If I don’t try to write this down, I may never sort it out. The first sermon I preached after my return from Israel started this way: “A pastor, five Englishmen and a Frenchman walk into the desert…” I said I didn’t know the punchline. But in reality, this is how the story ends: “Ten days later, the Englishmen and the Frenchman emerged. But not the pastor. The pastor is gone.” Someone different emerged from the desert.
I went to Israel to….I don’t know. It’s been a long-time desire. Every Christian wants to go to the Holy Land. But I didn’t want to do the schlocky tourist tour. I wanted to experience it in a deeper more intuitive way. So I signed up for a bird tour with Wings. I believed it would take me to all the natural places, so I might experience what Jesus experienced of the land. Sounds like a good idea, right? It was. But I don’t know what I was expecting. I guess I had no expectations. A blank slate. Then there was all the drama with Centa this winter, and I didn’t think I’d be able to go. But it resolved faster than I thought it would, so I confirmed the tour in January.
I will be honest in this writing. Brutally honest. I started praying well ahead of the trip that God would prepare the hearts of those I would be traveling with to receive me, as a friend, and that I would receive them too. I hoped a friendship might come out of it. I thought an Englishman would be perfect – far enough away that I wouldn’t have to deal with the inevitable physical aspects of a romance, but close enough through email and facebook that maybe, just maybe I could experience some emotional intimacy with someone. Maybe unrealistic, but that was my hope. Other than that, I was just simply open for an adventure and excited to do some birding.
The flight over was uneventful, but it was in the midst of the Malaysian Jet mystery, so Mom was worried about potential terrorism, and Israel was ramping up its security. I didn’t sleep much on the flight; maybe 2 or 3 hours. The only issue on the flight was a belligerent passenger — drunk or high, having hallucinations in the middle of the night. The pilot got involved…not sure of the outcome but there was a “security delay” at the gate when we arrived.
I had a five hour delay, waiting for Paul French (our guide) and the rest of the group to arrive. I charged my phone, had some coffee, ate a pretzel, and finished going through the list, looking up all the potential birds we might see. Time dragged. But eventually, I knew their flight was in, so I watched the arrivals. I recognized Paul immediately, and I called to him. We smiled - I think at how easy the meet-up was. We met and shook hands, then he went off to find a SIM card and another member of the group. I introduced myself to John, Graham, Matt and Roger. John was awkward; he didn’t even tell me his name — he seemed sort of stunned. Graham was instantly friendly, with a nice sense of humor. Roger was cordial, and Matt was sweet but old – I’d guess in his eighties; he reminded me a little of a Vicar of Dibley character. Paul returned with Bernard, a lovely Frenchman, and we went off to find our van. It was after 5:00 in the afternoon by the time we started driving.
Immediately, I was struck by the physicality of being there. It was no longer a theoretical place. It was very, very real. As we drove southeast out of Tel Aviv, I realized immediately, that I had already likely crossed the path of Jesus, as he and his parents fled to Egypt. The Bible doesn’t say how they made that trip…maybe they headed due west out of Bethlehem to the coast of the Mediterranean, and then headed south to Egypt from there. Or maybe they took a more direct route, through the heart of the Negev.
Thinking of Jesus in these concrete, physical ways changed everything immediately. He was not a character in a story. Not an actor in a movie. He was a real man. His feet left footprints in the sand. I was seeing the landscape he saw. Smelling the same scents, hearing the same bird calls. I encountered Jesus, the man, that night.