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.