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.

Writers make assumptions about their audiences, particularly when writing to those from the same cultural background. The more experiences the writer and his or her readers have shared, the less explanation the writer need include. For example, if I were to write to others who were on this tour with me, I could use the term “pepetorium” without a parenthetical note. Telling my family and friends the same story, I would need to explain that this was our Israeli guide Avi ben Yosef’s term for a public restroom. I might also choose to explain the minor differences between an American restroom and an Israeli restroom. In telling the same story to someone from a very different culture, however, I would need to go into considerable detail about what “public restroom” means—maybe even explaining what a toilet is and why toilet paper should be considered a non-negotiable.

The writers of the gospels were no different. Some things they explained, depending on who their target audiences were. Other things, however, were so universally understood at the time that no explanation was needed. Unfortunately for us, some of these same things are universally understood in our culture—but our universal understanding of them is not the same as the universal understanding in place when and where they were written. And so we make assumptions, and our assumptions are false, and no one protests the errors because our common sense tells us that this is what Jesus meant.

Idiom. It is pervasive, not merely in language but in every aspect of culture. No matter how accurate a Bible translation is, it cannot translate across cultures unless the reader is willing to meet the translator halfway. It is difficult to do this without a guide. One of my guides for the “halfway” journey has been the historian Flavius Josephus, who struggled nearly two thousand years ago to help Westerners (i.e. Romans) understand the culture and mindset of the Jewish people.  Another of my guides has been the congregation of Messianic Jews, who have accepted Yeshua ha Notzri (Jesus of Nazareth) as the promised messiah without rejecting the Jewish heritage and customs that have been passed down through their generations for thousands of years. With the help of these guides, my eyes began to be opened.

I began to be transformed.

Fast-forward eighteen years. Academic research has taken me as far on this journey of cross-cultural understanding as it is possible for me to go. Another transformational experience is required. Call it a pilgrimage—millions do, and have. Although we worship the God who created the universe, the God of whom Solomon said, “But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!” (1 Kings 8:27)—although we worship this immanent God who hears our prayers no matter when or where we pray them, nevertheless there is a transformational power in pilgrimage. It seems that God still honors the prayer of Solomon, who asked God to bless the temple he had built in obedience to his father David’s last wish, the prayer that includes this request:

As for the foreigner who does not belong to your people Israel but has come from a distant land because of your great name and your mighty hand and your outstretched arm—when they come and pray toward this temple, then hear from heaven, your dwelling place. Do whatever the foreigner asks of you, so that all the peoples of the earth may know your name and fear you, as do your own people Israel, and may know that this house I have built bears your Name. (2 Chronicles 6:32-33)

And so, for thousands of years, foreigners who do not belong to Israel have traveled to the land of Israel hoping to be touched by God in a special, transformative way. Taken in this context, Avi’s claim that prayer is “a local call” from Jerusalem is not merely a humorous quip, but a statement of profound Biblical truth.

And what about my pilgrimage? My transformative experience?

Let me follow in the footsteps of the men and women whose stories I have read in the Bible and in the pages of other histories. Let me share in their transformation, even if just a little bit, eating the crumbs that have fallen from the table God so richly prepared for them. Let me retrace their steps across the terrain that has come to be called the Holy Land, and let me start this retracing with Moses.

We do not know for certain when Moses lived, or precisely where he encountered God, or along what route he led the Israelites out of Egypt. There are many theories, each with reasonable evidence in its favor. Trying to select one of them over the others leads to the problem of failing to see the forest for the trees—or, to use a more appropriate metaphor, to fail to see the desert for the grains of sand. Yet see the desert I did, in all its harsh splendor, and in the desert I found transformation.

The transformative experience of the Egyptian desert was not, for me, brought about by seeing. I live in a culture that has been blinded by too much seeing. Television, movies, photos, and the internet make it possible for us to see more in a week than our great-grandparents saw in a lifetime. Through the medium of Google Earth I have flown over the deserts of Egypt, over the Sahara and the Sinai and beyond, many times. Seeing the desert did not change me; rather, it was the smell of camel that made the desert real.

Side Note:  I wish that I could here insert a scratch-and-sniff camel sticker. Alas, though a Google search resulted in 151,000 hits for scratch-and-sniff stickers, not one of them was camel scented.
With my first whiff of dromedary I was swept into the world of Moses; I crossed over into one of the “thin places” where God’s presence is made manifest. I did not find transformation there, however, until I also found the silence.

Silence is elusive in our culture, perhaps never more elusive than on a group tour. There was certainly no silence in the desert near Giza. I imagine it was very silent once, when the only inhabitants were dead pharaohs, but the royal graveyard has become the haunt of international tourists and those who make a living off of them. Likewise—to my horror—has Mount Sinai.

I can only pray that the mountain we climbed is not, in fact, the same mountain on which Moses encountered God. That mountain, after all, was so holy that no living thing was permitted to set foot on it without a divinely engraved invitation, (Exodus 19:12-13) and I would not have felt comfortable making the climb even under the most reverent of circumstances. Never in my wildest dreams would I have imagined vendors hawking souvenirs to tourists on the summit of the mountain—and yet that is what I discovered there. Perhaps that is why I undertook the more difficult descent, in order to escape the crowds and the reminders of consumerism. Indeed, in the Chute (as the steeper, less-traveled path is called) there were no vendors, no tourists other than the six members of my group who chose to make the descent together. At first, we were simply hikers out for a challenging stroll; we took photos, we encouraged one another, we chatted. Toward the end, though, we discovered the silence of the desert.

The silence of the desert comes not with the fragrance of camel, but with pain.

I discovered something in the Chute: it doesn’t matter which mountain Moses climbed. Whether he met God on the same heights we scaled or some other desert peak, the truth is that he climbed in silence and in pain, for he left behind the clamor of the people and approached his creator in solitude, stretched (no doubt) to his limits of strength and endurance. Stretched far beyond those limits. Stretched to the point where he was forced to recognize his total dependence on God. In my arrogance and impatience, I determined to hike the Chute rather than the more gradual path most of the others chose; by the end of that hike I was praying with every step that I would not fall face first and slide the last mile down the mountain. Had I known then what I later learned—that four or five people die on that hike every month—I still would have chosen the Chute. I do not doubt that some people encounter God on life’s easy paths, but I am rather stiff-necked and have always heard him best when he brings me to the end of myself. 

I came to the end of myself on Mount Sinai. Yet I did not encounter God there.

The very next day we left Egypt behind and followed Moses into the land of the Edomites, the red-and-gold painted desert hideaway of Petra. I expected no divine encounters in Petra; I wasn’t even sure why Petra was included in our itinerary. It is beautiful and ancient, but of little Biblical significance, and I approached Petra simply as a tourist on vacation from Sinai. If truth be told, I needed time to reflect on my Sinai experience, and this truth ambushed me at Petra with such force that I quite literally could not breathe. I had found the desert’s silence on Sinai, but I hadn’t been able to hold on to the quiet long enough to recognize it for what it was. Moses sat silent on Sinai for a week before God spoke to him (Exodus 24:16);
 Elijah fasted forty days and nights in the desert’s solitude before hearing God’s still, small voice (1 Kings 19:8-13).  I was in Petra all of three hours before I dissolved in tears and withdrew into myself, desperate for silence.

What I found instead was sound.

Deliberately closing my eyes to the beauty of Petra, I listened to its voice. For two hours I simply sat and listened. I didn’t interact, I didn’t process, I didn’t even understand most of what I heard. If God spoke, I didn’t recognize his voice, and yet the lullaby of Petra brought healing to a brokenness hidden deep within me, the kind of healing that only God can bring.

And then, finally, it was time to enter Israel.

The person who crossed into Israel, the “I” who existed on that day, was not the same “I” who had registered for the trip. Egypt and Jordan had whittled away at that person, stripped her of her agendas and expectations. A pilgrim boarded the plane in Florida; a tourist crossed into Israel from Jordan. A very tired tourist, I might add, and one who was a bit afraid to get her hopes up. I took a back seat on the bus, away from the friends I had made, a seat where I could be alone and find a speck of privacy for quiet reflection. But no reflection was needed. I had wanted to spend some time at Ein Gediy and Qumran, places on our itinerary that were important to me, but a delay crossing the border robbed us of the time that would have allowed us to stop there. The hours spent at Masada and Jericho—these meant little to me. The drive north was done in the dark when all places look the same, and meant even less.

But then came the Galilee.

I hesitate to put onto paper the experience of waking up in the Galilee and walking along the shore of Lake Kinneret. Those who have read my Immanu’El novels will know what the Galilee means to me. In my imagination, I have lived there most of my life, but only in my imagination. Frankly, I expected to be disappointed by the reality. Instead, I was hit with the powerful sensation of having come home.

For twenty-seven years I have lived in the same small Florida community, but the Galilee felt more like home to me. Lake Kinneret—the Sea of Galilee—it is my lake. Every time I looked at it I felt the same ownership, the same possessiveness, that I feel toward the Indian River Lagoon from which I earn my living as a tour guide. I could have spent all day on that lake. Even now, I am brought to tears by the memory of it. Here and there along the shore of the lake are small coves, set apart from the main body of water by patches of reeds. I’ve never seen these coves in photos of the area, but I have described them in my novels, I have visited them in my daydreams. Seeing them for the first time . . . I find myself struggling for the right words. Surprise, shock, hair standing on end, goosebumps, shivers up my spine, someone dashing cold water into my face . . . or just the opposite, a calm acceptance, a warm “of course,” a recognition . . . not deja vu, nothing so mundane as deja vu. Is this what is meant by “thin place”?

I know that the three days I spent in the region of the Galilee were a transformative experience for me, possibly the greatest transformative experience since my conversion, and yet I cannot say at this moment what it is that changed in me, or how, or why. The soil was turned, seeds were planted, but it is far too early to know what crop was sown or for what purpose. God did not speak to me in the Galilee, not in any voice I have come to know over the years, but he did do something in me. What? I do not know. My impatience cries out to be enlightened; certainly this paper would be more impressive if I could articulate the transformative experience in a manner suitable for one who is about to graduate from seminary. I can’t. (Then again, neither could Paul. Luke writes about Paul’s Damascus Road experience, but Paul himself doesn’t include the details in any of his epistles. It is easier to talk about some things than it is to write about them.)

Outside the Galilee, I became a tourist again. There were moments when I remembered that I was on pilgrimage: the shepherd’s cave near Bethlehem was almost as familiar to me as the coves of Kinneret; the cold of the Jordan snapped me back to reality for a time; climbing the steps to the Huldah Gates, praying at the Western Wall, and sharing communion made an impact on my spirit. Ironically, however, in Jerusalem I was forced to look beyond what was visible in order to find the footsteps of Jesus, which have been buried under nine feet of gilt and gems placed there by those who have loved him over the centuries. Most often, I failed to find what I was looking for, but I found something else, something more precious in God’s sight: I found people.

I was in a street market near the Via Dolorosa. Five young girls were walking toward me. From their dress, I assumed they were Moslem; we were in the Moslem quarter at the time. One of them noticed me pointing my camera, and she smiled and waved and said, “Hi!” Suddenly all five were waving and smiling, and I was smiling back. And I realized: these are the daughters of Jerusalem. These are the people Jesus ministered to, the people he loved, the people he wept over, the people he lived and died to save. Waving to me in the marketplace and saying “hi!” are the woman at the well, the woman taken in adultery, the woman with the alabaster jar, the widow with her two mites, and the women who sat at the foot of the cross and who visited the tomb with their spices. It hit me at that moment, that people are still people, and that we really haven’t changed all that much in two thousand years.

For this, I went to Israel.

So here I sit, surrounded by my rocks, remembering. Each stone has a place attached to it, a memory, a lesson. Each is a seed, planted deep in my heart and growing there. Collectively, they are a memorial to what God has done and continues to do in me through this, and other, transformative experiences. Climbing Mount Sinai, passing through the waters of the Jordan, praising God in the pit, kneeling at the foot of the cross, saying “Hi!” to a group of teenage girls . . . What can I say? The Lord works in mysterious ways.


  1. I have been checking out your blog since I finished The Voice after Christmas. You have been in my prayers during your travels. I am looking forward to reading more of your work.

    1. Thank you so much for your prayers and encouragement.