For our final morning, we got another early start (no surprise there!) and a box breakfast to go. In truth, the early morning regimen grew on me. It caused me to remember how much I like the beginning of the day. Since coming home and resuming my “normal” schedule, I’ve continued to wake up early without the help of an alarm clock. I’ve been using the time to go for a walk/jog. We’ve had a spectacular spring migration here in New Jersey, and every morning brought delightful new little visitors to my yard and my neighborhood. I would have missed them had I stayed in bed. It’s one of those life-giving activities I will pursue. Staying in bed, while comfortable, is life-draining... the path that leads to death, not life.
I sat up front in the van with Paul again, ostensibly to help “navigate” as we drove to the Mediterranean coast for one last chance at gulls. I didn’t help very much with navigating, but I really enjoyed the conversation in the front seat. We went to the fishponds at Ma’agen Michael and got Armenian Gulls and a Caspian Gull, which appeased the gents a little. We also had a really good look at a mongoose. We had 206 total species on the trip...though we saw tens of thousands of birds passing through. I personally added 150 species to my life list.
So then it was back to the airport in Tel Aviv. While there’s no doubt in my mind that Paul played some sort of role in “waking me up” in Israel, after a quick hug and “thanks for a great tour” he unceremoniously dropped me off at the airport. And I was on my own... again.
I had eleven hours to kill before my flight took off for Philadelphia. Prior to the trip I had arranged for a private tour guide to take me to Jerusalem for the day. I paid dearly for this, but thought it would be worth it, as I could not leave my luggage unattended at the airport. I found Shalom Wiseman easily in the Arrival Hall, and we loaded my suitcase and carry-on into the trunk of his car and headed east toward Jerusalem; about an hour’s drive.
We approached the Old City from the north — from the Mount of Olives. It affords a beautiful view. On the way down into the Kidron Valley (which runs north-south between the Mount of Olives and the eastern wall of the Temple Mount) we got into a test of wills with a Palestinian driver. Shalom would not budge when he met a car coming the opposite direction up the narrow street. The street was maybe 10 feet wide, with high stone walls on either side. The Palestinian driver got out of his car to confront Shalom, who rolled down his window, but never said a word. The other man was furious yelling and gesturing at Shalom and at me: he screamed in rage. It attracted a lot of attention and others came out to try and get Shalom to move; but he held his ground. It was unnerving, to say the least. In the end Shalom won, the other man backed up enough for us to pass and we proceeded on. We parked up the hill on the east side of the old city, and entered through a gate. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it was not the highlight of the trip... just the opposite. Shalom took me to the Garden Tomb – precisely the sort of tourist attraction I had tried hard to avoid, and successfully up until that point. The guides tried to conjure feelings of awe in the visiting faithful. They tried to convince us that the place looked like a scull – in Matthew it says, “They came to a place called Golgotha (which means "the place of the skull").” It was a practiced pitch, but it was all wrong. It was low, in a valley, not high as Golgotha was supposed to be – a place plainly visible to travelers. The tomb was not adjacent to the place where he was crucified — it was just wrong. I had to leave...I couldn’t stay for the whole spiel.
Here’s what I wrote in my journal that night on the plane:
Jerusalem was hard. I think maybe after wandering in the wilderness for ten days, it was too much. Chaos—loud, tacky, noisy, crowded. There were horns honking, bullhorns bellowing , people arguing— it reminded me of the money-changer scene from Matthew 21:12. I found nothing holy about it. My prayer at the wall was tearful — but a prayer of thanks— it poured out of me. Like the night looking for Nubian Nightjars, I cried through most of Jerusalem. My guide was an old, argumentative man – he didn’t know what to make of me, so he yammered on, mostly about Jewish history and politics.
Thus far, my trip to Israel had been about intuitively connecting to the Holy Land and the place where Jesus walked and lived. This quick tour to Jerusalem was a mistake. It was overwhelming, given what I had experienced out in the wilderness. I shut down, and hid behind my sunglasses. I didn’t engage Shalom, I didn’t even hear after a while. Strange, how again, I found myself crying as we walked the narrow subterranean streets. It couldn’t have ended soon enough for me.
Since we still had time, Shalom suggested we go to Bethlehem before returning to Tel Aviv, and I could visit the Church of the Nativity. I thought this was a good idea until I realized the church is in Palestinian territory. Shalom drove to an intersection as far as he, an Israeli, was allowed to go. We were met there by a Palestinian in a van. Shalom explained that I would be driven to the church where I would have a private Palestinian guide. Then I would have a chance to shop, and after that, he would meet me again on the other side of the border crossing. It didn’t feel right, and I didn’t like leaving my luggage in his car. Nevertheless, I found myself getting into a van with a Palestinian who didn’t speak English with nothing but my wallet and passport. Looking back on the experience, it might have been the stupidest thing I’ve ever done.
We drove silently through the narrow streets of Bethlehem and stopped to pick up my “tour guide” who spoke a little English, but he was stern and not friendly. It was late in the day, after 6:00 p.m. and the Church was nearly empty when we arrived. There were only a handful of other people there. We descended to the supposed site of the manger, where a priest was leading a mass with a handful of nuns. Under normal circumstances, I would have had to wait in line for hours to get into this tight place. My guide impatiently directed me to take photos of the place where Jesus was born, the manger and the altar where the magi left their gifts.
I was still overwrought, and not entirely certain how the affair would turn out. But this became clear as soon as the driver brought me to “Johnny’s Souvenir Shop.” Shalom had told them that I was a pastor who would likely return with my entire congregation some day...so I was given the red-carpet treatment: greeted by the owner, shown all the expensive gold jewelry, the expensive olive-wood carvings, the jewelry again, etc. I was relieved they were only after my money. I hadn’t bought a single gift or souvenir the entire trip, so I spent $300 on assorted gifts and a small, gold Jerusalem cross for myself and everyone was happy. They were satisfied. I was relieved.
My driver took me back to the border check-point, which was an enormous facility for Palestinian workers who come and go every day. At 7:00 p.m. it was deserted, and I had trouble finding anyone to even look at my passport. Shalom called me while I was wandering (yet again) in the wilderness of the border crossing. That was kind of him. He was waiting for me outside, as he had promised. In actuality, Shalom was a nice man, though I didn’t give him much of a chance. He was political, argumentative, and overly assertive, but he looked after me. Perhaps he realized I was struggling. The best thing I took from my time with him was an iPhone app called WAZE — it’s a community-based traffic and navigation app. I’ve used it continuously since I’m home.
The world-famous, tight security at the Tel Aviv airport was a non-issue for me. I made it to the gate with an hour to spare. Once aboard the plane, I relaxed enough to find I couldn’t keep eyes open any longer. I was exhausted and I slept soundly for several hours — a first for me while on a plane.
On touching down in Philly in the pre-dawn light, I knew everything had changed. I would never be the same again.