Monday, March 14, 2016

high places and honey

hello friends!
It has been a lengthy few days. the flight from Newark to Tel Aviv was not nearly as awful as I thought it would be, but even so, just getting here and trying to take in my first experiences of Israel from the airport and darkened drive to the seaside hotel took a lot out of me.
we are staying on the seaside in Tiberias, for those of you who didn't see my sunrise photos. there was a small thunderstorm that moved through just before 4 AM (I was awake and watching the only channel I could find in english: FOX Sports -- this morning it was two reruns of professional international triathlons.) so we missed the actual sunrise, but it doused everything in a soft shade of violet and lavender, so it was really the gentle ease into Israel's beauty that we needed
after breakfast, we load into the bus and head off into Northern Israel. our first stop is the Mount of the Beatitudes, and we sit on rocks overlooking the still-hazy sea and listen to our guide talk about the significance of The Holy Land and hop through different chapters of church and Christain history. Nearby, there is another group gathered under a grove of trees and loudly chanting/singing some collective hymn in another language. the air smells softly sweet, like the taste of the honey drizzled bread that they served at breakfast, but I can't decide if it's the pollen from the extensively beautiful gardens or if Israel just smells like honey. at this point, it isn't even 9 AM and I've already had trouble wrapping my mind around the fact that we are in Israel and everything is so beautiful.
our second stop is tel-Hatzor, once the largest city of the Canaanite era. you can see the physical evidence of Old Testament wars still scared into the ruins. we wander around what is left of the palace and I pause on the steps to look out at the valley below. this used to be a person's home. someone lived there. Someone's home was destroyed by fire and took everything else with it and all that is left of them are the charred and shattered stone. Someone used to stand on the same steps that I did and look out at the Israel sprawled out before them.
Perhaps it is my antiquated love of the old testament or general appreciation for history, but it made
me consider the ways we, too, have fortified ourselves in cities and waged wars with fire and guns to maintain them. what will people say about us when they walk through our ruins?
Our third stop, we hiked up to the ruins of tel-Dan through leafy, shaded passage ways and sweet rushing streams. everything still smells like honey and I can't get the Old Testament reference of Israel as the Land of Milk and Honey out of my head. We pass by bushes of honeysuckles and suddenly it makes sense. It's a pretty logical explanation as to why everything smells like honey, but it still sticks warmly in my hands that the bible story name for the place Moses was to lead his people actually has a purpose, a legitimate reason for the nickname. I excitedly shared this revelation with a few of my companions, but I think the fire I have named still glows brightest for myself, and that is okay. I think Israel has become all things to all of us in the short time our feet have walked the soil and breathed in the air of the northern Galilean mountains. we see the ruins of the High Places and the result of Josiah's destruction.
 from the ruins of tel-Dan we hike a bit further and run into  an excavation site called the Canaanite Gate of the Three Arches. this is the entrenched to the city of Dan; this is the way Abraham would have entered the city. Abraham. I had to stop and sit down and let the soil sink into the soles of my feet because there was no other way I would be able to comprehend that my body is where Abraham's body once was. I try to imagine him convincing Sarah to go along with his (dumb) plan at the gate.
leaving tel-Dan, we head to Mount Hermon for a short hike to the ancient ruins of the Grotto of Pan, a Minor Greek god of nature. The significance of this stop does not lie in the ruins of Pan's Grotto, but in the pinpointed location of Jesus' question: "Who do you say that I am?" and a further pointed finger upwards to beyond the steeply sloped mountain edge towards the possible place of the transfiguration. Dr. wyrick explains this is significant because as soon as Christ comes down the mountain post-transfiguration, he's on the path towards Jerusalem, towards the crucifixion. it is one thing to cognitively consider these things and connects, but an entirely different experience to physically be in the atmosphere that he made these decisions in, that he sat with his friends and asked deeply intimate and human questions. it makes next week's resurrection taste that much sweeter. 
Next, we head back to the seaside for lunch at a restaurant on the shore that serves the famous St. Peter's Fish. If you look up "community" in the dictionary, there is probably a photo of us sitting in the restaurant laughing over a few variations of hummus and the most lovely kind of pita bread imaginable. Jonah likens it to Texas' chips-and-salsa routine, and we are all disappointed when we discover that the warm and fluffy pita bread is not bottomless, despite Jonah's ten or so requests for another basket. when our fish arrives, it is clear we didn't know what we were getting into, add though we are all good sports and try to eat the fishes through the skin and some with the heads, it becomes a moment of collective humor ("Was this fish bred in captivity? because I can taste the stress"; "I mean, no disrespect to Israel or their fish, but this fish tastes like they just... cooked it," - Jonah) that becomes community in the most biblical and sincere form of the concept. we bread bread, eat fish and laugh together overlooking the Sea of Galilee. before we can even really handle the fact that we just ate fishes whole or mostly whole, we are shepherded onto a boat and heading out I to the choppy waters. we're all a bit uncertain of our sea legs but Dr. wyrick is solid on his feet. he slings a plastic bag full of extra pieces of pita bread around to us and begins throwing the pieces to the hovering seagulls. there was water flying, people bumping into each other, gulls shrieking for food, and above all else, there was the cacophony of our insatiable laughter. I can't really put into words here why everything was funny or humorous or why we stood up to throw bread to birds on a tiny boat with just shelf-like seats and no handrails or why we kept laughing even after the bread was all gone. It was simply a pure moment of unguarded togetherness and community.
once the boat returned to the dock, we drove to Capernaum and walk through the monastery-owned remains of the first synagogue, Peter's mother-in-law's house and the ruins of the city of Capernaum. the sun is beginning to set, and that only makes the deep shadows in the layered synagogue that much more aged. The whole place felt heavy with wisdom. I wondered what kinds of words of hope and justice had been spoken from the corners? how many times love was expressed? What kind of lessons were preached from the Torah scriptures? I wanted to stay here longer, but we had as window to be baptized in the Jordan River. and that is something you don't pass up. the place that sat neatly in a bend of the river and allowed a safe space to be immersed remained open and operational long enough for nine of us to be rebaptized as the sun settled neatly and gently behind the palm trees and mountain ridge and covered the river and us in lavender light like a soft bed sheet. I am not sure that the reality of today had really sunk into my skin and cracked open my chest. despite this, what a way to start off a tour of Israel? What a way to begin experiencing the holy land by starting in the region Christ grew up. 
tomorrow holds a new set of adventures and jokes (like that one time we were hiking up to the Grotto of Pan and Dr. Wyrick hushes the entire group and we think it's because we're entering a place of worship, but really he's just seen a beaver-looking creature that is native to their area and quite skittish posing on a rock close to us. he pauses for a good moment to photograph the beaver before we continue into lecture and exploration while trying not to laugh too hard) and you will all be asleep as they are happening to me, but I had to share today with you before heading off to bed because sometimes adventures are too big to keep to yourself. 

All is well,