Thursday, May 28, 2009

40 Years of Wandering, and Other Desert Thoughts

My first wilderness camping experience is officially complete.

We just spent 2 nights and one full day in Machtesh Ramon, a giant crater of miles of desert. We got a later-than-ideal start our first day, so it was long about 10 pm (and well past dark) when we first approached our destination. Before descending into the depression, we stopped along the road and climbed up to the top of a lookout to gaze into the dark nothingness below. It felt like standing at the edge of the earth. (except when our eyes adjusted to the darkness and we saw the lights from cars on the road far below...which looked a lot like alien hovercrafts. at least, what I imagine them to look like.)

We then hopped back into the car and drove slowly down the narrow switch-back road until we reached the bottom. We drove for awhile, not really sure where we would stop and sleep. But as luck, or perhaps divine providence, would have it, we took the second turn we saw (where's the adventure in taking the first turn?) and ended up at a campground of sorts. We parked in the lot and then walked over a hill for a bit until we found a nice flat plot of sandy earth, and laid out the blanket to sleep on. After we cooked up some stew, we laid down under the vast desert sky to sleep. I've never slept under the open sky before, nor have I ever seen so many stars. I felt very insignificant, yet very alive at the same time.

The next morning we woke under the desert sun, packed up our bags, and headed off into the desert in the direction of a large mountain that looked fun to hike. Somewhere near the base of the mountain, Amy decided this was a good place to just stop and read for the day, so we built her a lean-to shelter out of a sheet and some sticks, and Barrett, Brian and I continued onward. When we got to the base of the ascent, we realized the way up was much less stable than what it looked like from afar. Among the few stable rocks were many loose ones that crumbled beneath our feet and created rock avalanches with wrong steps. Yet, we continued onward. To make myself feel better, I started singing "On Christ the solid rock I stand, all other ground is sinking sand"...which suddenly took on more meaning. After spending time at the top (just enough for pictures, as it was now noon and the heat of the day was wearing on us), we descended, which proved to be more precarious than the ascent - but with careful maneuvering, we made it to the bottom breathing sighs of both relief and exhaustion. The experience that we were looking for - of thirst and heat in the wilderness - was beginning to take hold.

We sought shelter in the one bit of shade we could find - next to a large boulder at the base of the cliff. Feeling thirsty and worn out, we discussed the significance of the theme of water in the Bible. What would it mean to live out here in the days when you couldn't just fill up a Camel Bak and go out hiking for the day? What would it mean to live in a place where for months, there was not a single drop of rain? Although there is no rain in Israel now, and there won't be until about November, we aren't completely in the throes of summer - so there are still the occasional clouds in the daytime. There were some brief clouds that passed overhead as we huddled in the shade next to the rock, and I remarked aloud to the boys that even that small respite from the sun's heat brought such relief. And I imagined being an Israelite in October, when she saw the first cloud she had seen in months, and her body and soul yearned for the coming rains. Only in a context such as this does one realize what it truly means to depend on God to send the rains, and only with this understanding does Christ as the "living water" take on true significance.

I remember learning some about this concept when I studied in Israel two years ago. It is interesting to study the water theme in light of John 7. The context is this: the Feast of Tabernacles (Sukkot) is going on, which is an 8 day festival during which time the Jews cry out to God for water. It is late in the summer, when the land has been dry for 5-6 months, and the cisterns of the people are down to only the mucky water at the bottom. Imagine the scene: on the last day of this festival, the "greatest day of the feast," Jesus stands up and says, 'If anyone is thirsty, let him come to ME and drink. Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within him.'" What an image! It was this profoundly relevant statement that must have lead the people to declare, "Surely this man is the Prophet."

At any rate...after our rest near the rock while talking about water and trying to rehydrate ourselves, we set out to find Amy. This proved to be a much more difficult task than we had imagined. Out in the desert wilderness, everything looks the same. We wandered, hot and tired, over endless hills and sandy dunes. Each one of us had a different idea about where we might have left her. ("We should have left a trail of breadcrumbs.") We backtracked several times, changed directions, and climbed to the high points to try and spot her with our camera zooms. After about an hour of fruitless searching, I started thinking about the Israelites wandering in the Sinai desert for 40 years. The trip from Egypt to Canaan should not have taken anywhere near 40 years. While it is true that God had a hand in the confusion that lead the Israelites to wander for such a preposterously long time, I could definitely see how it could happen. It is easy enough to be confused by the landscape itself, let alone when your reasoning becomes clouded by the heat and thirst.

Well, we did eventually find Amy (and before dark even!), we trekked back to the campsite, and made dinner. We also made friends with some Bedouins there and sat on the floor of their tent drinking tea from a cast iron pot over an open flame, trying to converse in broken Arabic and broken English. The day ended with us building a fire of our own, reading aloud until the fire died, and then falling asleep under a vast sky of shooting stars.

And now some pictures from our stay in Machtesh:

(Barrett sitting at our "campsite")

(what we climbed)

(the ascent)

(the terrain)

(me at the Machtesh overlook, earlier today)

And here are some pictures from the other day at Wadi Qelt:

(seeing Jericho - finally!)

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Into the Wilderness.

Today we continue our courtship with the Israeli wilderness.

Two days ago, we hiked the Wadi Qelt (Ascent of Adummim), which is the road Jesus was referring to in the story of the Good Samaritan (15 miles from Jerusalem to Jericho). It should be noted that the word "road" does not connote the landscape at all. Rather, the hike brings you from climbing over boulders and through bamboo reeds and wading through streams, to trekking through the barren mountain land of the desert where the only sign of life is the occasional Bedoiun settlement, to navigating a winding path along the edge of jagged terra rosa cliffs. (don't worry, I intend to post pictures soon). To be sure, the task of the good Samaritan to carry out a severly beaten man from this terrain was not an easy one.

Today, we are heading into Machtesh Ramon, or "The Grand Canyon of Israel." It is a vast depression in the earth, right smack dab in the middle of the desert. We will be camping and hiking there for 2 days (returning Thursday evening). I've never done anything like this and it will surely be an adventure! I will post an update when we return.

For now, time is limited as we have the last-minute camping details to attend to. I hope you all are well and I'll touch base again when we return to civilization!


Monday, May 25, 2009

"I Get By With a Little Help From My Friends."

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Today Barrett, Brian, and I hiked up the Mount of Olives. But before we did so, we went to the Garden of Gethsemane and the Church of All Nations at the bottom of the Mount. Inside the church is the stone upon which Jesus supposedly prayed in the garden right before he was taken to be crucified. Written on the altar before the stone is the narrative: Matthew 26:36-46. While reading it, I was really struck for the first time by this fact: Jesus really wanted his friends with him. And praying for him. This part is especially poignant: "Then he said to them, 'My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.'" And then, Jesus goes back to the disciples with him three times to make sure they are up and praying for him, supporting him.

I think when I've read this passage before, I've either focused on the fact that Peter, James and John were really crappy friends, or on the words Jesus was praying. But today I reflected on the idea that despite the fact that Jesus' friends ultimately failed him, it was really important that in his moment of deepest anguish he had people there supporting him and covering him in prayer. Even Jesus, the Son of God, knew it was better not to do the hard things alone.

This is not to negate the importance of solitude or the power of a single person's prayer. But how much more power is there when we are united together in the will of God? In the orthodox Jewish tradition, communal prayer must consist of a quorum (10 people), and no less than that. However, Jesus comes along and says, "Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am with them." So it seems that while the number of people gathering together does not need to be a strict number, such as ten, it is still good - even preferable - when believers pray together.

And, I have to say, along with the encouragement from this passage about the power of unified prayer, it is also encouraging just to know that companionship in itself is to be highly regarded. Because it is not even until Jesus goes back to his disciples that he asks them to pray. He first just says, "Stay here and keep watch with me." As someone who is always happiest sharing life with people, I resonate with this sentiment completely.

So maybe Jesus would like the Beatles song: "With a Little Help From My Friends."

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Shabbat Shalom.

(Disclaimer: I typed this post last night but only had time to upload it just now. Today's adventures will come at a time when there is not a line of people at the hostel waiting to use the one computer!)

Waking up in Israel is wonderful.

This morning my eyes popped open wide awake at 7:30 am (jet lag, anyone?) to the whizzing and honking of cars passing by the Jerusalem street right outside the window. I spent the next hour and a half leisurely reading Chaim Potok’s book “The Gift of Asher Lev,” while waiting for Cyndi’s shower water to get warm (it’s run on solar power and takes a while to heat up. This is Israel, after all). Finally at 9 o’clock I grew restless from waiting and braved the cold water. This was…exhilarating. At least I was awake!

Not long after 10 am, I left the apartment and headed down Hebron Road toward Jaffa
Gate and Barrett’s hostel. Only one word can be used to describe the feeling: contentment. I reveled in the warmth and sunlight and the fact that I know where to go and how to get around in Jerusalem! Barrett has already been here for two weeks and was remarking to me on the phone the other day how strange it is that things here are familiar. I find this to be true, as well. Rather than exuberant wonder and amazement around every corner, it feels more like quiet peace. And like being home.

The first thing Barrett and I did was go up on the roof of his hostel with Brian, his friend and hostel roommate, and drink Arabic tea in the sunshine while looking out on the city. We also planned our tentative schedule for this trip, which includes several desert hikes and camping expeditions (one hike 15 miles!), a day at the Mediterranean, and 5 days camping in Galilee. To name a few. After this leisurely start to the day, Brian left to write a paper, and Barrett and I went to walk around the Old City. Again I was immersed in the vibrancy of Old City Jerusalem: the colors, the fragrances, the languages. Every stone corridor a delight to the senses. We visited some of our favorite locales: the fresh bread shop in the Christian quarter; the falafel stand at Damascus gate; “Shorashim,” the Jewish shop owned by Dov and Moshe, two Zionist Canadian brothers who always have time to talk and Jewish lessons to share. It was only Moshe there today, and Barrett and I spent several minutes with him discussing items in the shop and our traveling agenda. Moshe gave us the welcome advice to build a fire when we camp in the desert (to keep away the scorpions, of course). Also, apparently if you get bitten, you can use half a tomato to suck out the venom. “And then you should seek help,” Moshe added, “just in case.” Of course, I found out later that fires attract Camel Spiders, which, unlike scorpions, are actually poisoness. Hm…bring on the scorpions??

Later, Brian and Josh joined us and we went into the City of David. One VERY cool thing is that recently they have excavated what they believe to be the palace of David. This area wasn’t available to see when I was last here, but now you can see a good bit of it! I may or may not have climbed over the gate to sit on one of the walls of the palace and get my picture taken.

However, by far the highlight of the day was Shabbat dinner. Barrett, Brian, Josh, and I bought food (challah bread, pita, hummus, oranges, meat, cheese) and wine (a red Merlot from Galilee) and spread a blanket out on the grass next to the old city wall. Dusk was falling and Shabbat was settling over the city. On the other side of the wall, vendors were closing up shop, and Hasidic Jews in tallit, kippas, and headcoverings were preparing to go dance the night away at the Western Wall. We took the Greek Orthodox candles Barrett had purchased earlier in the day and pushed them into the earth around our blanket. As is Shabbat custom, the woman must light the candles. Well…I tried. However, a wind was blowing, and after 5 used matches and no lighted candles, we decided the effort had been sufficient. Candle fail.

Barrett read to us from Psalm 112, we recited the Hebrew blessing over the bread and wine, and then toasted the wine in our plastic cups (“La Cha’im! To Life!”). We then enjoyed a lovely dinner as the sun set and the lights began to pop from the hill on the other side of the Hinnom Valley. After eating, Barrett lit his pipe and he and I puffed on that for awhile as we all discussed theology. Then the boys laid down on the blanket and I read to them from a chapter of Lauren Winner’s book “Girl Meets God.” When that was done, I laid down on the blanket too, and we gazed up at the stars, discussing different faith traditions and the speeds of satellite orbits.

Barrett and I ended the day with one of my favorite Jerusalem pastimes: walking around the city looking at the lights, and remarking to each other with happy sighs, “Hey, we’re in Jerusalem.”

Did I mention it’s wonderful to be back?

And now for some pictures:

(Drinking tea on the roof of the hostel)

(near the Western Wall)

(walking in the Old City)

(with David's palace!)

(Shabbat dinner)

A Short One.

Hello everyone!

Sorry it has taken me a few days to get on here... the days are full of adventures, and internet opportunities are few. However, I did spend some time writing on a non-internet computer last night, and I will upload that entry as soon as I can (probably later today). Today we are spending a second day in Jerusalem (probably hiking the Mount of Olives), and then tomorrow we are going on a 15 mile hike to Jericho! (The "Ascent of Adummim" or "Wadi Qelt".) I hope you all are well, and again, I will post something more substantial soon.

Shalom from Yerushalayim!


Friday, May 8, 2009

The First.

Let me start by saying that blogging is uncharted territory for me. This is mainly due to my mistrust of the medium: I find that pouring out one's soul in a detached electronic manner can often become a replacement for authentic personal interaction. However, in preparation for my upcoming trip back to Israel - a land I love more than words can say - I thought I would give this whole blogging thing a try. This way, you - my friends and family - can be involved in where I'm going and what I'm learning. I can't make any promises, but I will try my best to be diligent in making regular posts from the Holy Land. goes nothing!

(p.s. The image above is the inspiration for the title of this blog. The picture was taken at Masada when I was in Israel in 2006. The sign says, "Rebels' Dwellings." I find it fitting for a number of reasons, not the least of which is the fact that I now drive a Honda Rebel motorcycle.)