Our final day was both long, because of a late flight out of Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv and eventful, because we packed so much into the twenty four hour period. In so many ways, God used this day to prepare us to return to our lives and share his love to our friends and family in Hartwell.
We began the day with a visit to the Garden Tomb. This treasure is a beautiful oasis in the heart of busy and hectic Jerusalem. You pass into the gates of this site, and with one step, stride back two thousand years into a garden surrounded by busy streets and book-end by two active city bus stations or terminals.
This is the alternative site for the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus. It was discovered in the nineteenth century and has been maintained over the years through interdenominational donations and love offerings. It is one of the few sites that requires no entrance fee to see its beauty and simplicity.
It looks today just as one would imagine the events from the Gospels to look. It has been archeologically dated to the time of Jesus and frankly fits the bill in so many ways. The truth is that the tomb is â€œempty.â€ It doesnâ€™t really matter where it took place, just the fact that â€œHe is not here; He has risen as he said!â€
At the Garden Tomb, we shared in Communion together, sang hymns and prayed for each other. What a privilege to have had the opportunity to go with these persons to the Holy Land.
After communion, we took the bus to Yad Vashem, the Israeli Holocaust Museum. Humanityâ€™s in-humanity to others is portrayed in such a respectful yet disturbing way. One leaves the main exhibit hall with a jaw dropped low and tears within oneâ€™s eyes. We then walked through the Childrenâ€™s Memorial where the names of the 1.5 million murdered children are read with their ages and country of origin. It is dark and you have to hold onto a rail as you see a candle reflected 1.5 million times. We left in silence, and did not talk for several minutes afterwards. The horror and disgust we felt as we realized that â€œholocaustâ€ continues today in parts of the world. We have so far to go as a people. God help us!
After some time of reflection, we said goodbye to our guide and friend Mike Abu Libdeh and our bus driver Sam. They truly blessed us over the past few days! We had lunch at the mall where I wore the huge crocks and then entered the old city through the Jaffa Gate. Our plan was to make our way back to St. Anneâ€™s Basilica, beside the Bethesda Pools, to sing and reflect upon our trip.
This church is probably my favorite of all churches in the Holy Land. It is very old, dating to crusader times (1131-1138 AD) and very simplistic. The acoustics are just breathtaking. We sang â€œHow Great Thou Artâ€ and â€œThe Lordâ€™s Prayerâ€ and I am trying to get those videos on YouTube so that you can link to them. Iâ€™ll let you know later.
Afterwards, we sat in front of the church and reflected for some time on our journey. I had mentioned to the group earlier about the kindly priest that runs the church. He talked for some time with my mother-in-law, Lynne, in November. Well out of the corner of my eye I saw him walking across the courtyard, wearing his alb and crocks. He got just beyond us and I could not stand it. I ran over to him just to say hello. I said, â€œHello Father. We were here in November and I just wanted to thank you for taking some time talking with my mother-in-law. You made her day.â€ After several formalities, he asked about my group with me today. I introduced him to the other four. All of a sudden, he asked, â€œSince you are such a small group, would you like to join me for tea or coffee in the rectory?â€ We replied with a resounding â€œYes, weâ€™d love too!â€
Father Michael Lavoie led us through some gates and down some stairs into a beautiful old nineteenth century building where he commenced to prepare us tea and coffee. We sat with him for an hour and a half while he told us stories of his work for 30 years in Tunisia and his last 10 years here in Jerusalem. He asked all of us about our lives and professions. We laughed, we listened and we fellowshipped.
He invited us to see the city and the Temple Mount from his roof. We climbed stairs and suddenly had a breathtaking and beautiful view of the Dome of the Rock as well as other parts of Jerusalem. He also showed us around the rectory where he lives and host international groups. What a privilege and joy to be with such a kind and faithful servant of Christ! It was the icing on the cake for us and nothing could take that experience away.
One last blessingâ€¦â€¦.
On our flight home, I sat beside an Israeli citizen headed to Miami and eventually ending up in Mexico City for a week of work related business. I usually will sit on a plane and say very little to the person sitting beside me. I hate to bother, especially seasoned travelers, with small-talk, and honestly just retreat into my own world. Unlike most trips for me, we struck up a conversation. Chen is a businessman / engineer in the telecommunications industry. He travels all over the world and has three children (an older son â€“ 14, and twins â€“ 9). His wife is an accountant and they travel a great deal together worldwide in addition to his business travels. He and I probably are as different as night and day: he is thin (well Iâ€™m not thin), he is probably 5â€™11â€ (Iâ€™m 6â€™5â€), he and his wife live just north of Tel Aviv (I live in Hartwell), well, you get the picture. I believe God allowed me to be a part of his world for a few hours. We talked about Israelâ€™s compulsory military service, about their healthcare system, about the war in Iraq, about our families, about our lives, about our future, about our past. There were few subjects that we did not cover. I probably talked and listened more to him in that thirteen hour flight than I have talked and listened to some people that I have known for years.
He was very inquisitive about what I do at church. I finally asked him, â€œYou really donâ€™t have any idea about what I do nor why I do it, do you?â€ He admitted that the US church intrigued him and wondered how I made it a living. I then admitted to him that I had no idea about what he did in his business either.
God blessed me with that visit in so many ways. I had the opportunity to share myself, my family and my church family with a stranger. I had the opportunity to meet a friend and learn about his life and family. While our paths are quite different, our goals are just the same. We love our spouses, our children and have been blessed by God. I know he will probably read this (we have already exchanged e-mails) and I know that our paths may cross again someday. God has a way of just surprising us sometimes with little gifts and graces.
Lastly, I want to thank my family for allowing me to go. Itâ€™s not easy for Tracey when I am away. We work as a team, all the time, and when a member of the team is gone, new game-plans have to be created. My family is my highest priority and they are the rock of my entire existence.
Lastly, my church family also gave me the opportunity to go as well. Every member of our congregation was prayed for in the Holy Land. We divided up the directory and prayed individually and I prayed for each family myself by name.
God bless you all and please, pray for the peace of Jerusalem. We will probably be headed back with a group in 2011.
Grace and Pease,
This evening we had an interesting thing to happen. After we finished early for the day, we went to eat at a local Arab market. Just ordering a hotdog was an event, but we finally pointed enough to get the guy behind the counter to understand what we wanted. It was a great double hotdog on toasted bread and probably one of the best Iâ€™ve had in a while.
Sitting next to us were some kids that were there eating after school. Three tables down were some Arab college students. We were talking to the kids about school. They take four languages in the seventh grade, English, Hebrew, Arabic and Coptic. They attend the Christian Coptic School down the street. They begin at 6 AM and finish at 2 PM. They even offered us some of their French fries. They are Coptic Arab Christians that live in Jerusalem.
We kept hearing the college students say something about Americans etc. Honestly, I didnâ€™t feel uncomfortable but just uneasy. We had to pass right beside these young people to get back to the street. Now let me remind you that we have been in and around Jerusalem over these past days, walking all through the Arab sections. Most people when they see us say, â€œWelcome Americans to Jerusalem!â€ etc. There are tourists from all over the world but I guess we just stick out. I know that these were just young college students ruffling feathers. Sandra also noted that it is the Moslem period of Ramadan (no eating from sunrise to sunset). We were feasting away on double hotdogs and cokes and they were just jealous.
We finished our meal and started to leave. I decided to just break the ice, I asked, â€œAre you guys attending a university or college?â€ They said, â€œYes.â€ I asked which one? They said, â€œSomething I did not understand.â€ I asked if classes were hard and what they were studying. All four said, â€œYes! They are hard.â€ One said biology, one said mathematics etc. As we left they asked if America was good. I said, â€œWe try, we ALL try, right?â€ They said, â€œYes! Have a good day!â€
Conflict for many is an inherited thing. Many here see only the bad side of America. Many Americans see only the bad side of this world. Who knows what these young men had been told or even believed. But today, they were confronted not with hatred or fear, but genuine interest and respect. I would have loved to sit and talk with them, but we had to go.
God has a plan for this land and for our land. We often ask the question, â€œWhat if?â€ If I had responded differently, there may have been a different outcome. I know that the people in line behind us were frustrated because we took so long. I need to remember that myself and not be frustrated when I am delayed by others that do not know our language. No one said to us, â€œLearn the language.â€ We responded to them with respect and faithful concern. We all laughed as we left and Sandra commented, â€œThey did not expect that.â€ We must remember that there are all kinds of people in the world. God loveâ€™s them all and His son died for them all. Even if they donâ€™t understand us or we donâ€™t understand them.
Conversation and respect can get us a long way!
Over the next several weeks, Jeremy and I are preaching a series entitled, â€œWhat ifâ€¦..? This Sunday we ask the question, â€œWhat if â€¦ we had more time?â€ Can you imagine what more time would give us? Just think about it!
We are headed home tomorrow night. God bless!