Thursday, January 7, 2016


Balcony to my room #404

This week marks 20 years since I left to live in Israel for the 6-month winter semester.  

At 15, I saw a framed photograph of the BYU Jerusalem Center in Professor Ray Huntington's office at Provo High School.  And as cheesy as it sounds, something in that stunning building with the stone arches called to me.

I knew in that moment I'd go.

New Testament Class - Dr. David Whitechurch

Fast forward to the evening of January 9th, 1996 - now 19 and a sophomore at BYU. After spending the past year working through applications, essays, interviews, and one huge lucky draw, I found myself on a plane with 90 students, waiting on an icy tarmac at JFK airport.  Our flight to Tel Aviv had been delayed by 9...10...15 hours - I can't remember.  It was miserable.  We all smelled.  We still had 10+ hours to go.  And we all prayed our allowable, single piece of luggage for the next 6 months had made it safely into the cargo beneath us.  

When the plane engines finally flared and we started racing down the runway, I had U2's Where the Streets Have No Name on my headset, and I honestly wanted to throw my hands up and cheer!  That song became my Israel anthem.    

I'd never been so excited in my life!!

Palm Sunday

Round About Entrance to the Jerusalem Center

Center Gardens

Truly, the entire experience was one of the most amazing times of my life.  

And every little moment felt surreal - like the day I finished midterms early and took a taxi to Bethlehem for the afternoon.  And the day a group of us rented rusted-old bikes and spent hours biking along the Nile countryside in Luxor.  Or the afternoon I finally swam out into the Sea of Galilee as far as I was allowed before getting into trouble with my professors.  


I miss so many things.  Like jogging in the early AM hours on the Mount of Olives over to Mount Scopus while watching the sunrise.  I miss the food at the Center and the kind Palestinian workers who always packed our lunches with cucumbers, tomatoes and pita sandwiches.  I miss the street vendor right inside Damascus Gate who sold the best falafel and hummus in existence.  I miss Aladdin - our money changer.  I particularly miss walking in the Old City - including the smells, the markets, the olive wood.  And I miss seeing the devotion of Sabbath observance every Friday night - the mass preparation at Machane Yehuda Street.  I also miss dancing on Ben Yehuda street with strangers to celebrate the Sabbath ending on Saturday nights.  

"To the right is the Nile.  And to the left is the Nile"

Downtown Luxor

Nile along Luxor

I don't miss the Haredi Jews with their constant disapproval and their shunning of me whenever I walked past.  I don’t miss the film developer at Hebrew University who lost my pictures from Egypt.    

I don't miss having to find 2 friends every time I wanted to go somewhere.  I don’t miss the rooms we shared in Nuwayba where the showers had live, electric wires going through the heads.  

And finally, I don't miss celebrating Ramadan, which equaled one straight month with no mail delivery!!  (aka one month of not hearing from Greg).

Old City
Damascus Gate - my favorite entrance to the Old City

Dad and me in April - right before I left for Jordan.

The hardest part of the experience was my personal spiritual growth.

That sounds minor, but for me it wasn't.  

It was a rocky path that took longer than I thought it would.  I've never questioned the legitimacy of Jesus Christ before - but I did in Jerusalem - many, many times.  Our classes were structured to study the material at the Center, followed by a field trip to the physical site where I found myself constantly asking, "Do I really believe this happened?  Or is this whole thing just legend?"  

I believe there comes a point to everyone - regardless of being Jew, Muslim, Mormon, Agnostic, etc. - where you have to ask yourself if you sincerely believe what you're doing.  And you either strengthen your conversion or you walk away.  

I didn't walk away.
Luke 3:17

A few items from my time in Israel that I keep close -

#1- My scriptures.  I ditched my seminary scriptures and asked my parents to get me a new set for Christmas before I left.  When I got to Jerusalem, I started fresh and wrote EVERYTHING down - all my insights, feelings, dates, locations etc.  Subsequently, I cherish my scriptures!  I will never get another set.  

#2 - Mt. Sinai rock.  The top of Mt. Sinai is extremely significant to me - spiritually speaking.  It represents a huge chunk of my relationship with God.  Which meant I had to get something tangible from the top.  Not a pebble.  Not sand.  I wanted a mini boulder - and the moment the sun rose at the summit, I found it.  I had to lug the thing all the way back down the mountain and fortunately the Israeli Customs Office asked no questions when they found it in my pack.  But I LOVE my Sinai rock!! I keep it on a shelf in my closet with the rest of my brick & rock collections.  It's been tremendously comforting over the years to wrap my hands around that rock and feel those rough edges when I'm stressing over something.  It's a steady reminder of foundational truths.  

(I've told Greg to bury me with it - because nobody is going to care about it the way I do.) 

#3 - My nativity set.  After months of begging my favorite olive wood merchant, he finally agreed to let me break up several of his nativity sets to create my own.  I didn't like any of the pre-formed groups.  I was very particular.  The set I created is very dear to me - each piece, face and age is a different, sincere representation of a soul coming to Christ.



Am I pro-Israeli or pro-Palestinian?  

I'm both.  Fiercely so.  

My BYU Jerusalem Director (Kaye Hansen) knew what she was doing.  In the morning we all had class with Rabbi Rosen and we'd go to lunch thinking the Israeli cause was completely justified and sound.  After lunch we'd have afternoon lectures with Brother Nazzal (our Palestinian professor).  And by dinner we were speechless.  Stunned.  Humbled  And slowly, slowly we began to realize that peace would never come easy.

Nothing has changed in 20 years.

Old Jaffa

Center Gardens

U2's Where The Streets Have No Name is a big Jerusalem song for me.  

So is Martin Page's The Door - particularly because I found my own version of "Hannah" at Yad Vashem.  And then I met her and her husband at a Kibbutz in Northern Israel months later. 

Slowly round, the raven flies.  Scours the trees where they hide.  
The beast he threatens, "You won't survive!"  
She raises her fist and whispers in her sleep, "I am gonna live... I am gonna live."   

But my favorite piece from that time is Peter Breinholt's Jerusalem.  

I spent many precious nights on my deck - wrapped in the malong Greg sent me from Cebu to keep warm - watching the sunset over the Old City while listening to these lyrics.   

Dome of the Rock

Now the men will bargain as they sell beneath the light...

I've never been so worn and weary...

I cannot forget the things I saw...

Somewhere there is singing in a choir in the light...

But it's quiet in Jerusalem tonight... 

Shepherds Field

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