Day 12--Thursday, April 6
Please indulge me with this longer-than-usual post. Thanks.
Today we journey from Jerusalem to Bethlehem, a mere 6 miles away yet a different world in so many ways. Bethlehem is the most Christian populated city currently in Israel. Understand that when someone here says they are Christian and follow Jesus, it may mean nothing more than "I am not Muslim or Jewish." That said, for those Arab Christians who comprise the majority of Bethlehem they are faced with discrimination and difficulty because Bethlehem sits within the central West Bank and under the Palestinian Authority. Within the West Bank exist levels of security, and our tour guide Jacob is not allowed in a high security area like Bethlehem. So, we welcomed a delightful Arab Christian from Palestine named Johnny.
We spent time overlooking shepherds' fields and reflecting with Paul Gostanian on the history of this area near Bethlehem which means "the house of bread." Many years ago these were the fields of Ruth and Boaz (Ruth 1-4). In her story Ruth and Boaz have a son Obed who has a son Jesse who has a son David who would be king. So Bethlehem is called the city of David. We were reminded that Ruth was a Moabite (a despised people). Faith made her part of the genealogy of Jesus. Like her, for us faith is to live as Jesus lives.
Our guide Johnny offered this perspective: "Many here don't know Jesus. God brought the good news through the lowest people on earth because they believed the word of God. The Lamb for the temple; Jesus, the Lamb of God, for us. Pray for Christians to return to Bethlehem. There is no work here because of prejudice, so they move away for work." We then went then into the chapel and sang carols surrounded in wonderful acoustics.
Next we visited a Nativity store run by Arab Christians. They presented Kurt with a silver chalice featuring beautiful craftsmanship. To check out their wares, go to https://www.facebook.com/Bethlehem-Nativity-Store-619699504747180/.
We moved on next to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. This ancient church was first built by emperor Constantine's mother Helena. In my opinion it is quite ornate, perhaps gaudy. The church is shared by leadership from the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Armenians. To learn more, go to http://www.sacred-destinations.com/israel/bethlehem-church-of-the-nativity.
We also paid a visit to The Herodium Palace, the ruler's palace which he favored. Earlier in history the area was significant because of a supernatural intervention by the living God (see 2 Chronicles 20:1-20). God is a God who keeps his promises, who protects his people. To learn more, go to http://www.mfa.gov.il/mfa/israelexperience/history/pages/herodium%20-%20king%20herod-s%20palace-fortress.aspx.
Our final stop of the day was to the Holocaust museum, Yad VaShem, in Bethlehem. To prepare ourselves we read Isaiah 56:5 and considered the significance of God's view of us: we are faces, not numbers. This museum seeks to tell the stories of countless men, women and children who suffered the Nazi regime. Wow. What a moving experience. As I was immersed into the history of evil and tragedy at the hands of the Nazis and it's collaborators, I cannot hold back tears for human beings who have, are, or will suffer undeserved assault. But the horrors of the Holocaust must not be divorced from the millennia of human carnage, all which reveal one simple truth: that same seed of evil exists within each of us and reminds us that, were it not for the merciful intervention by our holy Creator, we would all--myself included--devolve into the base, natural, self-serving thoughts and behaviors that simply echo the murderers, torturers, and despots across the ages. Today I worship my God in the faces of these innocents and pray, "Come, Lord Jesus" (Revelation 22:20 NIV). To learn more, go to http://www.yadvashem.org/.
WHAT DID OUR FATHER TEACH ME TODAY?
God is more awesome than I ever imagined yet He desires intimacy with me as His child. As the trip nears its conclusion, please allow me to be very transparent about my emotions. Today at the holocaust museum I was overwhelmed by the horror. I've seen it before, but today my emotions were very present.
Men are often described as unemotional. I respectfully disagree. In fact, men simply withhold the expression of emotion. And unfortunately when it is acknowledged it is sometimes volcanic and disruptive.
At this season in my life I find that I must learn to acknowledge my emotions to myself and others. For those of you who know me well, you know that I am deeply shy, that I often feel inadequate for words in the moment, that I simply don't have words to express the deep feelings I carry. This is one of the reasons that I have gravitated to writing as an expression of thought. It's good for me.
With all the change I have experienced in my world over the past year, participating in this trip to Israel held promise. I had several very personal goals: 1) lead our group well in the diligent preparation for the trip; 2) do all I can to encourage others; 3) rediscover my joy; and 4) learn again how to be intimate with my heavenly Father and with those I love. As the trip draws to a close, I find myself at peace and amazed at the ways He has met me in these desires.
We have been running at a frantic pace, yet hidden in the journey is the presence of our Lord. He is with us as we read His Word together, and gaze upon a mind-stretching archaeology site, and enjoy the varied brushstrokes of our Creator's work, and learn to care for another as an expression of the sweet Savior we share together.
These are precious moments for those who are privileged to share in an adventure like this. We will never be the same. And we may never see each other again this side of heaven. Yet, even though we begin as acquaintances and strangers, we leave this place brothers and sisters and friends for life. The memories we share. The distance we tolerate. Geography is not king; Jesus is our King.
So, if you have not been privileged to deepen your discipleship by exploring your spiritual roots like this, I urge you to start saving now. Come, Lord Jesus.
For my brothers and sisters on this trip with me:
"I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident in this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.
It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart; for whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God's grace with me. God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.
And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ--to the glory and praise of God."
The apostle Paul's prayer for his friends in Philippi