Monday, January 27, 2014


Skimming back through my older posts, I have noticed that I use the phrase "I'm learning..." quite often.
Side Note: My internal English teacher is screaming at me. "I'm learning..." is not a phrase but a clause, since it contains both a subject and a verb. Now that I've gotten that off my chest, I can go back to writing.
For some reason, this jumped out at me and forced some mental rumination.
Side Note: Ruminate is a lovely word that means, literally, to chew the cud (from the Latin ruminari). When applied to a human being, however, it is purely metaphorical. (Let's hope.) You are about to watch me mentally chew with my mouth open. In other words, what follows is not carefully edited prose but merely stream-of-cud-chewingness thoughts about the phrase clause "I'm learning..." 
My identity hangs on a few key hinges; if you ask me who or what I am, the words that spring to mind are teacher, Christ-follower, human being, tour guide, mother, daughter, seminary student graduate, writer. First and foremost, always, is teacher. Everything else I do seems to spring from that. My mother tells me that I used to teach my dolls to read—apparently they were more cooperative students than my younger siblings. As a sixth grader I attended summer school—voluntarily—not for remediation but to help tutor other students in math. My ministry is a teaching ministry, my writing has an underlying didactic agenda, my children are constantly inflicted with educational outings, guests on my tours express gratitude for how much they have learned, half of my seminary experience involved working as a TA and leading study groups; I've even made it one of my life's ambitions to help my mother realize what a smart and talented woman she is. (My mother is amazingly creative!)

There is only one way to be a teacher—one must first be a learner.

Are you old enough to remember the adage so popular a few decades ago? "Those who can, do. Those who can't, teach." This was back when it was normal to denigrate the teaching profession in word as well as in remuneration.
Side Note: Nowadays, we pay lip service to teacher appreciation, but that's all we do. Teachers are still overworked and underpaid, and teachers are still blamed for everything that is wrong with the upcoming generation. We tie their hands and then demand that they juggle.
There is some truth in the adage. Some. Most high school math teachers are not professional economists; most middle school science teachers are not NASA engineers; most elementary English teachers have not written best-selling novels. Be grateful for that. The truth is, if some people weren't willing to pass up the big paychecks in order to work in the classroom, the upcoming generation would have no one to inspire and equip them to become economists, engineers, and writers. And if most of the economists, engineers, and novelists I've met were placed in a classroom with children, our education system would be in an even worse state than it already is. Knowing how to do something and knowing how to teach someone else to do it are NOT the same thing.

Teachers—true teachers—teachers who have been designed by God to teach—possess a skill that is not easily taught (if indeed it can be taught at all) although it can be trained. Teaching degrees are usually a Bachelor of Science (mine is, at any rate) but teaching is more of an art than a science. The nationwide attempt to quantify what teachers do and measure it on a standardized test demonstrates a gross misunderstanding of the nature of teaching, learning, and education in general.

A true teacher can teach anything. Before that can happen, of course, the teacher needs to learn. I learn so that I may teach. It is that simple.

I close my rumination with one final chew. Look at the Teacher. Jesus. He was so determined to teach us how to be human beings that he became one. You might want to ruminate on that thought for a while.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

TJ10: Home Again

I am home now. Or am I? It could be argued that the “I” who left this place three weeks ago to travel through Egypt, Jordan, and Israel is not the same “I” who sits now at the computer writing this reflection. Experience changes us, inevitably. And for this reason, the “I” who begins this reflection will not—cannot—be the same “I” who will finish it, for the mere experience of writing down my thoughts is a transformative experience. It is this concept of transformative experience that I wish to explore in this blog, and it is my hope that, in reading, you will also be transformed.

On a folding table in my living room sits a collection of rocks, the detritus of weeks of walking, climbing, hiking, searching for myself in the Promised Land that I might build an altar—an ebenezer if you will—as an aid to my ever-failing memory. Rocks. 175 rocks. My nerves were fully engaged as I hauled these mnemonic devices through Israeli airport security, wrapped in my dirty socks and tucked into every available crevice of my suitcase. Perhaps this was just the right thing to do. Perhaps it is why the young Israeli laughed and waved me through without requiring me to open my bags—he recognized and empathized with my desire to hold on to a piece of the Promised Land.  “What is in your shoes?” he had asked, looking at the x-ray image of my luggage. “Are those stones?”
            “Yes,” I’d replied, keeping it short and simple, as I’d been instructed.
            “You have a lot of stones.”
            “Yes, I do.” (Eat your heart out, Charlie Brown.)
            “Did someone give them to you?”
            “No, I picked them up off the street.”
That’s when he laughed and told me I didn’t need to open my bags. Perhaps, like me, he was thinking, These stones are to be a memorial to the people of Israel forever (Joshua 4:7).

Am I an Israeli? No, I’m not even Jewish, although when I was a child many people assumed that I was. Perhaps that is where my love affair with Israel began, but I think it really started in 1996, when I fell in love with Jesus. Up until then, I had been serving him, admiring him, respecting him, obeying him (with limited success), following him, and even loving him—but I hadn’t been in love with him. Falling in love with Jesus was a transformative experience, and it drove me into the pages of the Bible with a renewed fervor. I devoured the gospels. Something, however, was missing. Reading the gospels was a bit like watching the news: I was getting sound bites rather than the whole story. Someone else was deciding for me what bits of Christ’s ministry and person were relevant. I wanted more. I wanted to be there.

This feeling has been referred to as “divine discontent.” The result in my life was a season of intense prayer and fasting, from which I emerged even more discontent. Something was growing within me, something that needed to be released, but I didn’t know what it was. One thing I did know: I had only a superficial understanding of Jesus. Eventually I came to understand that I was looking at him through a set of cultural lenses that were so thick as to be distortional. I needed to take off those 20th-century American “Jesus-glasses” and see him as he had revealed himself to humanity. And that meant learning to understand the culture into which he had been born.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

TJ9: Learning to See Beyond

Today I visited some of the most holy spots in Judaism and in Christendom. They looked exactly as I expected, but that is only because I had been forewarned by previous pilgrims (and through advance research) that these areas had become “gaudy.” A more polite term is “ornate.” (You can decide for yourself which adjective is more appropriate when you visit the Holy Land.)
Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem

Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem

Side Note: I confess, I am not a fan of religious trappings and lavish ornamentation. Standing in the entrance to one of the gaudier churches, however, I overheard another traveler express aloud something that I have said on many occasions: “Imagine what the church could have done with all this money. I think God would be more pleased if we used our resources to feed and educate the poor....” And a scripture flashed through my mind.
Then one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot (who was about to betray him) said, ‘Why wasn’t this fragrant oil sold for 300 denarii and given to the poor?’ ... Jesus answered, ‘Leave her alone; she has kept it for the day of my burial. For you always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.’ (John 12:4-8)
So I have decided to postpone judgment of those who have contributed their life savings and hard work to “gaudify” the holy sites in Jerusalem and elsewhere. We all express love in different ways, don’t we?

Regardless, what I really wanted to see (and knew I wouldn’t) is what these sites looked like before the Church began expressing its love and reverence by covering every available inch with gold, jewels, and miscellaneous flashy stuff. And so, on this pilgrimage, I have had to ask God to give me a second set of eyes, eyes that can see beyond. And God has graciously answered this prayer, Yes.

There are places, for example, where I find it possible to close my eyes and simply listen to the sounds. Sounds of crowds of people: some praising God, some singing, some with crying children, some trying to get a better deal in the market place, most speaking a language I don’t understand ... the same crowd-sounds that existed in the days when Jesus and his disciples walked the streets of Jerusalem alongside people of many nations. Fainter but clear to those who have ears to hear are the sounds of birds chirping and cooing and flapping their wings ... the same bird-sounds that may have inspired the psalmist to write:
Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself where she may lay her young—even Your altars, Adonai Tsabaoth, my King and my God. (Psalm 84:3)
Doves nesting in the Western Wall.
There are soldiers walking the streets, Israeli teenagers, and a stack of riot-prevention shields beside the security checkpoint right outside the entrance to the Temple Mount* reminds me of how the Antonia Fortress overlooked the Temple in the first century, when religious riots were all too common. 

Just outside many of the churches are bits of original pavement, broken columns, fallen stones, remnants of architecture from the first century, a few things Rome did not utterly destroy. I lay my hand on these as often as I can, feeling the coolness of the rocks, their textures sometimes rough but more often worn smooth not only by wind and rain but by countless hands, countless feet. And I am reminded of the Jewish custom of touching the mezuzah for a blessing, and I wonder how many of these rocks were touched by Jewish pilgrims on their way to make their sacrifices in the Temple.

And I open my eyes and look beyond the gaudiness and what I see are pilgrims, hundreds of pilgrims, thousands of pilgrims from all over the world, coming to kneel at the foot of an extremely gaudy crucifix in order to reach into a little hole under the gaudy altar to touch the rock that serves as the foundation, the rock that is not gaudy, the rock that tradition says is the very rock upon which Jesus was crucified. And I remember the words of Jesus:
As for me, if I am lifted up from the earth I will draw all people to myself (John 12:32).

Church of the Holy Sepulcher, Jerusalem - At the foot of the Cross
Let those who have eyes to see, see.

*The Israelis have established these checkpoints to ensure that no one brings anything up there that might be construed as insulting to the Moslems: no weapons, no Bibles, no crosses, etc. that might “defile” the courtyard of the Al Aqsa Mosque and provoke a riot.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

TJ8: The Cost of Living

Very little time to write this blog and even less time to edit it. Internet access comes at a steep cost here, so I bought just enough to email my family, post a few facebook status updates, and drop a quick note here. I'm in Egypt, where "cost of living" has taken on new meaning. Cost to use the Internet = $10 an hour, cost to drink a glass of water or brush my teeth = 75 cents (as long as I buy the water from my bus driver), cost to use a public restroom = free, unless I want toilet paper, in which case it costs $1.00. Experience of being away from home and seeing how other people live = PRICELESS.

Tomorrow we will be visiting the "Garbage City" which is a middle-class neighborhood made up of people who live and build their homes by recycling Cairo's trash into usable household items (and houses). I'll try to post some pictures. In the meantime, here are a few from the bus ride today.

Very typical to see laundry hanging from brightly-painted balconies.

Donkey carts share even the busiest city streets with cars and trucks.

A Bedouin shepherd boy drives his flock along the side of the road in Cairo.

Street vendors and open-air markets are everywhere!

Thursday, January 2, 2014

TJ7: There's No Place Like the Airport

Today will be spent in airports and airplanes. In the morning I fly from Orlando (A) to Newark (B). That’s going to bring back a lot of memories for me, since Newark is my “home” airport and I love to look at the towns as we approach and see how many familiar landmarks I can spot. Since it’s been over twenty years since I last flew into Newark, however, this isn’t going to be as easy as it used to be, especially when you consider the fact that I have an aisle seat. Shortly after landing in Newark, I’ll be going through customs for my first-ever international flight. Frankfurt, Germany (C), is the destination but I won’t arrive until tomorrow morning, thanks to crossing seven time zones!

The fun began last night, as I struggled to get a full nine hours of sleep. I did have to unplug my phone, but with the exception of one wake-up at 4:32 a.m. I managed to hibernate long enough to recharge my batteries. My friend Theresa arrived right on time, and at 6:35 we were on the road. 
Me at airport (NASA badge censored out)
Side Note: Theresa had flat-out asked me a few weeks earlier, "Knowing me, how early do you really want me to pick you up?" My flight is scheduled for 10:35 a.m. and the airport recommends arriving two hours early for check in and security screenings (8:35), so considering the 45-minute drive to the airport, I could have told her to pick me up at 7:30. But that would have left no room for surprises: flat tires, bad weather, traffic, alligators crossing the road... So I told her 6:30.
It only took me about five minutes to check my bag (destination Cairo, visually and verbally confirmed with the young woman who tagged it) and get my boarding passes. The TSA line was HUGE. I waited about five minutes before I got to the first check point, where I showed the agent my boarding pass and NASA badge.
Side Note: Two coworkers had advised me to flash my NASA badge when going through TSA. Thank you, Dawn and Kerri!
The TSA agent scanned my badge and said, "Wow! That must be a fun job to have."
"Yes, it is," I said.
"Are you traveling alone?"
"Yes, I am."
Gate 48 ... Two and a half hours before scheduled departure.

"Let's see if we can get you in the employee line," she said. Less than a minute later, I was at the front of the line (in fact, I was the line.) I did have to take off my shoes and laptop, but nothing else. So that "arrive two hours early for check in and security screening" took a grand total of ten minutes. Here I am sitting at United Gate 48, listening to a recording of Elvis singing "Blue Christmas" and "Silent Night," and taking advantage of airport Wifi to update my blog.

It's 7:45 a.m.

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

TJ6: Of Dominoes, Departures, and Deranged Old Women Who Swallow Animals*

It's finally here, my departure date. That is, it is here if you count the days using the traditional Jewish method, in which a day starts at sunset. If you use the traditional American method, I won't leave until tomorrow.

I'm not sure which option I prefer at the moment. While I am undoubtedly excited and eager to get on that plane (in which case I am ready to leave TODAY), I am also scrambling to make sure I have taken care of all those little things that need to be taken care of before I go (in which case I should probably leave TOMORROW). 

What I really need to do in the meantime is get some sleep. That's because I have a plan to avoid jet lag, a plan first recommended to me back in 1999 when I flew to Alaska for two weeks. "Stay awake," I was told. "Stay awake at least 24 hours. Don't sleep on the plane and don't go to bed until your regular bedtime arrives LOCAL time at your destination. That way, you'll adjust your circadian rhythm to the local time much more quickly." Considering that it took me two weeks just to get used to Eastern Standard Time this year during the "fall back" from Daylight Savings Time, I need all the helpful advice I can get. My friend's suggestion worked in Alaska (and on the return from Alaska), so I'm following the same system on this trip. I even put it on my calendar: Wednesday, January 1, SLEEP!!!

That's because I am going to the airport at 6:30 a.m. tomorrow (or today, if you are Jewish) and flying from Orlando to Newark and then from Newark to Frankfurt. I won't arrive in Frankfurt until 6:55 a.m. FRIDAY morning. (Thank you, inventor of time zones.) Then, after sitting in the Frankfurt airport for about seven hours, I will get to Cairo at 4:30 p.m. Friday, check into my hotel, and sleep. On paper, that's 36 hours without sleep, but really it's only 29 hours without sleep. (Thank you again, inventor of time zones.) Piece of cake. With a cup of coffee. Several cups of coffee. Really strong coffee.
Side Note (just for you, Tracy!): I am not a coffee drinker. In fact, I hate coffee. I am super-sensitive to caffeine due to an accidental caffeine overdose when I was 17, and I don't like the coffee flavor either. However, when I get desperate enough, I can drink the stuff. People who know me well get a little concerned when they see me ingest more than half a cup, though. I literally start bouncing around. Literally. (I do not literally bounce off the walls, although I do figuratively bounce off the walls. On occasion, I literally bounce into the walls, but that happens even without caffeine, so just forget I mentioned it.)
Coffee will only work if I am already rested before the trip, though, which is why I plan to get a good night's sleep tonight. To make sure I sleep soundly for at least nine hours, I decided to stay up real late last night. I knew that wouldn't be a problem, since last night was New Year's Eve and everyone stays up late on New Year's Eve. In fact, my son told me he planned to stay up all night, so I knew I'd even have company.
Side Note: This is what we call the "domino effect." In order to get on Middle Eastern time so I can enjoy all of our excursions, I need to sleep Friday. In order to sleep Friday, I need to stay awake all day Thursday. In order to stay awake Thursday, I need to sleep well Wednesday. In order to sleep well Wednesday, I need to stay up late Tuesday... (Hey, at least I'm not planning to swallow a spider, although all that wriggling and jiggling and tickling would probably keep me awake as effectively as caffeine.*)
You see it coming, don't you? By 9 p.m. last night, both my son and I were fast asleep. That's because my plan didn't extend back far enough. I should have gone to bed early Monday, but I didn't. And Tuesday I worked out at the YMCA and then went on a grueling kayak trip, so by the time I got home and showered and ate dinner I was ready to stretch out on the couch for a little while. Just a little while.

So here I am tonight, hoping I will be tired enough to sleep soundly so that I will be able to stay awake on the plane tomorrow (or today if you are Jewish) without having to ingest enough caffeine to draw the attention of airport security. 
Or a spider. 

*If you don't recognize the literary allusion, see