Tuesday, December 31, 2013

TJ5: Moses, Mt. Sinai, and Me

Scooter gave out copies of The Story for Christmas this year, with the idea that reading one chapter a day would allow a person to get through the entire Bible every month. I'm not sure yet if I'm a fan of the book ... admittedly, it is an easy way to see the Biblical narrative all at once, in chronological order, with some integration of Old and New Testament passages. However, in the editorial process, Lucado and Frazee were forced (inevitably) to choose which parts of that narrative to omit. The end result: the reader gets part of the story rather than "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth." (As anyone who has read Avi's novel Nothing but the Truth can tell you, a partial truth is often no better than an outright lie.)

Regardless, I agreed -- as part of Scooter's advisory team -- to read through the book and be prepared to share my insights at our monthly staff meeting. This week's reading focused on the life of Moses, including the Exodus account (chapter 4), the receiving of the covenant at Mt. Sinai (chapter 5), and all forty years of Israel's wilderness journey (chapter 6). Whew. Four books of the Bible summarized in forty-five pages. At least Lucado and Frazee cut out all the census passages.
Side Note: The first time I read through the entire Bible, I came to the conclusion that the word Deuteronomy meant "Thank God, I am finally through with Numbers."
Moses at Mt. Sinai
But I digress. The reason I am blogging about all this stuff in the middle of my Tour Journal is, of course, that these passages describe the lands I will be visiting in just a few days now. Egypt. The Nile. The Red Sea. Sinai. Even a pre-dawn climb up Mount Sinai. In theory, at least, we will be retracing the route that Moses took when he led the Hebrews out of slavery.

Now there's something to ponder. A mountain so holy that any living thing that touched it was to be put to death -- and not just any death, but a death that did not allow the executioner to touch the victim. (Lucado and Frazee chose to keep that detail in their Exodus synopsis.) And you want me to climb it? Glad that part of the tour is optional. No, seriously, I plan to make the ascent, but only because I don't believe this (Gebel Musa) is the same Mt. Sinai where God rested his glory for so many months. (I certainly could be wrong, but I prefer the Wyatts' still-scorched Jebel al-Lawz, which lies farther east in Saudi Arabia. That's the setting I chose when writing The Voice.)*
Jebel Al-Lawz, Saudi Arabia
Tradition says Gebel Musa is Mt. Sinai, but the tradition dates to two thousand years after the actual incident, so it is a tradition that leaves a lot of room for skepticism.

And here's the second part of my internal war over this tour. How much of what I will be shown is genuine, and how much is Constantinian-traditional? Back to my desire for a time machine. But that isn't going to happen, so I will find myself constantly analyzing what I am seeing and comparing it with the various theories I've researched over the last twenty years. I wish I could just shut down my internal skeptic (note I said "skeptic" and not "cynic" -- like Thomas, I am willing to be convinced if the evidence is compelling) but "just believe" has never been one of my mottos. I see no virtue in blind faith. I am grateful that I serve a God who commands me to love him with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength. 
Side Note: Jesus added that mind part to the original command in Deuteronomy, probably because he was speaking to a post-Hellenic audience who had adopted a Greek mindset -- the same mindset of the culture in which I grew up.
I could go on about this all day, but I think I'm just going to end it here. 

*For a detailed explanation of the reasons for preferring this site, see Mary Neil Wyatt, "Mt. Sinai," at http://www.british-israel.ca/sinai.htm.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

TJ4: Be Afraid...Be Very Afraid...Or Not

So, realizing that my previous post is all about being afraid, I've been waiting for well-meaning "brothers and sisters in Christ" to quote Bible verses at me ... you know, those "comforting" verses about how we aren't supposed to be afraid because perfect love casts out fear and we haven't been given a spirit of fear, blah blah blah.
Side note: I am not in the least afraid to travel to the Middle East, though some of my friends seem very concerned for my well-being and have, like Agabus, tried to discourage my from going on this trip. The violence that erupts there, in my opinion, is no more likely to kill me than the violence that erupts in the town where I live. However, if it turns out that I am wrong, I don't mind leaving this world while doing something I've dreamed of for years. It seems to me a much better death than being hit by a semi on the interstate.
Where was I? Oh, yes, pondering the fact that I am afraid I will fail to enjoy this trip because I am (still) so worried that it isn't really going to happen. And feeling a bit guilty about this fear. Waiting for my friends to chastise me with "comforting" Bible verses. I've been blessed with friends who are a lot more sympathetic and forgiving than Job's friends were, however, so this anticipated barrage hasn't happened. My reaction to the silence? I opened my favorite online concordance and began looking up all the scriptures that contain fear or afraid so I could beat myself up. In the process, I saw all the familiar verses, but I also found quite a few that are less-frequently quoted. Here is a collection of ones I found especially interesting in light of my upcoming trip.

"Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for I will make you into a great nation there." (Genesis 46:3) Egad, I hope not. Sarah can keep that particular miracle all to herself--I want no part of it.

"Do not be afraid. Stand firm and you will see the deliverance the Lord will bring you today. The Egyptians you see today you will never see again." (Exodus 14:13) Probably true, considering that I have no foreseeable plans to visit Egypt again. 

"You are about to pass through the territory of your relatives the descendants of Esau, who live in Seir. They will be afraid of you, but be very careful." (Deuteronomy 2:4) Oh dear. I had no idea the Jordanians would be afraid of me. I will be very careful.

I am well aware that I am taking these verses out of context. On a more serious note, I did find myself heartened by the reminder that the only fear I need in my life is a fear of God. More important, I was reminded that God himself is understanding and forgiving of my other fears: 
I took you from the ends of the earth,    from its farthest corners I called you. I said, ‘You are my servant’;    I have chosen you and have not rejected you.  So do not fear, for I am with you;    do not be dismayed, for I am your God. I will strengthen you and help you;    I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.  
(Isaiah 41:9-10)    I think I'll hang on to this one for a while.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

TJ3: When Reality Strikes

It just hit me: the reality of this trip still hasn't hit me.

Langston Hughes said it best:

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore--
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat? 

Or crust and sugar over--
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags 
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

Or does it, perhaps, remain a dream and only evermore a dream? 
Does it refuse to enter the realm of the real?

I hope, in my case, that reality hits BEFORE the trip is over. I've dreamed of this trip for so long, saved and planned only to have my plans come to nothing, that I'd given up on it ever happening. Even now, something deep inside me is afraid to hope, afraid of a last-minute change in plans, afraid that my dream will once again be deferred. Not until my feet are on Israeli soil will I relax, will I believe.  

I do not want to emulate Thomas. Like me he avowed, "Not until I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, will I believe" (John 20:25). Poor Thomas, who was so afraid of disappointment that he missed the joy of the Resurrection as he wasted precious days languishing in sorrow and despair. 

But it would be even worse to suffer the fate of those who waited all their lives for their Messiah and then went to their graves still waiting, still dreaming, unaware that their dream had been fulfilled. As Jesus said to those inhabitants of Jerusalem so many years ago, "If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes....because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you" (Luke 19:42-44).  

What a shame it would be, if I were to miss this entire experience because of a refusal to recognize it for what it is!

Friday, December 27, 2013

TJ2: Luggage Theology

Yesterday's blog was all about the "practical" preparations for my upcoming journey to the Holy Land -- mostly about packing my bags. I promised that today I would focus more on the theological aspect of the trip. One thing Asbury Theological Seminary has taught me, however, is that theology is intensely practical. So perhaps the packing of my luggage was a good place to start this reflection, and I want to take a moment to revisit it.

Check-in, carry-on, and personal
item ready to go!
First, ponder the significance of packing three bags. Those who are into Biblical numerology know that three is the number most often used to represent the nature and fullness of God, who is depicted throughout the New Testament as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Even in the Old Testament this number is associated with God, especially when he is interacting with humanity (take, for example, Genesis 18:1-5). Three bags are the ideal for any trip involving use of a commercial airline: one large bag to check in and reclaim later, one smaller bag to stow in the overhead compartment in case the larger bag gets lost, and one personal item (e.g. purse or briefcase) for things that will be utilized during the flight. 

Not to take the analogy too far, but the check-in bag is like God the Father (who is sometimes mistakenly viewed as "watching us from a distance"): he has absolutely everything I need to get through life, but sometimes I push him to the periphery of my life and forget to go to him as often as I should. (Maybe I put him in the baggage hold because my life is just too crowded to squeeze him in...something else to ponder. Have I put weight and size restrictions on God?) Sometimes, when we've been apart for a while, it is hard for me to recognize him in my life...rather like staring at the baggage carousel waiting for my bag to appear. The carry-on bag is like God the Son, who seems much closer and is more easily approached, the very image of his Father but come to earth in the flesh to experience life in the same way we do...flying along with us in coach, and just as cramped there in that overhead compartment...yet without sin. (I will be stuck in the center seat from New York to Frankfurt, and I am still grumbling about that, but I have a feeling my carry-on bag will not grumble.) And the personal item is like the Holy Spirit, who dwells in me and guides me moment by moment throughout my daily wanderings, giving me specific gifts for specific situations...in this case, a Kindle reader with enough material loaded on it to keep me occupied during nine hours of flight and seven hours of airport layovers.

Anyway, that's enough luggage theology for one blog. I was just trying to make the point that God shows up in all the little things we think and do if only we have eyes to see. For theology is simply the way we think about God. Everyone is a theologian to some extent because everyone has some opinion about God -- even atheists are theologians

Tomorrow, more spiritual stuff!

Thursday, December 26, 2013

TJ1: Packing Up

Welcome to TJ1: the first "official" entry in my travel journal for Dr. Tuttle's MS685 class, which just happens to center around a two-week excursion through several of the lands described in the Bible -- Egypt, Jordan, and Israel. Since MS685 is also my final class at Asbury Theological Seminary, I definitely want to complete all my assignments on time and with excellence; therefore, I will be posting daily journal updates for an entire month.
SIDE NOTE: For those of you who think this might be an invitation for you to burgle my apartment in my absence, let me state that I feel especially sorry for you, since the only thing of value in said apartment is my Mac laptop, which I will be bringing with me on this trip. (Furthermore, my next-door neighbor is not only a police officer but also the security guard for the entire complex, and my landlord lives right upstairs. Both of them know that I'm leaving town, and both of them will be only too happy to make your acquaintance if you try to break into my apartment while I'm away fulfilling the dream of a lifetime.)
Carry-on, checked bag, and "personal item" tagged and
ready to go! All I have to do is add this laptop.
As you can see from the photo, I am currently in the process of packing for my trip. To be completely truthful, I have been packing for several weeks now. This made holiday travel a bit of a challenge, since most of my clothing and toiletries are already packed and I didn't want to risk unpacking them and forgetting to repack them. My mother and I have a holiday tradition, which is that I forget half of my things at her house and don't get them back until my next visit (usually Spring Break). So to make sure I could honor this tradition and still brush my teeth in Israel, I went out a few weeks ago and bought "back-ups" of everything.

I also bought several things that will make me a more amiable roommate, since I will be sharing a room with a woman I have yet to meet. Breathe-Right Nasal Strips are imperative in such situations (in case I snore) as is Lunesta (in case she snores). These imperative items -- along with three days' worth of clothing and a Bible -- are packed in my carry-on bag because the careful traveler always assumes the airline will lose her luggage. Then there are the things that I will carry in my "personal item" for use during the trans-Atlantic flight: laptop, earphones, Kindle, wallet, and Poo-pourri (travel-size).

Clothing presents a bit of a challenge, since it is so dependent on weather conditions. It turns out that Egypt and Israel will both be a bit colder than Florida (who knew?) so I had to go out and buy some more long pants and long-sleeved shirts. Layering is the key, or so I've been told, so instead of a thick winter coat I have a sweater and raincoat combo (yes, I am from Florida). I'm just wondering what to do with those extra layers while I'm sitting on the plane. Guess I'll find out somewhere between New York and Frankfurt.

I've read the "travel tips" posted on the EO website at least a dozen times and have sought additional advice from friends who are more experienced travelers than I am. My quart-sized clear ziploc bag is filled with smaller-than-3-ounce bottles of shampoo, body wash, deodorant, and toothpaste. My passport and other photo i.d. are up-to-date and easily accessible. I have sufficient cash for "love offerings" (a.k.a. tips for the guides) and a Visa card for lunch and souvenirs....
About now, I'm thinking that this journal is probably not what the professor has in mind, since it is so devoid of references to prayer and theology and stuff. What can I say? Maslow's Hierarchy is clear that human beings simply can't think about higher, spiritual matters until their basic physical needs are squared away. Right now I am so excited about leaving the USA for the first time in my life that I can't think beyond basics like "will I have enough underwear for two weeks abroad?" (I'm probably not supposed to mention underwear in my journal either, but that's how I roll.) Tell you what -- tomorrow I will talk about the spiritual stuff, okay?

Saturday, December 14, 2013

19 Days and Counting

In 1996 I began to write novels set in the Holy Land. At first, these stories were simply a way for me to help myself better understand the Bible narrative; by putting myself in the position of various people in the Bible, I was forced to examine more closely the original context of the scriptures rather than blindly accepting modern translations and interpretations. In order to grasp the nuances and complexities of the cultures in which the stories were set, I plunged into primary and secondary historical resources such as Josephus. I learned much. However, there was one glaring void in my knowledge, and that was first-hand experience of the geography that gave birth to these cultures. Write what you know, the adage goes, but all of my knowledge was second-hand.
Thank you, Google maps!

Using modern technology, I was able to visit Israel, Jordan, and Egypt “virtually.” I flew from the Nile delta to the Jordan River using Google Earth, and spent hundreds of hours poring over aerial maps, video travelogues, and photos. These resources allowed me to describe locations, but only visually. For sensory details, I still had to rely on the reports of others. What I needed was to travel to these lands myself, but with my limited income this dream became a “bucket list” item and was set aside time and again. Next year in Jerusalem, I whispered each spring, along with millions of Jews worldwide.

In 2008, I shared some of my writing with a few close friends, and their response surprised me. I had grown to understand the gospels better as I researched the cultural context in which Jesus delivered his message; now my friends declared that they, too, had been drawn to a deeper relationship with Christ and his word as they came to know his culture through my novels. Encouraged by this response, I began to publish the stories, and I have received similar feedback from many people worldwide. With greater influence, however, comes greater responsibility; I might be lax in my accuracy when writing for myself, but I do not want to pass my errors along to others.

During my studies at Asbury Theological Seminary, I have gained additional understanding that has helped me keep my writing both historically and spiritually accurate. To visit the Holy Land as part of an Asbury team, rather than with a general tour group, will add a dimension to the experience that I cannot begin to imagine. What are my expectations? Everyone I know who has taken a trip of this sort has told me that the event was pivotal in their spiritual life. I expect God to use this journey to change me in some way, though what that way may be, I dare not even guess.

What questions do I have? Not many, if by questions I limit myself to facts and figures. I’ve watched so many programs based on other people’s tours of this region that I can quote numerous “authorities” regarding the history and geography of the Holy Land. The questions that I bring are purely subjective, intensely personal, and some can never be answered because the distance between me and the land I so long to visit cannot be measured in miles only, but also in years. What did it feel like, to walk these roads? That is the question foremost in my mind. Until time travel becomes commonplace enough that someone like me can afford it, however, I will have to settle for What does it feel like, to walk these roads? This question, at least, I hope finally to answer for myself in a few weeks.