Thursday, December 25, 2014

Looking for Angel Footprints

Our Shepherds' field in Beit Sahour was one of two competing for the attention of pilgrims from all over the world last night on Christmas Eve. We squeezed between tourist coaches and rough-hewn rock walls, skirted the enterprising souvenir hawkers, and wandered past groups of worshipers in outdoor chapels lining the walkway. 

Many of these groups had booked their spots months before, and priests in attendance checked their printed schedules as Christmas Carols in many different languages filled the chilly night air.   The lights of Bethlehem glistened on the hilltop to our east as we settled down on a patch of grass just off the pathway.  Across the valley, thousands were starting to stream into Bethlehem’s Manger Square, but here in the fields, we finally found a quiet nook, sheltered from the glow of neon angles on top of the light poles.

“Somewhere right around here,” I told our group of kids, “is where it all happened!”  I read the story from the glow of my trusty BlackBerry:

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.” 

“What do you think?  Do you think we can find angel footprints in the field anywhere?”
As some of the younger kids started to look furtively around in the dirt, a sage five-year-old piped up.

“There won’t be any angel footprints!”  “Why not?” I asked.  “Because the angels were flying, of course!”

She was probably right.  Of course, we can’t tell for sure that the angels never touched down in the grass next to where we were sitting.  But Luke tells us that when they were done, the angelic messenger and his heavenly choir went off into heaven… and it’s reasonable to assume that’s the direction they flew in from as well!  

Delivering a message?  That they were fine with.  Scaring the wits out of a grungy gang of shepherds and their sheep was kind of their thing.  I'm sure they had excellent harmony as well – they certainly got a lot of practice!  But the one thing they didn’t do?  Spend a whole lot of time with this group of herders and their livestock.  After all – they wouldn't want to sully their heavenly vestments with sheep doo-doo.  Deliver the message and head back up to heaven – that was their mission.

Once their heart rates had returned to normal, the shepherds gathered up their cloaks and staffs, corralled the sheep and stumbled up the hill toward the lights of Bethlehem.  And there in a rough barn, surrounded by animals and tucked in a food trough, they discovered the start of a very different kind of mission.

The Prince of Heaven, here with us.  To stay for a while.  The “first-born of every creature,” born in a stable and wrapped in rough cloths.  “The word” learning to form his first words with human lips.  Raised by a carpenter and his young wife.  Growing up in a dusty village, and living under an occupying army.  Playing.  Learning.  Feeling… pain, comfort, disappointment, betrayal.  The Creator of the universe, spending a season of time not only with His own creation, but as his own creation.  Jesus wasn't content to fly around in the sky and scare shepherds – staying safely removed from the odd mess that humankind tends to be.  He wanted to lay down footprints on the very same dusty trails as us.  To help Earth be close to God again.  To close the gap between God and man. 

Immanuel.  That's the miracle of Christmas.  “God with us.”  In the words of our favorite Christmas video this year, “They won’t be expecting that!”

Signing off at the close of this Christmas season from the Shepherds’ fields – just a frantic midnight run away from Bethlehem.

Kevin – for the Rubesh Family

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Exploring the Galilee

With two rare days off from work turning a normal weekend into a "Jad and Dad Birthday getaway weekend," we packed up the minivan and headed to "The North."  

First stop was the Bat Yar Ranch in the heart of the Biriya Forest in the mountains above Galilee.  Driving up mountain roads through the pine forest, we felt a little like we were back in the Pacific Northwest.  Advertising paintball, horse riding, ropes course and "forest bowling," the place looked great on the web.  

What the website didn't mention is this important fact.  All of the above: closed during the winter.  Undeterred, we explored the grounds to see what we were missing.  Perhaps a summer visit would be a little more fun, but given the thick layer of disuse covering just about everything at the place, we had our doubts. 

So - we settled for lunch in the very tasty restaurant (you can choose to eat inside or in a covered wagon) and a spent couple moments whispering to the horses before continuing our journey.


Our home in the North was the Kibbutz Inbar - a family friendly inn with basic accommodations, a hearty vegetarian breakfast each morning, and (most importantly), friendly tree-climbing dogs to play with.

Dogs in trees!

Inbar is within convenient spitting distance of the Sea of Galilee and the northern Mediterranean coast, so we "spat" a lot - with day trips to Akko (Acre), Tiberius and spots in between.

One of our favorites was the Crusader Port city of Akko, where we explored a tunnel built by the Templar Knights, an ancient Citadel, a fascinating marketplace and cannons to climb on!

The ancient harbor where crusader knights disembarked in the Holy Land



We finished up the day in Akko with a fabulous feast of a dinner with friends at a restaurant overlooking the ocean as the sun went down.

The girls explore the tide pools

Lots more photos of a fabulous day in Akko here.

After Akko, the next day's visit to the town of Tiberius on the shore of the Galilee was a disappointment.  It had the feeling of a "tourist town" which had seen much better days.  

A great intro to the "North" - I can't wait to go back!

Tomb Raiders

If you've ever had a hankering to play a real life Indiana Jones, exploring dark and dusty crypts and catacombs, the Bet She'arim National Park may be just the ticket for you.  

 This place was downright spooky in places.  The park marks the spot of the ancient Jewish town of Bet She'arim from the second century AD.  After a popular Rabbi and head of the Sanhedrin was buried here, it became one of the most important burial grounds in the region.

Cautioned not to "roll stones" and to "beware of snakes and scorpions", we headed underground.

The original marble sarcophogi have long since been pillaged, but carved stone ones remain...

... along with a body or three in one spot

As we explored deep into the largest of the underground caverns, the outside world faded away and the dim light from the entrance made for great "scare your family" opportunities.

More photos here if you're interested.  Oh, and in case you're keeping count, this is park #6 of 66. 

Where swine fear to tread

That cliff look familiar?  Perhaps not... but you may have read about it before.  Here's how the account in Matthew goes:

28 When He came to the other side into the country of the Gadarenes, two men who were demon-possessed met Him as they were coming out of the tombs. They were so extremely violent that no one could pass by that way. 29 And they cried out, saying, “[a]What business do we have with each other, Son of God? Have You come here to torment us before [b]the time?” 30 Now there was a herd of many swine feeding at a distance from them. 31 The demons began to entreat Him, saying, “If You are going to cast us out, send us into the herd of swine.” 32 And He said to them, “Go!” And they came out and went into the swine, and the whole herd rushed down the steep bank into the sea and perished in the waters. 33 The herdsmen ran away, and went to the city and reported everything, [c]including what had happened to the demoniacs.

Kursi National Park is one more checkmark on our list of Israeli National parks to visit (5 down, 61 remaining).  The hilltop, with a commanding view of the Galilee, is the place where some believe the herd of swine mentioned in Matthew took their final swan dive into the Sea of Galilee below.

We were fortunate to happen across a group of student tour guides who volunteered to "practice" on us.  Back then, they told us, they believe the shores of the Galilee were a good deal higher than they are today.  This is now hosts the remains of one of the largest Byzantine monasteries in Israel, complete with mosaics and the ruins of an ancient chapel.


Saturday, December 28, 2013

Exploring the trenches of Castel

Today was a "plan C" weekend.  Plan A?  Go see "Frozen" with the kids.  One website said it was in English.  Another said it was dubbed in Hebrew.  The theater staff told us to call back today to find out.  Answer?  Hebrew. 

Plan B? Pack a picnic and head to the En Hemed National Park.  We got as far as the gate, which was closed... with a mysterious sign in Hebrew explaining why. 

So - to Plan C - the nearby Castel National Park, which was also officially closed.  When in Israel, though, do as the Israeli's do. After a picnic lunch at the playground below the park, we followed weekend hikers through a gap in the fence up the hill.  The view from the top was impressive.  Which would explain why this hill has been a strategic military outpost for centuries.  Guarding the road to Jerusalem, Romans, Crusader nights, Arabs and Israelis have all used this fortress to control travel into the Judean hills.

Today, there's nothing much left of the fortifications except for trenches and bunkers left behind by the Jewish Palmah commandos during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. 

A great spot to take in the view, and explore the trenches (best explored while wielding a wooden sword or bow & arrow, of course).

 A bronze relief map and plaque describing the fortifications
Three generations of Milligan women in the fortifications

In case you're counting, that's four parks explored, 62 left.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

O Little Town of Bethlehem

We sang Christmas carols in the minivan as we drove to Bethlehem the other night.  And it struck me how different the Bethlehem of today is from the one I’ve always envisioned during the Christmas season.  Maybe you dream of the same place every year?  You know, the little town lying still beneath the darkened sky.  The comfy stable back behind a busy inn, filled with sweet smelling hay.  A mysterious star guiding strangers from afar, and strange happenings among the shepherds in the fields just down the hill.  

Our minivan slips right through the 8-meter tall “security wall”, past armed soldiers and border checkpoints.  Without the benefit of diplomatic license plates on their donkey, though, Joseph and Mary would have found it quite a bit harder to enter Bethlehem today.  A complicated discussion about ID cards, “Area A” and citizenship would have certainly delayed their arrival at one of the few hotels in town.  

We pass under the observation towers and inch our way up what used to be the main road connecting Jerusalem and Bethlehem.  Reduced to about a lane-and-a-half by concrete detours of the wall and security checkpoints, it’s just about wide enough to let us squeak by a line of tour buses returning to Jerusalem.   When impatient taxis try to jump the queue by driving up our side of the road, we seek refuge on the sidewalk.     

Driving through the center of town, past “Nativity Square”, Bethlehem is decked with lights and decorations.   Santa and his reindeer compete with the baby Jesus and his family.  Vendors hawking “genuine Bethlehem handicrafts,” vie with restaurants and stores lining the narrow streets.  Christmas carols blare on tinny loudspeakers, and crowds of pilgrims and tourists jostle for entrance to the church where the original stable may well have stood.  

I suppose the chaotic, crowded Bethlehem of today is similar in many ways to the chaos that descended on Bethlehem 2000 years ago, when all in “the line of David” returned to their ancestral home to respond to Caesar's census decree.  Swap out Palestinian Authority policemen for Roman legionnaires, honking taxis for braying donkeys and crowds of tourists for throngs of census takers and you’ll probably get a good idea of what the “little town” of the carols really felt like that busy season

We ate dinner overlooking a field where shepherds once watched their flocks by night.  On the hilltop in the distance, the lights of Bethlehem twinkle, but here in the field, all is quiet. The stars shine bright in the dark sky above, and I can well imagine why the shepherds were terrified to see a “company of the heavenly host” appear out of the darkness.  As we walk the same dusty paths trod on by the wisemen, shepherds and Holy Family of the Nativity, amid the turmoil that is the Middle East, I can’t help but wonder that the “Prince of Peace” was actually born here. In Bethlehem.  

In a town caught in conflict between the two sons of Abraham.  A town divided not only by concrete barricades, but also by barriers of violence, mistrust, and hardened hearts.  A small town in a small region of the world that seems so far from being peaceful today.  As we celebrate the coming of the Prince of Peace 2000 years ago, may the peace He promises be our guiding light!

O little town of Bethlehem

How still we see thee lie

Above thy deep and dreamless sleep

The silent stars go by

Yet in thy dark streets shineth

The everlasting Light

The hopes and fears of all the years

Are met in thee tonight

Merry Christmas from the Rubesh Family 
Celebrating the good tidings... in the land where it all began!

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Herod was one bad dude

I've read and heard the stories hundreds of times: the journey to Bethlehem. Wise men visiting from the East.  A king named Herod with a little jealousy problem.  When you actually visit the places where these stories took place though, they take on a personality you never quite noticed before.  Kind of like actually tasting something you've only read about.

Just under seven miles away from our apartment, a volcanic cone looms over the dusty hills of Judea.  Only it's not really volcanic, and it's almost entirely man-made.  King Herod the Great commissioned Herodion as a family retreat of sorts - a vacation spot about 12 miles south of the hustle and bustle of Jerusalem.  The palace on top of the mountain and the grounds below included a royal theater, Roman baths, and luxurious accommodations for Herod and his family.  (If you have Netflix, check out this documentary for lots more details.)

There's not much left of the place now, but the excavated ruins give you a glimpse of what it must have been like.  You can imagine King Herod the Great, standing in one of his towers at the top of the mountain, surveying his domain.  

Just north across the rugged terrain of the Judean desert sits the town of Bethlehem, where 2000 years or so, something unusual was developing.

First, there was that odd star.  And then the visitors.  Learned men from the east, bearing strange gifts.  Perhaps those wise men even stopped here at Herodion to chat, (king-to-king, you know) as they chased the star across the sky.  

"Bethlehem?!" I can almost hear Herod exclaim as he glared across the valley.  "A new King, born in Bethlehem?  That little town over there in the shadow of my Herodion?"  

This is the same guy that had two of his sons and several of his wives killed to prevent threats to his rule.  When the visitors refused to play along, stop by for tea and spill the beans on the way out of town, Herod flipped.  There would be no new King from Bethlehem usurping his throne!  Matthew 2 picks up the narrative:

"16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi."

After giving the orders, he may well have retired to luxury royal box seats of his private palace to enjoy the latest in Roman theater.  Maybe he chilled out in the bathhouse, or enjoyed the fountains on the palace grounds.  No doubt about it, Herod was one pretty nasty dude.

The old bible story hasn't changed... but flavored with the smell of the dust wafting up off the hills, squinting in the midday sun under a bright blue sky, and surveying the same rugged mountains that Herod himself admired, the story resonates in a way it's never done before.  And that's what living in the Holy Land does to you.

Ancestors of Herod's Donkeys?

By the way, that's three parks down, 63 to go!

More photos here.