Sunday, March 23, 2008

A World Apart

I have been to Israel several times. Each time I have learned something new. When I was an undergraduate, it was my first truly international experience. This most recent trip, however, provided a different experience and a new learning experience for me.

In the middle of the trip, we began our trip down the Jordan Valley, and we had two nights in pretty isolated areas. We spent the night on a hill overlooking the Dead Sea and in the desert on the Bedouin experience. Following these two nights incommunicado, we drove into Bethlehem to see Herodium and the Church of the Nativity which commemorates the place of the birth of the Prince of Peace.

As we drove into Bethlehem, I noticed things were different. Everything was closed. On a Friday, it wouldn't be unusual for a number of shops to be closed, but everything? My bus driver made some calls and determined that all the shops were closed as part of a protest. Four Palestinian men had been identified as terrorists by the IDF (Israeli Defense Force). The IDF sent in an undercover agent who killed all four men in Bethlehem. As we got out of the bus and walked to Manger Square to the Church of the Nativity, we began to see the crowds gathering. We watched a young Palestinian boy (10 or 11 years old) so full of rage that he began to throw rocks at a Palestinian policemen. Across the street from the Church of the Nativity was what looked like a rally of a couple of thousand people (we later found out that the bodies of the four men were in the tent—it wasn't exactly a rally). Inside the church, we found ourselves in the middle of two separate Arab Christian memorial services for these men and the political situation—illustrating just how complicated the Middle Eastern situation is.

I don't believe that we were ever in any danger. We were nervous, and the situation was very uncomfortable. Afterward, when we were back on the bus, it was very quiet. Each of us was left to our thoughts as we were going through the checkpoint. Some were journaling. Some were crying. But, everyone's heart was breaking for the people of Palestine and Israel. We understood why the IDF did what they did. We also understood why the people of Bethlehem would feel singled out by Israel. And, we understood (and commended) those Palestinian Christians who were able have a service in which they would pray for their enemies—however they defined them. Most of all, I think each of us understood the tragic nature of the land called holy by so many.

In Jericho, several Palestinians said to each of us, "Please tell the people of America we want peace. Please don't let a few radicals make them think we are all like that." One man whose words will stay with me for a long time said, "How many fingers do you have?" I replied, "Five." Showing me his hand, he said, "Same as me. Please tell them we want peace. We need peace." In Bethlehem we saw just how hard it is to live without peace. I, for one, will never be the same for the experience.

Though I was grateful that the students truly did gain intercultural competency as a result of turmoil in Bethlehem, there was still a part of me that felt guilty. I know some of the students were scared. I told myself, if we hadn't been in the desert the night before, I might have seen the news on the internet and avoided Bethlehem. I felt guilty all the way to the hotel in Jerusalem thinking that my poor planning (putting Bethlehem, which has the potential for difficulties, after the two nights away from news) led to an uncomfortable situation for the students.

Then, something happened that placed an exclamation point on this experience for me. I got to the hotel room and looked on the internet to find out what had happened. I COULDN'T FIND IT! I looked up the Atlanta Journal Constitution, New York Times, Drudge . . . nothing. Even the Israeli news services didn't have the story. I couldn't find it on the Jerusalem Post, Haaretz . . . nothing. Finally, I searched on Google News and found the story. It was the third story under a search for "Bethlehem."

On the one hand, I felt better than I hadn't missed it as a result of my scheduling, and I felt better than parents wouldn't be worried about us. On the other hand, I couldn't believe that this event that had such a profound effect on each of us on the trip would be page 17 news in Israel and not even make the papers at home. People were hurting. People were enraged. People were desperate. And, if we hadn't been there, we would never know. How can it be in this age of globalization when the world is getting so small that NO ONE would know?

How myopic are we? It seems that if we can ignore it, we will. We will just cross on the other side.

Even if we don't want to care because human beings are suffering, what about the Palestinian Christians? These are people in my church who claim my savior. They are ostracized by Israelis for being Palestinian and by Palestinian Muslims for being Christian. We are the body of Christ and one part is suffering, shouldn't the whole body suffer? Shouldn't we care?

Friday, March 14, 2008

It’s good to be the king?

It has been two years (almost to the day) since I was last in Israel. A lot has changed in two years. Sure, many of the sites have been further developed. Many have been further neglected. But, I guess what has changed the most in two years is my role. Two years ago, I helped the group leader . . . a little . . . when necessary. This time, I am the group leader . . . all the time.

My mentor told me years ago that traveling is different when you are the leader. I am finding him to be right (again). Though I have traveled to Israel several times, this trip is a little different. Part of the disorientation of this trip is the nature of traveling with a group unfamiliar with the area. I am mama duck with all my baby ducks in a row. I decide where we go and how long we stay there. That is an awesome responsibility that still overwhelms me to some degree.

I also find that I am not enjoying the trip in the same way I once did. I still find the Caesarea theater magnificent. I still enjoy Tel Dan and the Cliffs of Arbel. But, some of the "wonder" is gone. I am sure part of the loss is that these sites are familiar to me. But, I believe that most of my wonder has been replaced by concern for all of these traveling with me—these college students who have been placed in my trust. I worry about keeping them safe—keeping them fed—keeping them on schedule. Is it any wonder I have to remind myself to take pictures? The longer I write this, the more I think I should have focused on parenting instead of travel.

This has forced me to frame what Mel Brooks said with confidence in History of the World as a question, "Is it good to be the king?"

I have prayed for an answer to that question while getting this trip ready. There were times when I considered what I was doing—adding a class to my teaching load without compensation, the budgetary concerns, and the travel concerns—and I had to ask myself, "Is it worth it?" "Is it good to be the king?"

Now that we are traveling, I think I have found the answer. I have discovered that there is one sight that I can enjoy that no one else can. Though I may have lost some of the wonder of the places, my reward is seeing their wonder at these places. Everyone in this group has truly made an effort to drink in the history that surrounds them. On occasion I will say something in just the right way (professors are always searching for "just the right way"), and I will see a connection made. You can see it on their faces. Something you said changed them, and they are not going to look at the world the same way ever again.

I suppose it is that reward that got teachers teaching in the first place. We pray for the revelations to take place. In that dynamic dance that takes place between teacher and student, sometimes the steps fall just right, and you really feel like you teach. You always know you when you really teach because you have found your life enriched as much (if not more) than the students.

That is the new wonder that I have found—not in places, but in faces. And, considering that, I do think, "It's good to be the king."

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Joy in the Journey

I am getting ready for a trip to Israel. Every group I have gone with is different, and these students are proving that true again. Many of the individuals on the trip don't have any international experience. Some have never flown over water before. Some have never flown before. Right now they have all sorts of expectations.

Getting ready to lead this trip has taken me back to my first trip to Israel many, many years ago. One of the things I noticed was that we spent a lot of our time traveling to the places we wanted to see. First there was the nearly 7000 mile flight. Then, we would drive (sometimes for hours) to the site we were touring. We would spend an hour at the site, hop back in the vans, and drive some more. Even seeing 5 sites a day (which is more than your typical Holy Land tours), we spent most of our time driving. Of course, when I think about Israel, I don't think of the times on the van or the plane. I think of Dan, Masada, the Church of the Nativity. . .

I have discovered that we often live life like that. We mark our lives by the important "sites": high school graduation, college graduation, first job, wedding, and children. We find out that those destinations don't last very long. The marriage takes longer than the wedding. Yet, people put more emphasis on the wedding and too often the pay the price. Childbirth doesn't last nearly as long as raising them, it just feels that way. It seems that we are so often waiting for the next milestone so that we can start living life. Life is some elusive "out there"—forever out of reach.

In truth, "Life is what happens when you are busy doing other things." Most of life we spend on the journey. If we focus only on those milestones, we miss most of the trip. I pray that I sincerely try to enjoy the journeys that I take in my life. I try to enjoy daily being a father and husband. I try to enjoy being a professor. I try to find joy in the world around wherever I might be and whatever my situation (with varying degrees of success). I try to enjoy the ordinary because I know it won't last forever, and I know it won't come again.