we started to look at our finances. It dawned on us that we weren't going to be going on a free trip; we were going on a trip that cost three week's wages. The timing was rotten. We were preparing to pay nearly $4,000 in taxes, after which we would be officially broke. Suddenly we were going on an extravagant trip to a place we weren't very excited about, and Pete didn't even have the time off work.

It happened this quickly:

One week before the trip, Pete's boss managed to bring in an out-of-work instructor to cover Pete's students.

Five days before our trip we had our taxes done, and we found out that our tuition credits added up to an $800 refund, not a $4,000 payment.

We got on a plane.

On our overnight stay in Galilee, our little group lingered over dinner and talked about the journey leading up to this trip. Pete and I talked about the time off work and taxes, and what a miracle it all seemed on this end of it. Then Jon said something that I've been contemplating ever since. He said he senses that God is calling people who have no agenda for Israel to come to Israel. For the first time, I felt like I understood why I'm here. I came with absolutely no agenda. You can call it prophetic ignorance or a nuanced view, but I have very little opinions about Israel and its politics. I didn't come to minister to Israel. I didn't come to bless or be blessed by Israel. I guess you could say that I came to experience it, but I didn't have any expectations about what I would experience. A few days before we departed, Kathy had asked me what was on my list of things to do in Israel. No such list existed.

Everything about this trip is so far removed from how I typically travel and anticipate travel, which makes it easy for me to believe that God really did invite me here. I didn't choose to come. I don't even know how I got here. God brought me here without an agenda, and he wants me to listen for His. This trip has been the single most important (and timely) lessons in missions and life that I have yet learned: Listen. Listen, listen, listen. If you get the invitation, by all means, go! But then sit and listen. Experience and listen. Ask questions and listen. Pray and listen. Ponder what it means to listen until the word 'listen' has lost all meaning, and then listen some more. It's a discipline to perfect yet never achieve. Listen.

The other night Pete and I were in bleachers watching a basketball game between the Orthodox Club and the Muslim Club. Pete leaned in and asked, "So, do you want to move here?" I said yes, immediately. Maybe we'll move here someday, maybe we won't, but our ears are more open now then they were before. God can take me anywhere now, and I won't be surprised when I land and say, "I have no idea how I got here."

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Dead Sea

It's friggin' awesome.

Dead Sea mud... on sale for $30 just a couple miles from the sea. Yeah right.

It tastes like salt gargle, stings like rubbing alcohol, and feels slick as slime.

Take a seat in the Dead Sea.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The Heart of Purity

Maybe it's because I'm traveling in Israel with my mother-in-law, but I've been thinking about Ruth lately.

A couple days ago Kathy asked our group if we think that Ruth and Boaz slept together when the Bible says that she "laid at his feet." For those who have even briefly studied the context and the language of that verse, the general sentiment is usually, "It would be nice to think that they didn't have sex, but it sounds as if they did."

As I've been mulling this over and reading Ruth's story, I have a new attitude towards Ruth and her illicit night in the sack. It doesn't matter whether Ruth had sex with Boaz, because the heart of purity is not adherence to a stagnant set of rules. The heart of purity is obedience.

"One day Naomi her mother-in-law said to her, 'My daughter, should I not try to find a home for you where you will be cared for? It not Boaz a kinsman of yours? Tonight he will be winnowing barley on the threshing floor. Wash and perfume yourself ... when he lies down, note the place where he is lying. Then go and uncover his feet and lie down. He will tell you what to do.'" Ruth 3:1-4

"'I will do whatever you say,' Ruth answered." Ruth 3:5

"The Genealogy of Jesus ... Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth." Matthew 1:5

Was Jesus crucified at a bus station?

I have 13 days left in my trip to change my mind, but I won't: the Garden Tomb is my favorite place in Israel. When you walk into the garden through the gate on the stone pathway, you're surrounded by flowers and shaded by rubber trees and palm trees. Our tour guide led us over to a platform at the edge of the garden, next to a small cliff.

"We do not know for sure that this is the place of Jesus' crucifiction and tomb," he said. "Millions of people think so, and there is compelling evidence that suggests that it is. But first I will tell you what we know for sure: Jesus Christ died, he was burried, and in three days he rose as our Savior and Lord. That's what we're sure of, and the rest is useful speculation."

Here is the Biblical criteria for the location of the cross and tomb:

Jesus was crufied outside of the city at a place called Calvary (Gargatha), which means simply "The Skull." He was burried at a nearby garden, which was owned by a rich man. The tomb was sealed by a stone, which we know from archeological evidence was an unusual type of tomb.

Here is how The Garden Tomb fulfills that criteria:

It is located outside of the city. The little "cliff" has indents that make it look like a skull (you can still see the two eyes, but the mouth is now covered. Nothing else tells us that it was known as The Skull, but it is an intriguing observation). The garden is adjacent to the skull-like cliff, and was owned by a rich person. (They know this because of the water system and wine press that they excavated.) And finally, archeologists know that the tomb is at least 2,000 years old, and though it is missing the stone that sealed it, it has grooves which would have acted as a track for a rolling stone.
Even though this can't be counted as evidence, I definitely felt a certain power and presence in the garden, unlike anything that I've felt at the other holy sites.

So what's up with the bus station? As it turns out, the image that we have of three crosses on a hill is entirely unlikely. Everything that historians know about Roman crucifictions suggests that Jesus would have carried a cross, but would have been nailed to a tree near the street, at eye level. The Romans did this to make a point to the passerbys, who could look directly at the person suffering. (The point being, Don't mess with the Romans.) If so, and if this was the location of Jesus' death (on the street level of The Skull), then Jesus died at what is now a bus station.
"This isn't a holy site," our tour guide said. "It's a bus station. We don't have much information about the place of Jesus' death and resurrection... it's as if the disciples weren't very occupied with the geography of it all. Any why would they have been? They had their Jesus back. This is, at the very least, a useful image of Jesus' death and resurrection. The important thing is that we serve a living Savior. Even if this isn't the right empty tomb, the right one is also empty."

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

What do an Orthadox Jew and C.S. Lewis have in common?

"First of all," he said, "You did not come to Israel because you chose to. You came because you were invited. And the blessings you are going to receive will run so deep that you will not be able to explain it to anyone back home, and you will hardly be able to discuss it amongst yourselves."

The seven of us were sitting on stools in a gift shop, listening to Moshe. Moshe is an Orthodox Jew, psychologist, book author, scholar and business owner who regularly closes his doors and turns his gift shop into a discussion room. Moshe wears regular clothing and a kibba (that head cap thing); he's short and lively and laughs easily. He speaks perfect English, and he speaks it quickly. Clearly he has a lot more to say than he has business hours to say it, and roughly five minutes into his introduction, I felt a dull panic knowing that I wouldn't get to hear everything that I needed to hear from him.

The discussion: What do Orthodox Jews and Christians have in common? Where do we disagree? And is possible that we each get a better look at the big picture when we seek to understand one another?

Moshe turned out to be one of those blessings of Israel that we were all touched by and have hardly been able to discuss. I recorded most of the conversation and took notes in a fury, but the recording is faint, my notes are jumbled, and all that I'm left with is a deeper understanding. Here are some of the highlights that I've managed to process and reflect on:

- Christians and Jews share the same language but often have different definitions and meaning behind the language. He said that the average Jew does not know that Christians believe that Jesus was God. We must have looked a little dubious, (after all, Jesus' deity is central to our doctrine), but he repeated, "If you told an average Jew that Christians believe that Jesus was God, they would correct you and say, 'No, they believe he is the son of God.' To them that means that he was man, sent by God; a prophet."

Another misunderstanding: When Christians talk about the Law, they describe it as a burden that they are glad to be free of. Moshe explained, "The Jew has no context for that. What could be more wonderful than fulfilling the wishes of your beloved?" He gave an example of when his pregnant wife woke up late at night craving an orange, and they had no oranges in the house. Moshe drove all over town until he found a market that was open, and then he didn't just buy one orange. He bought so many oranges that they eventually had to throw some away. His beloved wanted an orange; he brought her a bushell of oranges. Nothing is more fulfilling to him than fulfilling her wishes, and that is how the Jew feels towards God and His law.

- The Jewish understanding of blood sacrifice is different than ours. To them, the sacrifice was never about covering our sins for God's sake. "Cover them how?" He asked. "As if anything is hidden from God? No, our sins do not separate God from man, they separate man from God." He explained that blood sacrifice was a gift from God to man that, in effect, covers our sins from ourselves so that we could return before the presence of God feeling made clean. (This reminded me of the story of Eden, when Adam and Eve hid from God. God wasn't suddenly blocked from Adam because of sin--he came looking for Adam just as he always did. Adam was the one hiding in shame, and because he was ashamed, God gave him clothing to wear.) Moshe explained how this meant that the Jews were never expecting a final blood sacrifice from their Messiah--for them it's about continual repenting and covering and entering.

- The Jewish doctrine of hell is drastically different than ours. Moshe said he doesn't believe that God is interested in eternal punishment, but in eternal instruction. (This reminded me of God's character in the Old Testament, which of course is His same character today.) He described two levels of hell. One sounded a lot like my understanding of purgatory: the lost person realizes his or her mistake ("And that realization burns like a fiery flame," Moshe added); then God takes the next step in instruction and redemption. Doug said, "It sounds like you're describing a God of second chances when it comes to salvation." Moshe responded, "I'm describing a God of third and fourth and fifth and eternal chances."

The second level of hell occurred when a person was truly lost. He didn't explain what 'truly lost' meant, but I suppose this would be a person who was not interested in God's second or third chances. At that point, he said that the person would simply, "Poof!" cease to exist. No hellfire, no flame, just total absense of being.

I jumped in. "What you're describing sounds a lot like C.S. Lewis's description of hell from The Problem of Pain," I said. "He believes that a soul cannot exist when separated from God, so eternal separation from God would mean ceasing to exist." Moshe nodded and said, "Yes, actually, Lewis' belief about hell is remarkably similar to the Jewish belief." (You gotta love an Orthadox Jew who can quote C.S. Lewis, which he did, several times.)

Moshe's understanding of hell ressonated so deeply with me that I could feel my eyes welling up throughtout that part of the conversation. I told Moshe, "The God you are describing--a God of eternal redemption over eternal punishment--is exactly the God who I know and love and follow. And the hell you are describing is the description that I've adopted in my heart, even though the Christian doctrine I've been taught doesn't support it."

- Finally, I asked Moshe what the Jews make of the ressurrection. His first point was that ressurrection does not indicate deity (as there are other examples of resurrection in the Bible). I asked him, "What does it mean to you that Jesus rose from the dead?" He said, "It means to me that something very big happened, and I don't understand it entirely." He didn't apologize for being vague, nor did he seem to be waving off my question.

"One of my favorite verses in your New Testament is in 1 Corithinans, when Paul speaks of seeing in part now, and later in full," Moshe said. "In other words, we are all going to be surprised. If you're not surprised, then you're not walking with God. Doctrine will never surprise you, but God will always surprise you."

If I hadn't chewed over that last part, I think I would have left the conversation today thinking that I was surprised by doctrine: the way our doctrines differered, where they collided, how they sometimes seemed like pieces to the same puzzle. But I think what surprised me the most was that in listening to an Orthadox Jew--really listening, and sometimes truly understanding--my faith in Jesus Christ deepened, and my view of the Father expanded magnificently. Doctrine can't do that. God did that in me.

"It's all about the Father, isn't it?" Moshe said, standing up from his stool to open the shop and greet his customers. "Everything that Jesus ever did was for the Father. He didn't come to bring glory to himself, but to show us the Father."

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Mary's miraculous, squirting breast milk.

Back when I worked at the hotel, one of our regular guests was an Israeli businessman who would pull up a chair and chat with me in the evenings. When I told him that I was going to be visiting Israel, his eyes lit up. He started telling me all of his favorite places that he wanted me to visit. When I asked about the food, he took a deep breath, then exhaled. "You're a Christian, yes?" he asked, rhetorically. "Then you're want to go to all of the Jesus things, I know. The hill where the sheep boys went loony, the place where Jesus disappeared up to wherever. But after you do all that, go to here..." he wrote down the address of a restaurant, "and order this..." he wrote down a name of a dish. "It will change the way you think about food."He wasn't exaggerating about the food: it's incredible. But after visiting even just the few holy sights in our first day of touring, it has changed the way I will read the Bible from now on.

I expected the holy sights to bring my faith to life, but it has done something else, too. It has brought my faith down to earth. I had very definitive pictures of certain places, probably based on the curriculum and coloring books that that my Sunday School teacher used, and everything is different. The shepherds hill? It's a rocky little hill right next to Bethlehem. Seriously, you can walk from the hill to the manger in about twenty minutes. I know, because we did. I had never thought of it before, but the angles must have appeared in a vision to only the shepherds, because otherwise the entire city of Bethlehem would have seen them.
Every holy sight has a church built on top of it. We hired a tour guide to lead us through the church on top of the grotto/stable where Jesus was born. The church is divided into separate worship places for Assyrians, Catholics, Greek Orthodox, and maybe a few others, most of whom were performing services. There was a service taking place in the stable, so we weren't allowed to enter. Our guide brought us to the door and said, "There was a hole here... I know it. Ah!" We each took turns peeking into the hole, and I decided that I preferred it that way. I saw just enough to see it, and not enough to completely alter the way I have always imagined it.
We were going to visit the Herodian, but decided to stop home for a quick nap, which turned into a four hour jet-lag recuperation. After we woke up, the ladies decided to go to the market, with Nikki leading the way through Bethlehem at night. (Nikki is a 21 year old missionary who lives in the Father's House by herself. She seems to know half the town of Bethlehem, and they all seem to love her.) We walked for over an hour in the streets and allies, stopping occasionally for fruit or dry goods or pastries. (Oh, the pastries. Oh, oh, the pastries.) Every door was open to something fascinating: men in barber chairs getting a shave, men in Islamic dress bowing in rows, shop owners smoking and arranging their merchandise. I tried to take it all in while cars honked and flew past us, sometimes barely missing my toes.

And that was basically my first real day in Bethlehem. We came home and ate pizza downstairs (who knew that pizza in Israel could rival pizza in Chicago?), played cards, drank tea.

Oh, the breast milk thing. I typed that title and forgot to incorporate it into this entry. Our tour guide at the stable church told us a lot of stories "from tradition," (as he said), which he did not buy into as "a practical man." Among them: before Mary and Joseph fled with baby Jesus, Mary accidentally squirted some breast milk on the wall, and all of the stones turned white. "This is from tradition," he reminded us. "But, like I said, I am a practical man. So, you know. There you go."

Bethlehem Blackout

Here is how I imagined Israel: brown, dusty land with brown, dusty buildings and a few brown, dusty plants. When people said, "Take lots of pictures!" I thought, "What could be more boring than looking at other people's pictures of dust?"

I didn't know this before we arrived, but we are here during the only "green" month of the year. When we got into the van and drove through Jerusalem at sunrise, here is what I saw: lush, green land laced with pink flowers and palm trees. Palm trees! Some of the roads were lined with deep green bushes or feathery grasses; one road was lined with these peculiar, short trees that Kathy told me are olive trees. The buildings are all made of white stone that glistens in the sunlight, and because of the hills, they look like there are stacked on top of one another. Jerusalem looks like a holy city on a hill in Florida.

Now, Bethlehem. Bethlehem is how I imagined Israel, although it rained a lot before we came, so it isn't dry and dusty. A few months ago I read a National Geographic cover story about crime in Bethlehem, and throughout our travel days I started to sense that we shouldn't broadcast that we were staying there. I wasn't sure what the fuss was about until we made it to the checkpoint--a series of booths and lines and turnabouts that were difficult to fit through and a puzzle to do so with luggage. Ingoing wasn't bad, but the outgoing "line" was a huddled mass of hundreds of Arab men penned in by chicken wire that wasn't holding up very well. We squeezed through groups of men who had been pushed out line. Finally we made it to the checkpoint, at which point I realized that no one had looked at my passport.

After a short cab ride, we made it to the Father's House and claimed our rooms. Pete and I have a bedroom, bathroom, living room and kitchen. One whole wall is a window that overlooks Bethlehem.At around five, everyone had scattered for various reasons--to pick up the rental van, buy a phone card, take a walk. At seven I became aware that I was alone in an open apartment building at dark in a National Geographic cover story location. Then I remembered Liz. I walked into the hallway and called her name a couple times. She stuck her head out of the door, looking relieved. Liz is exactly my age and is traveling with us to help Kathy coordinate meals and logistics.

A few minutes later we were playing cards in my living room, and the lights went out. Thinking that the switch had flipped on its own, I felt around on the wall for the light switch. That's when Liz pointed out that the entire city was black. "Maybe we should lock the door," I suggested. My door is difficult to lock even with ample lighting, so we decided to go to her room. We started down the dark hallway when we saw someone with a flashlight. "Jon, is that you?" I asked. A stranger pointed his flashlight at us, said something in Arabic, then hurried up the stairs. Liz and I grabbed each other's hand and stumbled back into my room. Eventually we got the door locked, and we pulled up chairs to the window to look over dark Bethlehem and a well-lit Israeli settlement. Apparently this happens about twice a week.

Everyone seemed to come home from their errands at once, and we realized that we hadn't eaten in fifteen hours. We walked downstairs to the restaurant (Jon and Nikki are friends with the owners) and the cooks made us cheesy chicken sandwiches with olives on the grill. You know how anything tastes good when you haven't eaten in fifteen hours? Well, delicious food after you haven't eaten in fifteen hours is an other-worldly experience. We ate sandwiches and Mediterranean salads to candlelight. And even though we cheered when the lights came back on, we all admitted that it had been more fun when they were off.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows His name.

"What do you think of Amsterdam?" I asked Jon. "Honestly?" he responded, raising one nostril. We had just eaten an incredibly expensive breakfast next door to a XXX shop that was open at eight a.m. on a Sunday.

Our flight to Tel Aviv was at 8:00 p.m., so we had nearly an entire day to enjoy Amsterdam after a night of no sleep. We walked through the streets, trying to take in the sights and architecture, but mostly trying to not get run over by bicycles. At around noon, Pete and I were sitting outside Anne Frank's house when we saw Kathy, Zack and Jon duck into a shop. It was a little cold outside, so we crossed the street to join them. Outside the shop we were greeted by two young adults, and inside the shop wasn't a shop at all. I've come to expect this of my mother in law. She was probably a mile away when she smelled the hippest church plant in town. Or, perhaps, the only church in town.

Inside about fifty people were standing and watching a streamed-in Hillsongs church service. Neat rows of illuminated liquor bottles lined one wall. I've heard that most of the churches in Amsterdam have been turned into shops and restaurants and bars, so this image was simply way too cool. As the pastor paced a stage in England, the young Dutch cosmopolitans responded with clapping and sounds of agreement. A familiar worship song started and nearly everyone's hands went up, including mine.

This trip is something of a spiritual pilgrimage. We are going to stay in the town where Jesus was born, walk the streets that he walked, and visit his empty tomb on Easter morning. But on our layover in a quaint post-modern wasteland, we walked into a bar, and I knew: we were standing on holy ground.