I didn’t want to go to Israel. Israel is where old church people go to “experience the land of the Bible.” They come back gushing about how the Bible “comes alive” because now you know what the places look like. They feel closer to God because they had communion in the Upper Room. They better understand Jesus’ sacrifice because they’ve walked the Via Dolorosa. Really, even now, that whole mentality makes me slightly nauseous. I know as well as the next person that the top industry in Israel is tourism. I hate tourism, and I’ve been enough places to know that the tourist places are NOT the real place. I’ve also studied enough history to know that most of the places Jesus was at aren’t there anymore.
I did NOT want to go to Israel.
I wanted to go to Russia.
Slava was an exchange student at Bethel for whom I carried a particular soft spot. It’s very difficult to explain Slava. He was joyful, loyal, friendly . . . he had a love of life unlike anyone else I’ve ever met, before or since. And yet he had lived a very difficult life. He had fought in a war. He had lost his father. He had followed Jesus in a Communist country. He loved God immensely, and every day he was to be found in the prayer chapel immersed in the Word. Slava was from Russia, and through him I realized more than ever before how biased history can be. In America we really aren’t taught the beauty of the Russian people, the richness of the Russian culture, the depth of the Russian story. And I wanted to go to Russia. Not Israel. Russia. I was pretty adamant on that point.
Then I took my New Testament class.
It was a Christian school; everyone had to take either Old or New Testament. I would have preferred OT, but it didn’t fit properly into my schedule and I needed to get the Bible requirement out of the way . . . so I could go to Russia. In NT my professor showed us many sections from the “That the World May Know” video series. Essentially, the videos consist of teachings that are recorded in the place where they occurred, expanding understanding of specific Scriptures within the geographical and culture context that encompassed them. The one that I remember was Jesus’ teachings about the Gates of Hell, and his statement that He would build His church on that Rock. (You can read a written version of it here – be sure to click the “next” links at the bottom of the page so you see the whole thing.) I was blown away by the new understanding that Jesus probably didn’t mean that Peter was the actual rock that the church would be built on, by the awareness that Jesus was totally stomping all over the power of Satan, that the idea of the Gates of Hell was much more literal than I had ever imagined, and that this was one of the first (or maybe THE first) calls to Spiritual Warfare. I remember sitting in my seat that night . . . the kind with the desk attached at the side, slightly too small to be comfortable, second row from the front, next-to-last from the right wall, right in front of the television that was on a stand a little too high for my neck. As I sat there staring at the television I felt a tug at my heart, an excitement in my belly, and a great surge of thought. And suddenly (you guessed it) . . .
I wanted to go to Israel.
It sounds a little bit like a conversion story, doesn’t it? In a way, I suppose it is. It’s probably the clearest calling from the Lord that I’ve ever felt. I had no idea what I was in for. At that time, in the Spring of 2001, Israel wasn’t in the news all that much. Everyone was very excited for me. Russia . . . well, that was great, but everyone was still tainted by the Cold War version of American history. Israel, on the other hand . . . well, I’d be walking where Jesus walked, wouldn’t I? Such a Godly way to spend a semester (bleh).
Then, that August, a suicide bomber blew up a Szbarro pizzaria. 15 people died and about 130 were injured. One of the people killed was from New Jersey, so the incident got a ton of press in the US. Suddenly people started asking me if I was sure I wanted to go to Jerusalem. They spoke to me about the richness of Russian culture. My mother asked me tearfully to reconsider. I didn’t, not once. I never felt any fear, not once.
So, shortly after the Szbarro bombing, I started shopping. On Saturday I took stuff I’d be leaving behind to my cheap storage unit, where I found a newborn rat; I will always feel guilty about leaving that tiny pink hairless rodent to die in the dumpster . . . although I have no mercy for it’s mother who thought she’d nest in my stuff. On Sunday I was annointed and prayed over in church. Christine came by my grandparents’ house (where I was living), Sunday night to give me bus money and pray for me. It was such a blessing. I took a nap, then pulled an all-nighter while I packed and packed and packed. I never thought it would be so much work to try to pack three months of supplies into a suitcase (spacebags are magic!) and a rubbermaid container (which, incidentally, are fantastic for this kind of packing – although I recommend the kind that has wheels). Then Rachel came to get me on Monday to run me to the airport. I was running so late and had to leave. I had no time to finish picking up after myself. I hastily scribbled a note to my Grandma apologizing for the mess as best as I could (sorry again!). And out the door we went.
It was August 27, 2001.
Thanks to my all-nighter and having all 3 seats to myself on the flight to Paris, I fell asleep before we took off and the flight attendant had to wake me up when everyone else had left the plane. I only woke up for about 30 minutes to eat. Shrek was on; I’d never seen it before and, in my groggy fog, thought it a little creepy and a lot stupid. Therefore, I arrived in Paris at 6am for my planned 36-hour layover fully rested. I do recommend, however, that if you’re on that long of a flight you get up periodically and walk around. Otherwise, your feet swell up and it’s VERY painful to walk around a city for a whole day. After a day and a night in Paris I got on another airplane for a short 3-hour flight over the Alps to Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. I joined up with all the other lost-looking white people about my age, we piled most uncomfortably into a sherut (basically a van that’s a cross between a bus and a taxi), and off we went to our adventure at Jerusalem University College.
Little did we know that we had no clue.
We knew we would be changed, but I don’t know if we knew we would be transformed. We (at least the girls) harbored hopes that we would meet our true loves; three marriages actually did come out of that group. We knew we would make friends, but I don’t know if we expected to make family. We knew we would be studying and traveling and visiting; I don’t think we expected to grow a permanent Jerusalem-sized hole in our lives that would be with us for always. We knew we’d be learning a lot about the Bible; I don’t know that we planned to have our understanding of life in the Middle East turned upside down.
It wasn’t this way for all of us, but it was for me and I know it was for any who allowed it to be. And it’s difficult to explain. It’s not that it’s “where Jesus lived;” that was actually far from the most impacting factor for me. It’s that there were so few of us in so strange a place at such a pivotal point in our lives and in the world . . . and we shared it only with each other. We were stretched and molded and challenged and grown in ways we never imagined . . . if we let God do His thing. Because of the growing unrest we were the smallest group JUC had had in years, and I have no doubt that God hand-picked each and every one of us.
It’s been 10 years and 8 days since that first sherut ride. I always find myself feeling homesick for Israel this time of year, but this year more than most. I wish we were all rich so we could fly back with our families for a reunion, but alas! Most of us are involved in low-paying people-focused careers for which our greatest compensations are largely non-material. So to make my tribute I’d like to spend some time re-treading those months here, sharing portions of my journals and papers and emails with you.
And just think . . . I didn’t want to go.