Thursday, July 7, 2011

Journeyin' Through the Holy Land

Bedouin friend, taken by a Bedouin student.
Baptisms in the Jordan River.

The Old City of Jerusalem, Dome of the Rock, and Mt. Of Olives.

I left for Israel on May 15th, 2011.
I returned from Istanbul, Turkey on June 2nd 2011.

And during the course of those 19 days, my life was forever changed.

I traveled to Jerusalem, Israel; Petra, Jordan, and Istanbul, Turkey during my time in the Middle East. I came face to face with Jesus, religious conflict, history, and love in a variety of colors. I slept in airports, in hotels, in buses, on floors, on tables, and in airplanes. I ate food of all different colors, shapes, and kinds. I took many pictures. I journaled LOTS. I laughed and cried and loved until my heart was full.

I went on this trip through Lee University with their education program (seeing as I'm an education major, and all...). 30 kiddos went, and none of us really knew each other before the trip. We traveled to Atlanta, flew to London, flew to Tel Aviv, and drove to Jerusalem where we would be living for ten days.

In the Middle East, I encountered God. I encountered Him as God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit, God the Comforter, God the Author, and God the Creator, just to name a few.

God the Father: We were in the Middle East on a study abroad trip. And as educators, we toured many different schools to get a taste for what the education system in all these different countries looked like. We went to a Tali school (basically their curriculum combines both Arabic and Hebrew cultures in the curriculum- which is unheard of, but a great idea to take steps toward peace!) during our time in Jerusalem. We also visited a deaf school in Jerusalem because we had a friend who worked there as a soldier teacher (she is in the Israeli Army). Here, I met Jonathan, a precious little 7 year old who was hard of hearing but had the most beautiful smile I have seen in my life. He diplomatically made eye contact, waved, and smiled to every member on our team. More than once. I had to fight with everything in me not to scoop him up and take him home with me. Blessed my soul. :)
While in Bethlehem, which is part of the West Bank and a Palestinian settlement, we visited a Catholic boy's school.
In Jordan, we visited a Bedouin school. The Bedouin people are nomads and live in caves or tents in the desert. The Jordanian government is forcing these people to move into permanent housing, in order to better keep tabs on them. It was here that I saw God as Father.
This school was also an all boy's school. Naturally the guys from our team were totally stoked, seeing as they could play soccer and do man stuff with these new friends. We visited the classrooms, were treated like royalty (much like in Malawi!), and took lots of pictures.
During recess, while many of the boys were playing soccer, I was walking around taking pictures of the fun and a few boys caught up to me and wanted to take a picture with me. I was nervous to give them my camera (a Canon Rebel, whom I love very much), but I slid the strap around their neck and explained to them how to take a picture. Which was more difficult than it seems, considering I don't know a lick of Arabic, and they knew very little English. But the boys caught on quickly, and lots of fun followed.
I instantly, and I mean INSTANTLY, was in my element and overcome with peace. I was doing two things I love: teaching, and taking pictures. The joy on the boy's faces was so evident, and I couldn't help but thank Dad. As I watched them laugh and take pictures of their friends, I couldn't help but think of the Lord's extravagant love for them. "Red, yellow, black, and white" just kept playing over and over in my head. The Creator of this universe loves those little Bedouin boys. They are His children, as much as I am. Talk about humbling.

God the Son: Jesus. It is a powerful name that has traveled through languages, time, across borders, and around this world. And I've walked where He has.
The interesting thing about Jerusalem is that it looks like nothing that I had conjured up in my head before going. I was picturing camels, and desert, and shepherds, and cobblestone. Thank you, Beginner's Bibles and flannelgraphs from Sunday School!
But it's nothing like that. It's modern, ancient, unified, and divided all at once. It's crowded, it's a melting pot, it's so full of Jesus I can't even describe it.
We toured the Garden Tomb/Golgatha, Nazareth, Capernum, the Mt. of Beatitudes, the Dead Sea, Masada, Ein Ghedi, Bethlehem, the Jordan River, the Via Delarosa, the Old City of Jerusalem, David's Fortress, and the Western Wall. I've touched where Jesus was born, where the cross stood, been in the tomb where he was buried, and walked the land where He did His ministry. Many, if not all, of the holy sites from the Christian faith have churches ontop of them. (Even Peter's mother in law's house. The Franciscans built this weird looking UFO church right ontop of it. ) But the thing about these holy sites is that some of them may not be totally accurate. We know a few things for certain, like Peter's mother in law's house and where Mary's house was, and the cave where Christ was born. But we don't know exactly where Christ's cross was put in the ground, or where He cried on the Mt. of Olives.
But it doesn't matter WHERE it happened. It only matters THAT IT HAPPENED. He was born of a Virgin, revolutionized the world with love and truth, died on a cross, and was raised from the dead to sit at the right hand of God and He will one day come again. All that matters is that He came. And He rose. And He's coming again. Hallelujah.

God the Holy Spirit: Birds are my thing. Birds are my God thing. There have been quite a few times that the Lord has spoken to me through creation, but most specifically the presence of birds. Peace and joy come when I see birds, and it always seems to be at just the right time.

Day one, we are standing at the Western Wall. Now, the Western Wall is significant because it is the last remaining wall of Solomon's temple. It's a place of prayer for the Jewish people, and is a very beautiful picture of the love and devotion they have to their relationship with God. As I stood in the Western Wall Plaza and took everything in, I noticed a soup kitchen directly across from the Wall. Which excited me, because of my big ole heart for missions. And I had just been wondering about homelessness and the needy in the community of Jerusalem. I just thought it was so neat, and such a cool picture, to have the last remaining wall of Solomon's Temple directly across from a soup kitchen. What a picture of the kingdom being lived out.
As I continued my little 360 -degree-tour to look around the Plaza, I noticed something: birds. Hundreds. All congregating around the wall, flying to and fro. But all reminding me of the Spirit's presence, and God's love for the Jewish people. And my heart began to beat a little happy tune.

Shortly thereafter, we were sitting in the Garden of the Garden Tomb, looking at the face of Golgatha. As I sat there and contemplated Calvary and fought back tears, a dove swooped down right into my line of vision. A dove. With the shadow of Calvary in the background. I almost lost it. How cool is He?!?

The next day, we visited David's Fortress, which is the highest point in the Old City. The view is spectacular; the Mt. of Olives, the Old City, the New City, the West Bank, and Jordan are all visible from this spot. As I was looking around, I felt a tug on my arm. Marissa was next to me, pointing at something. I squinted and looked closer. And there, in the middle of this great big fortress that we were climbing around, sat a dove. As peaceful as it could be. Just a little sign of God's love. With my name on it.

God the Comforter:

Psalm 51:11 says "Cast me not away from your presence,
and take not your Holy Spirit away from me."

The Psalmist is writing to God, pleading for his transgressions to be removed from him and in return, be given praise for the King. Shortly before my trip to the Middle East, I went through a big and tough decision in my life that was covered in prayer, but was heartbreaking. I was nervous to go halfway across the world without my family and closest friends, but I knew that the Lord had called me to go on this trip. And boy, did He ever. And He never, ever, ever left my side. Glory be. My doubts, fears, and heartache was cast aside. In exchange, He gave me beauty, dancing, and joy. How He loves.

God the Author: I was originally supposed to be going to Egypt for this trip. Due to some civil unrest in Cairo (where we would be spending the majority of our time), the trip directors decided that it would be better if we switched our trip to Israel, Jordan, and Turkey. So this trip was "Plan B." This trip that so radically changed my life, wasn't originally the plan. But God is the Author of all things and the Great Orchestrator, and He had a plan. He knew how much I would learn and love and be challenged on this trip. And He used it. He used, what I considered a "Plan B." So although I took a giant leap of faith at the beginning of this summer and made a tough decision, I know God's got a plan. He orchestrated an unbelievable three weeks in the Middle East. I trust Him to pen a beautiful path to my life. Although I originally thought that this path was "Plan B" after my big decision and therein my heartbreak, I am now seeing that it's not Plan B. It's His plan, and I'm in the palm of His hand, and nothing can take me from there. So the pen is in His hand. And I trust, just like He took care of me in Israel, He will carry me through.

God as Creator: I am an artist. Well, I like to think I am. I know my way around a Hobby Lobby, I love to paint, and I poke around with photography. God speaks to me through creation- His earth, and the creations of His children- through songs and artwork of all kinds.
The second leg of our trip was in Petra, Jordan. Petra was the Middle Eastern equivalent to Cleveland, Tennessee. There were a few shops, a few restaurants, but nothing really of note here. Until we went to Petra Park.
Petra Park is a national park that honors and displays the life of the Nabateans, an ancient people group of southern Jordan and the Canaan area. They're important became they carved lots of really cool stuff from rocks (see pictures below). Petra was important to me because it reminded me of God's splendor.
Our tour guide showed us around the park a little and told us quite a few stories I don't remember. Then, we were let loose in this national park for the whole day. We had a liter and a half of water and a sack lunch to last us. I had snacks in my pack. I thought ahead. Thank you, CliffBars! The park was huge, and we didn't even scratch the surface.
The small group that I was with decided to climb the first flight of stairs we came across. Little did we know this flight of stairs was 817 steps long. Which wouldn't be too terrible, if:
1) I was in shape
2) the steps were all even and smooth like in America
3) it was not 50 million blazing degrees outside
[Note: it didn't start off 50 million blazing degrees. But it eventually got there, oh say around lunchtime.]

We climbed. We stopped to have a snack. We climbed. We stopped to take pictures. We climbed. We stopped to let the boys throw rocks off the side of the cliff. We climbed. We stopped for water. And to pet some cats and talk to some Bedouin ladies. We climbed. I thought I might die. We climbed. I thought I literally was on the Stairway to Heaven. We climbed...

...and finally got to the top. We had climbed up what we later found out was one of the sacrificial mounts of the Nabateans. Which was eerie but neat. We stopped for lunch and to look at the view and for the boys to pretend they were going to fall off the side of the cliff to their sure death far below and give all the girls heart attacks. We took more pictures. Then, the boys decided to boulder up another mountain on top of this sacrificial mount.

Keep in mind, we are in the middle of the desert. Which was breathtakingly beautiful, surprisingly. But we climbed nonetheless. Good thing I wore my trusty Chacos. :)

We bouldered up mountains and stood at what was surely the top of the world. As I looked around and saw Petra in the distance, and mountains rolling across the horizon and clouds hanging low in the sky, I couldn't help but think, "Lord, you have a really awesome view." And I heard in reply, "This is only the beginning." Which made me smile. And feel very very small. His hands, the very ones that hold me, carved the mountain tops and scooped out the valleys. They poured the waters in the rivers and planted trees. He uniquely stitched together the blue lizard I came across (ie: almost stepped on), and specifically designed each bird I saw to survive in such an environment. He made it all. I've never felt so big and so small at the same time.

I made new friends. I laughed until my sides hurt. I Dougie'd ontop of our hotel in Jerusalem. I played Dutch Blitz in a no-man's land between the borders of Israel and Jordan. I bouldered in the desert. I used a squatty potty. I bartered in the Old City of Jerusalem. I ate street corn. I loved until I thought I'd burst and I was loved on until my heart was overflowing. I was reminded, day after day and moment by moment, of God's unfailing love and faithfulness. And it is His faithfulness and His strength that lead me, guide me, and carry me through.

His strength is my joy and my song.

The sign on the door of the Garden Tomb.