Friday, March 30, 2018

Taking Just a Moment

We just got back today from our epic journey to Italy and the Holy Land and I'm back in the office, getting ready for tonight's service.  I thought I would take just a moment to reflect on today.  As far as important days go in the life of the church, today is one of the most important.  

It's Good Friday, the day when Jesus was crucified for the sins of the world (read here to find out one explanation of why it's called Good Friday).  It is a day to remember with reverence what took place just outside of Jerusalem on that difficult day nearly two thousand years ago.

Here's the thing that I'm wondering about: if we celebrate the excitement of Palm Sunday and don't take any opportunity to reflect on what took place on either Holy Thursday or Good Friday, we're missing a major part of the celebration story of resurrection.  I'm not posting this as a rant against persons who haven't done that reflection - sometimes life just get busy and it is a hard thing to be able to set aside time to reflect on the importance of this day.  Certainly I understand how life goes... this isn't about that.

What it is about is being able to realize that if there is no Good Friday, then there is no Easter Sunday.  

Just take a moment to ponder what that means.  We cannot have Easter Sunday if there is no Good Friday.  If (and this is a big if for all of us) - if we have taken a moment, just a moment, to pause and be reverent for what that means, then the true significance of the price Jesus paid more than likely makes it a tougher day.  After all, he paid the price for our sins - even if we think we've never done anything wrong.  Jesus paid it all.

I hope you'll just take this moment to pause - just a moment - to reflect on what that means.  Good Friday is here - yes - and Sunday is comin'...

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

When in Rome...

After traveling from Tel Aviv to Rome on Monday, Nancy and I made the trip with Erin back to Rome on Tuesday.  We arrived here in the early evening with our only agenda item being a five hour tour of the Vatican on Wednesday.  I was really looking forward to finding out more about the central location for all things Catholic.  In the afterglow of discovering more about all things Jewish and the beginnings of Christianity, I've been trying to process all of the things that I've learned and seen.  This might take a bit more than a few days.

We scheduled a cab to pick us up and drive us to the USO in Rome, the organization that supports our military women and men by providing many sponsored events that help Americans stay connected while they are stationed in foreign lands.  The tour we were about to embark upon was sponsored and set up by the USO.  The cab arrived on time and we were on our way.  

One thing I had rarely (if ever) experienced in the U.S. was a cab ride or a Uber ride.  When we arrived in Tel Aviv, we were picked up by the nicest driver - David was his name.  He was talkative and made us feel welcome and safe in our journey to the Middle East.  The ride back to the airport wasn't the same - no warm, fuzzy experience here.  The driver did not say one word on the 40 mile trip from the Garden Tomb to Ben Gurion Airport.  It wasn't a very comfortable ride.

With that background, we were headed to the Vatican with an Italian speaking cab driver.  No words were offered.  I began to wonder if the language barrier was the primary issue.  That makes sense when you think about it.  As I sat in the front seat, I just wanted to get there safe and sound.  Then something happened that broke the barriers.  The driver reached down and offered me and everyone else a small wrapped candy.  I expected it to be candy or some exotic Italian chocolate.  How nice of this non-English speaking cab driver to break the ice by offering the worlds most universal and perfect food.  I was impressed.  It literally took my breath away.

It did take my breath away because I wasn't an exotic candy or chocolate - turns out, it was a menthol cough drop.

I didn't dare spit it out because I didn't want to offend the driver.  All the way to the USO office, I sat in the front seat with a cough drop in my mouth.  This world is such a strange world sometimes.

The Vatican holds many pieces of religious art and sculptures that tell the story or God's love for all people.  That really surprised me.  We walked through room after room looking at paintings that were over a thousand years old from famous artists like da Vinci, Raphael, and Michelangelo - to name a few.  The pinnacle of our visit was being able to walk into the Sistine Chapel.  When I walked through the sanctuary door, it was the second time today that I had my breath taken away.

The story of how Michelangelo painted the ceiling was told to us before we went in.  I just had no idea how impressive his work would be.  The one particular panel that caught my eye was the center one, the creation of Adam panel where God is reaching to touch man's finger.  I instantly recognized the panel because I saw it in one of the most moving praise songs that I have sung, The Majesty and the Glory.  I've mentioned this before and I'm not afraid to say it again - that song always touches my heart, reminding me of my own humility at the same time how much God loves me for who I am.  Even in my weakest moments.  Even in my darkest nights.  Even in my failed attempts to demonstrate faith.  

In all of these things, I know that I am loved.

Knowing that really takes my breath away.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Walking Where Jesus Walked: Palm Sunday

Morning broke over the Holy Land and blue skies were everywhere.  How could it be otherwise?  It was Palm Sunday and our tour group was ready to go to the Mount of Olives for the event of a lifetime: taking part in the Palm Sunday procession in Jerusalem.  The weather did not disappoint and neither did the procession.  Palm Sunday in Jerusalem was everything that we thought it could be and more!

We needed to get there early because of the sheer number of people taking part.  There was no possible way to tell how big that number was, but it was a lot!  We weren't the first ones getting ready - others had already shown up.  For us, the route began at the Church at Bethpage on the Mount of Olives.  It would mirror the route that Jesus had taken nearly 2000 years ago.  That would be impossible today because of the many houses and streets that have been built up since then.  The route would take the procession down the Mount of Olives past the Garden of Gethsemane and up into the Old City of Jerusalem, stopping finally at St. Anne's Church.  Our tour guide told us we would be bowing out after half of that journey.  Turns out, that was great news!  

As the 2:30 p.m. start time grew closer, more and more people began to show up.  There were people from so many nations - Germany, Africa, Asia, America, Israel - just to name a few.  Many came dressed with the same colors to identify themselves (we wore our lime green baggage straps with pride - they also helped to keep us together!)  Many brought musical instruments - guitars, drums, singers.  Many had palm branches and if they didn't have one, the local Israeli boys were only to happy to sell them one - never mind that it was a torn off branch from an olive tree.

Many of us had never seen anything like this.  Once the procession began, we waited for the first few "official groups" to pass by - boy scouts, girls scouts and other local groups.  Then we joined the procession.  We held tightly to each other, weaving our way through the procession like a religious conga line.  In front of us a delegation from Germany was singing "10,000 Reasons" in German - we sang it in English.  Halfway up the first hill, a group from Africa had moved in behind us and provided some very cool music for us to sing along with and dance to (if we felt like dancing).  You can hear them in this video we posted on our church YouTube site.  Palm branches were waving everywhere.  Every so often we would see an Israeli police officer or an Army soldier or two - we felt very safe in that wonderful, chaotic moment.

People were so nice all along the way - it was as though any differences that might exist between countries or nations or religions just fell away.  Everyone was there for one reason: to celebrate the King of kings!

I'm not certain that the full impact of what we experienced has set in yet.  We were all exhausted, but in a good way.  Still weary from the procession, we sat in restful silence in our bus ride back to the hotel.  Through the help of our tour guide, Moshe, we were able to upload a couple of videos for the First UMC worship service - I heard that everything went well.

We leave Israel tomorrow - one final stop at the Garden Tomb and then Erin and I travel to Tel Aviv ahead of the rest of the group as we return to Rome.  It's been an amazing trip - one that I would recommend to anyone in the future (Vicki is planning another tour in 2020 - put it on your prayer calendar as you consider what it might be like to be transformed!)  One comment shared by one of our group was especially meaningful - I'm paraphrasing "All the things that all the ministers have tried to teach me all make sense now.  It's been better than any Bible study I could have taken."

More to come as I put my weary feet up and get some rest.  I appreciate your willingness to travel with me these past few days and your prayerful support as we walked in the places where Jesus walked.

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Walking Where Jesus Walked - Part Six

Today's travel schedule was really a prelude to the big event we've been moving toward all week: the Palm Sunday procession.  We met this morning on the top of the Mount of Olives overlooking the Garden of Gethsemane and opposite of the famous picture of the city of Jerusalem.  After enjoying 80 to 90 degree weather all week, we were brutally introduced to the high winds and sudden shifts of temperature and climate that Jerusalem can offer.  It was terrifically windy and of course, cold.  We were huddled masses, I'll tell you (I'm remembering a quote from my daughter when I complained about the cold wind near the Syrian/Israeli border - "Suck it up, buttercup - you're from Minnesota".  Yeah, she set me straight - I was okay after that.)

When I say we got a prelude to tomorrow's procession, I mean a prelude - it was a bit like it's going to be but nothing like it's going to be.  There were a lot of groups there this morning, rehearsing and preparing for the main event tomorrow.  Many nations.  Many denominations.  Many difference expressions and levels of faith.  All there to celebrate the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem.  The pathway was steep and the high winds, cold and misting rain didn't help at all.  But it hasn't dampened our spirits as we prepare for the highlight of our trip.  

I'm planning on sending a video to First United Methodist Church's YouTube channel, so tune in there to view it (sometime after 10:30 a.m. tomorrow morning).  We are trying to coordinate sending our video feed to this site and we hope it will work before worship at 10:30 a.m.  You can go that site anytime and subscribe to the channel - no cost, just the time it takes to connect.  Hopefully it will send a notice that says the video has been uploaded.

We visited some other important sights and locations, but the one that was most meaningful to me was St. Anne's Church in Jerusalem - right by the Pools of Bethesda.  I stood outside of the church, wondering about the story of the man that Jesus healed by telling him to take up his mat and walk (which he did and he was healed).  I couldn't help but selfishly think about my own physical situation.  We've been walking an awful lot here in the Holy Land.  I've been diagnosed with a mild form of arthritis in both knees and now my left hip.  Some days it's been painful.  Sometimes it's okay.  I really wondered what it would be like to be completely healthy again - I know, it was selfish on my part.  But don't you think it's natural to wonder about such things when you are standing on such a meaningful location, wondering what it must have been like?  

Later that evening, I heard one of our group talking about the challenges of walking.  Her husband struggles with chronic pain, similar to mine.  But his comment to her was "I need to suck it up..." [what is it with Minnesota people and sucking it up?] "...because it's just a little bit of pain compared to what Jesus did for me."  

He was so right.  What a jerk I am for thinking about my own needs when Jesus sacrificed his very life for what should really be mine.  And yet, that's why Jesus came - yes, for people who wonder about being healed and one day will be.  I can be more than okay with that knowledge.

We were inside the church (St. Anne's) when Erin [my daughter] sang one verse which really speaks to the above.  I was glad to hear her sing again.  It did a great deal to help me work through my own pain - lame as it may be.  Listen to her here and I wonder if you won't agree.

I can deal with my physical pain because it is well with my soul.

Friday, March 23, 2018

Walking Where Jesus Walked - Part Five

I'm conflicted about how to share where we visited today and what it all means.  Let me explain: we started off the morning being the first group at Vad Yashem - the World Holocaust Remembrance Center.  We walked through the center and heard stories from the survivors of the World War II event that shook the Jewish people and the world.  It was a deeply moving experience, especially since most of these stories were told by older adults who were just children at the time. 

The most poignant moment of the tour was walking through the Children's Memorial, an underground cavern that takes only five lit candles and through positioning of mirrors transforms them into a starlit sky of 1.5 million lights, each representing each child who was a holocaust victim.  As I walked through the memorial, a calm voice chanted the names of each child.  It will take the voice over seven months to say all of the names of the children who were killed during that horrific time.  So many children.  So many innocents.  So senseless.  So tragic.

That is how we started our day.  Every one of our group was silenced by what we heard - what we saw - what we felt.  While many of us had parents who understood the impact the holocaust made, we could only respond from a distance in years.  It made me feel helpless.  Powerless.  I wanted to help those children, but knew that I wasn't able to.  Vicki Tiede, our tour leader, challenged us to consider speaking out whenever we see injustice in our communities and the world.  Seems like such as small thing to ask when you consider the magnitude of what happened during that terrible era.  Yet such a small thing is sometimes the hardest thing we might ever do. 

After leaving that location, we visited the Israel Museum where a model scale replica of the Old City of Jerusalem was built.  It was an amazing look at what the city possibly looked like right around Jesus' time.  The detail was amazing.  After the short ride from the Holocaust experience to this one, we were forced to move on from the emotional heartbreak to a more neutral position of learning.  We saw the Dead Sea Scrolls and learned how they were preserved, giving authority to God's Holy Word as those documents provide authentication.

Then the focus of the day changed.  We went to a Jerusalem marketplace.  Wow!  What a location.  It was literally bedlam!  There were foods of every kind.  Shops with bakery goods.  Clothing stores and places that sold every kind of nut imaginable.  The people were just as varied.  All shapes - all sizes - all colors - all ages.  Every one (except me) seemed to know exactly where they were going.  The memories of tragedies of long ago began to fade.  Erin and I stopped in a candy store and purchased 12 ($4) shekels worth of various kinds.  Then it was on to Bethlehem and the West Bank, Palestinian occupied territory. 

In some ways, we were reminded of the strife that gripped our imaginations earlier in the day.  We heard that most Palestinians just want to care for their families.  Just like the Israelis who just want to be safe and make sure no one group will ever persecute them again.  We were riding along a narrow road (what am I talking about, all the roads are narrow!) when a car was trying to pass our bus on the left while coming down a hill.  The car didn't see the car ahead and we heard brakes screeching and the sound of metal, plastic and glass in a collision that took place right at the back of our bus.  We looked back and saw the two drivers, getting out so they must have been okay.  I can't believe they were very happy though.

Our last two stops for today were the Church of the Nativity and the Shepherd's Fields.  There were hundreds of people waiting to make the trip down the stairs to see the grotto where Jesus was held by his mother Mary as she placed him in the manger.  This was a very cool place, even though we were there in March.  After about an hour long wait, we were each able to reach down and touch the place where the baby Jesus was laid in the manger. 

A little later we listened to our tour leader share a devotion while we were at Shepherd's Fields - a location believed to be the place where the shepherds were frightened by the angels but left to make the four mile trip to the manger, to see the child who would save the world.  We sang "O Little Town of Bethlehem" on that hillside so far away from our homes, our traditions, our families.

I realize many of the children who perished in the Holocaust were Jews, but I have a hope that Jesus was right there with them when their lives were tragically ended at such a young age.  I have this hope because of the covenant the Jews still have through Abraham - "I will be your God and you will be my people" says the Lord. 

The child of Bethlehem has come to give every one hope - children who may have lost hope, marketplace participants who wander about looking for something in life, people who lives collide in momentary crashes, people who are just tending to their own business on the hillsides of their lives.

The Child of Bethlehem gives each one of them (and you and me) a reason to hope.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

Walking Where Jesus Walked - Part Four

We entered into the busy streets of Jerusalem, riding our bus and listening to the music of "The Holy City" (a traditional song that is usually offered when pilgrims enter Jerusalem).  After days of scaling steps of unearthed settlements and cities, walking along pathways where Jesus and his disciples walked nearly two thousand years ago, and traveling from the northern most part of Israel to the southern part of the parameters of old Israel, we had arrived.  We are now in Jerusalem.

Our tour will take us to some key places in the next few days: Bethlehem, several locations in Jerusalem that tell its history, and of course, the entrance into the Holy City on Palm Sunday.  We being told that experience is going to be fantastic, with thousands of followers from all over the world joining the procession.  Each nationality and religion will have its own identity, their own songs of "Hosanna!" and they will bring large numbers to the joyful throng.  

"Hosanna!"  It is a joyful sounding word and it is meant to be exactly that.  The people were so excited and thrilled that Jesus was finally in Jerusalem and now, really great things were bound to happen.  So many stories of power, wisdom, and teaching that this could finally be that Messiah to come and save the people, which is really what the word "Hosanna!" means.  "Save us, please!  Save us!"  The key point in this Palm Sunday story about Jesus and his entry into Jerusalem is focused on salvation, but salvation from what?  

We all know the people expected Jesus to save them from the oppression of the Romans.  They wanted their freedom back.  They didn't want the Romans in their faces any longer.  It was time for them to head back to Rome and if anyone had the power to do that, it had to be Jesus.  

But of course, we also know that isn't why he came.  It wasn't to save the people from Roman oppression, but to save them from the oppression that sin creates in us.  He came to overcome something to be sure, but that something was related to each and every soul in that procession on that day and for every single person since then including today.  

He came to overcome death.  You see, the penalty for sins is death.  Jesus is the only one who had the power to overcome that penalty.  So it isn't salvation from Roman oppression.  It isn't reclaiming a sense of power or freedom from an outside country.  It is all about restoring a relationship that had been broken at the dawn of creation - restoring a right relationship with God - and it affects every one.  No one is exempt.

Palm Sunday in Jerusalem.  No doubt our tour group will be shouting our "Hosannas" to the King, waving our branches in the air.  For me (and perhaps for you) my shouts will be to save me from the oppression of my sins, because only God knows how much salvation I need - we all need - in that area.  Even as I write these words, I hear the sirens of emergency vehicles twice within the past hour, racing to help others in the holiest city in the world.  Everybody needs saving.

"Hosanna - save us, Lord, please save us!"

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Walking Where Jesus Walked - Part Three

Today our group made a trek from the Sea of Galilee to the northern most reaches of Israel.  We ended up about two miles from the Syrian border at an Israeli memorial site for soldiers who lost their lives in a 1973 battle to protect Israel from Syrian invasion.  Our tour guide engaged us in a fascinating conversation regarding the history of the region and why Israel is such a source of interest with respect to rival nations.  

So there we were - two miles from a country that is currently involved in a civil war - a country that despises Israel - a country that doesn't care for any allies that Israel has, like the United States.  Even though that might have been a little disconcerting to think about, add to that the presence of an Israeli troop of soldiers who were preparing the site for a commemoration of the event and a memorial to the soldiers.  The Israeli soldiers gave us a little breathing space when they sent a drone camera right over our heads, looking down at us.  When we waved at it, they burst out in laughter.  It helped to defray an otherwise tense moment.  If these soldiers who were in harms way were not concerned about being two miles from the Syrian border, then why should we?

The thing that impressed me about today's theme was the number of wars and skirmishes and disputes Israel has had to deal with over thousands of years.  We can believe that Israel's geographically strategic position is key for some of its unruly neighbors who don't have access to water.  It's a valid point.  But I wonder if the battle hasn't been one of a spiritual nature - and continues to be.  Let me say a bit more...

We were at Caesarea Philippi just before traveling to the border.  This location is mentioned in scripture as a place that Jesus and his disciples came to just before heading toward Jerusalem.  This location was a place where the residents were not God followers.  They worshipped the god Pan.  The city, which sits at the foot of Mount Hermon, butts up against a large cliff, referred to as the ‘Rock of the Gods’, in reference to the many shrines built against it.  Shrines to Caesar, Pan and another god (possibly the fertility goddess Nemesis) were all built up against this cliff. 

In the center of the Rock of the Gods is a huge cave, from which a stream flowed (after 19th century earthquakes, the stream began flowing out from the rock beneath the mouth of the cave).  This cave was called the “Gates of Hades”, because it was believed that Baal would enter and leave the underworld through places where water came out of it.

Jesus asked the disciples to tell him who do people say that he was.  After their response, Jesus asked them who they say he was.  Peter said he was the Christ, the Son of the Living God.  The verse following that one is telling... here is what Jesus said to Peter: 
"And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it." - Matthew 16:18.  
We can take that to mean that in that location, Jesus is defying the gods of the world and saying they will never win.  Can you see the spiritual battle?  No matter what "god" we serve, it will not be enough.  We can only prevail in life when we place the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob first in our lives.

What is our spiritual dilemma or the gods of today that we serve?  We have to know - they will never prevail.  Only the Lord God.  Only through Jesus Christ.  None other.  At no time.  In no place.

It's your decision.

Walking Where Jesus Walked - Part Two

Israel has some amazing vistas.  One of the most photogenic countries in the world, It not only has some remarkable sights, but they all hold some very intriguing connections to biblical history.

We stood on the top of Mount Carmel and had a fantastic view of the Jezreel Valley.  Not only fantastic, but amazing.  Mount Carmel is the location where Elijah was victorious over the prophets of Baal.  We could see Nazareth (Mary and Joseph's home town) across the other side to the east, Meggido to the south (a key location that is mentioned in Revelation), and just a little farther east, the Sea of Galilee, the area where much of Jesus' healing, teaching, and preaching took place.  

I guess I hadn't realized how close these important locations are together - visually.  On a clear day, you can see everything that is happening right in front of you.  This is true if you are standing on Mount Carmel or Meggido or Mount Precipice (which is just south of Nazareth).  Even though the distance between Mount Carmel and Nazareth is 45 miles, it is a tremendous advantage to have possession of any one of these locations in order to ward off enemy advances.    

And not only the connection of these places, but the locations around the Sea of Galilee where Jesus spent much of his time in ministry with the people.  Capernaum (which was Jesus' home base of operations) is on the northeastern side of the Sea.  Bethsaida is just down the road - there Jesus spoke in the synagogue.  Tabgha and Tiberius - key locations that had significant impact on the disciples and their walk with Jesus.  The Mount of Beatitudes was the place where Jesus launched his ministry with the disciples.

The point is that these locations are also relatively close together.  But saying that they are close together is easier said today than in Jesus' time.  You can drive from Tiberius to Capernaum in about 15-20 minutes.  It might be a half day's journey in Jesus' time.  Can you imagine walking 18 miles?  Even riding a donkey would take a while.  So not only are these locations connected and close together, they also indicate that Jesus and his disciples must have been in pretty decent shape in order to travel these distances.  

The bible doesn't always give us a sense of time between Jesus' appearances - one day he is in one location, the next story he might be somewhere else.  What it doesn't really tell us is the energy Jesus and his disciples needed to get from one place to another.  My steps meter is off the charts with just three days in Israel.  I cannot even imagine what Jesus' Fitbit would be registering - he and his disciples had to be in great shape.

That makes me realize something: the energy it took for Jesus to do what he did was not only unparalleled, but it was so selfless.  He gave us everything without regard to his own well being.  I can only wonder what the disciples felt when Jesus told them it was time to move on.  His drive to help people see what he saw is something so easy for us to overlook.  His life was (and still is) completely dedicated to helping us see the truth of God's love.

I can take another step because of his great love for me.  How about you?

Tomorrow we are off to the Dead Sea and more stories of the Holy Land and how much God loves us.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Walking Where Jesus Walked - Part One

I haven't written anything the past two days because the schedule has just been crazy.  When we (Erin and I) landed at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv on Saturday night, we were met by a driver who brought us to the hotel we were staying at.  We didn't arrive there until about 7:30 p.m. - the group that had flown from the US were just about to call it a night when we got there.  They were a pretty tired group.  Erin and I grabbed something to eat and also turned in - a full travel schedule was in store for us.

I don't really want to summarize each and every stop (and I'm guessing that you don't want me to do that either).  Erin has posted a nice photo collection of where we visited both Sunday and Monday (check them out here.)  But there are a couple of insights I'd like to share with you about this Holy Land where Jesus walked.

The first thing is this: I'm exhausted!  Both days our tour group has walked a great deal: from the tour bus to the location.  Around the location and back to the tour bus.  Six, seven times a day.  We are just two days into the tour and it's all I can do to stay on top of things.  Twenty years ago I had no difficulty keeping up - in fact, I recall watching some the older travelers back then who had their aches and pains - I am them today.  Of course the arthritic condition of both knees and my left hip has a great deal to say about how that works out.  Needless to say, this time, I'm touring the Holy Land almost like Tim Conway's old man walk.

Here's a second thing: we take the little things for granted in America when we travel abroad.  This isn't meant to belittle us, it's this - there is a stark difference in how the world operates vs how we do things in America.  Take power, for instance.  European and Middle Eastern countries operate on 220 v power outlets which have different prongs.  Our computer plugs and shavers and even Smart Phone chargers will not work in these unless you have an adapter and in some cases, a transformer that will allow the proper voltage to run your device.

I think I discovered the latter truth the hard way.  I was shaving this morning, using the power plug adapter.  It worked in Italy and I saw no reason that it wouldn't work in Israel.  I was almost done when my shaver began to make a high pitch noise and suddenly, without warning, just stopped.  I checked the plug in to make sure I hadn't somehow pulled it out accidentally.  Nope, this razor was done.  You have to understand, I've had my razor for over twenty years.  We've spent a lot of time shaping this face into what it is today.  I owe it a lot.  And now, it's over.  Done.  Just like that - in a foreign country at that.

Which leads me to the third thing I discovered today: not only are our power sources different, but so is our monetary scale.  In Israel, they use shekels. One shekel equals .29 on the U.S. dollar.  I told Vicki (our tour leader) that I needed to pick up some kind of razors to finish the trip.  Admittedly, I am challenged in the area of growing facial hair, but if left alone for a few days, I can get downright scruffy.  Our final stop today took us to a pharmacy in Tiberius - a couple of others on the tour needed a few items as well.  

Yes, I know the difference between the shekel and the dollar.  But I was having a moment when I began to look for razors.  The store looked like any pharmacy in America, except for the price tags and much of the language was designed for the average Israeli, not the average Joe from America (or even the average Daren).  I found several razors and realized I had no idea what was good and what wasn't.  Why isn't there some kind of guide for these things?  I've been using an electric razor all of my life.  What now?  

So I compared between the razors.  There were a couple of nice looking razors - I think they were the Cadillacs of the industry.  I had no idea what their features would or wouldn't do.  I just wanted something to shave the little facial hair that appears on my face in the morning.  So I chose the economy line - the Gillette Blue 3!  In this package, I would pay for eight and get two free!  What a deal!  So, I now have ten razors which should get me through anything I can "face" ahead.  I threw in some Edge foam and was a bit uncertain because the purchase rang up 49.80 in shekels.  It was hard to look at that and pay that amount, but I did.  I used my American plastic world Visa card and signed my life over.

Turns out, 49.80 in shekels is only $14.34 - not a bad deal to clean up every morning.  

One other thing I have been the most concerned about on my trip over here.  Not the plane ride.  Not possible terrorism.  Not pickpockets in market squares.  It's - you may have already guessed it - the food.  I'm just not that guy who is able to eat new things, try new things, not be concerned with what's in new things.  It's not me.  I told our group that if I don't know what's in something I'm not putting it in my mouth.  But amazingly enough, I'm not starving.  Each morning and evening our meal comes from an international smorgasbord put out by the location we are staying at.  It's really been quite good.  I start with some leafy greens and bread (bread is soooo good in Israel - you can't mess up bread!)  Then the main course usually has something that I can trust.  So this has been a pleasant surprise.

You may think I'm making something out of nothing when it comes to eating different foods, but consider this - I can barely get through a church potluck.  How am I ever going to survive eating stuff I am not sure of in a different land?  The short answer is - no worries, just stay basic.  If it looks like chicken, it might taste like chicken.  Rice is pretty universal.  And leafy greens and cabbage - well, I can handle that.

Perhaps the final observation is that it is a wonder to be able to walk in the places where Jesus and his disciples walked.  I have really enjoyed the experience and hopefully am learning more about this land and the special significance of Israel as God's Holy Land.  I'll have more to say on that coming up.

I got to get some rest - tomorrow comes early.  I'm told we're going to a place where you can get some of the best chocolate in the world.

Now we're talkin'!

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Journey to Israel

The adventures I've been having in Italy are now moving to another venue: Israel, the Holy Land.  Later today, Erin and I are flying to Tel Aviv, where we will meet up with the rest of our team (Vicki Teide, Gary and Sally Hibma, Ryan and Naomi Hill, Kathy Gallagher, and Jean Doeden's daughter and her friend).  Over the next nine days, we will travel to places we have read and heard about, studied, and wondered about.  It really is a dream come true trip of a lifetime.  

But I've been there before.  Twenty years ago, I was fortunate to travel to Israel with Nancy on a tour of the Holy Land.  I don't think I was in awe of that location then as I am now (why is it that as you age gracefully, you realize that you there is always more to learn?).  Perhaps twenty years makes a big difference.  

And the opportunity to travel there with one of my children is another plus.  My daughter Erin has always been connected to a vocation surrounding the church.  This trip of a lifetime gives her an opportunity to expand her understanding of Israel and the places she has heard about.  To be able to see the Holy Land through her eyes only adds to my anticipation for increase my own understanding of this precious area of land that holds so much history.

See, that's the thing I have grown to know about me: I am a lifelong learner.  I don't know enough.  I will never know enough (my wife Nancy will attest to that).  True, I may know a lot of things, but that should never stop me from learning more.  Maybe that is a key for all of us... somewhere along the adventure of life, we can get to a point where we believe we know all there is to know.  We stop learning. We get stuck in our own patterns and behaviors, without realizing that we can continue to grow intellectually, emotionally, spiritually.  

Perhaps we all could use a journey to a place that gives us that opportunity.  

So, I'm off to get ready for another great adventure!

Friday, March 16, 2018

That's Amore!

One of the things you miss when your children and grandchildren live so far away from you is the opportunity to see them in their class events.  I recall as a parent we made nearly every one of the concerts, games, and special events that our kids were involved with while in school.  I miss those moments and am ever glad to be able to attend one when I can.

This morning the 4th graders at Naples Elementary School (home of the Dolphins) presented a musical program called "That's Amore! An homage to Napoli by the Naples Elementary School 4th Graders".  Erin's second son Wyatt is in the 4th grade, so naturally we made our way to the lunch room/auditorium at the school to watch the 30 minute program.  Lots of parents were in attendance - as well as some grandparents, which was surprising to me.  Then again, we met at least two other grandparents who were visiting their families just as we were.  We weren't the only visiting grandparents on the base.

The program was designed to pay tribute to music that was specifically connected to Naples, Italy.  The kids did a great job, singing and dancing with great enthusiasm.  They were accompanied by the Naval Forces Europe Brass Quintet, who played very well.  I was impressed by the excellence of their play and it reminded me of my high school days, listening to our band instructor Mr. Patnaude, who once played trombone with the Air Force Band (if my memory serves me correctly).  He had a great sound!
I was amazed at how many of the songs I recognized.  The first one was the traditional Neapolitan Tarantella (play it here to see if you recognize it).  The kids did a traditional Neapolitan dance while the music played in the background.  (I learned that the word Neapolitan refers to anything from Naples - all this time and I thought it was about ice cream.  Who knew?) 
The brass quintet then played "Maria" from West Side Story, which I wondered about the connection to Napoli because that musical was about Americans and Puerto Ricans.  They also played a snappy New Orleans style version of "Amazing Grace", which had to have been a number just to fill the program.  Pretty certain it had nothing to do with Naples.  

The kids sang "Mambo Italiano" a number which was performed by Dean Martin, Rosemary Clooney and others.  Martin actually is connected to a number of songs about a girl from Naples (or Napoli) - this one, as well as "That's Amore", which the kids also performed.  The lyrics of "That's Amore" also has references to Naples.  Another song the kids sang was a traditional Italian song "O Sole Mio" (translation "My Own Sunshine"), which, interestingly enough, was redone in English by Elvis Presley to the title of "It's Now or Never".  

The final song was another familiar tune that we heard as children "Funiculi, Funicula".  In my research of this particular tune, I never would have guessed it was a song written especially to commemorate the opening of the first funicular cable car on Mount Vesuvius, which is the famous volcano that overlooks the city of Naples.  On a more somber note, the cable car was destroyed when Vesuvius erupted in 1944. 

I'm sure hoping that doesn't happen again.

Seems that these Italian songs were popular enough to remake.  "Funiculi, Funicula" melody was reworked with lyrics to fit the early 1960's in a pop song called "Dream Boy" by Annette Funicello.

Pardon me for giving you a brief musical history, but I really did think it was interesting that all of these Italian songs were so familiar to me and to the American music scene.  What was really cool was the energy and enthusiasm of the kids.  I'm grateful any time I can watch my grandchildren participate in some event that they are involved in.  No matter if you are a parent or a grandparent, take stock in those moments when you can share with your children or grandchildren a special moment in their lives. 

It's worth it because of the love you have for them - that's amore!

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Cooking Italian with Vera

My daughter has a knack for scheduling interesting things for us to do whenever and wherever we have visited her.  We've been able to see places like Deception Pass on Whidbey Island in Washington State, the Arlington House (former home of Robert E. Lee) of Arlington National Cemetery in Washington D.C., the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. and Manassas Battlefield State Park in Virginia.  Each location has been interesting and informative, so I trust my daughter Erin when she says we should go and see this place or try this event.

With that in mind, today we drove to Lago Patria, Italy (about 21 miles north and west of Naples, located on the shores of the Tyrrhenian Sea).  We were traveling to the home of Italian cooking expert Vera Lynn Pierro, who teaches 3 classes per week (ten people per class) the fine art of Italian cooking.  Here's how it works: each "student" pays 30 euros to participate in the class.  Vera selects about five or six dishes, breads, desserts that the students learn how to put together.  Then everyone sits down and eats everything that was made.  As I mentioned earlier, I trust Erin's judgment when she schedules something for us to participate in.  [By the way, traveling 21 harrowing miles on Italian highways was just as crazy as ever - peril on the highways is a constant common denominator in Italy.]  

If you read yesterday's blog, you know what a leap of faith I was about to take - we are talking about eating real Italian cooking here.

Just a bit of background we learned about Vera and her classes: Vera has about four persons who organize her classes - in other words, those persons recruit a total of ten persons to come and learn how to cook Italian style.  All of the persons in Erin's group have spouses who are in active duty in the military.  It appears that they all love to cook and eat Italian (or is it just eat Italian cooking?).  

We also learned that Vera isn't actually Italian.  She was born in Washington D.C. and moved to Michigan as a child.  She is actually traveling back to Michigan for her 50 year class reunion later this year.  In her young adult years, she came to Italy and met a young Italian, fell in love and married him, and has been living in Italy for the past forty plus years.  Now in her 60's, Vera shares her expertise and passion in Italian cooking and speaks Italian very fluently.  I found her to be interesting as we began our class together.

To the best of my recollection, here is the menu Vera put together for us: Easter bread, fava beans, marriage soup, pasta with tomatoes, steamed peas with mushrooms, large stuffed artichokes, turkey with egg and garlic potatoes, and Easter pie for dessert.  She quickly rattled these items off and I was thinking to myself "why am I here?"  She didn't give us any time for remorseful thinking as she had us washing our hands and putting on cooking aprons.  Vera quickly assigned each one of us tasks - for some reason, she chose me first to put together the Easter pie.  

I began with boiling the wheat with milk, butter and eggs (don't ask me why wheat is in there - it just is).  I was reminded how to crack an egg, drain off the white, and just use the yoke - it only took me one redo to make that happen.  After bringing all of it to a boil, I then had to place it in a ricer and grind out the hulls from the wheat that was used.  It left a smooth batter type substance that would be used for the inside of the pie.  While I was doing all of this, everyone else was busy with cutting tomatoes, stuffing artichokes, and preparing items like cheese and other Italian stuff.

Vera evidently thought I was doing well enough to continue with the pie.  She had me put flour, sugar, eggs, and orange shavings and mix it with my hands.  I worked the dough into a ball and wrapped it up and Vera placed it in the fridge to cool.  Then with the wheat mixture, she had me blend in ricotta, sugar, vanilla and orange blossom extract into a bowl and beat all of it together, folding in some chocolate shavings (see, I even know some cooking terms like "folding in").    Finally, Nancy took the cooled dough, rolled it out into a pie shape, where she place it in the pan.  The mixture was added to the crust and lattice strips of dough were cut and added on the top.  When it was done, I thought it was actually quite impressive.

After all of this, it was time to sit down and try everything that we made.  The day of reckoning had come.  It was time to put up or shut up.  Time to step up to the plate (no pun intended).  It was now or never.  I sat down at my place at the table and took a deep breath.  The first food we ate was the fava beans with bread and ricotta cheese and some kind of thinly sliced ham.  I had my glass of water and Coke ready just in case I needed to wash it down without too much difficulty.  I had never had a fava bean before in my life, but it reminded me of the pea pods from my grandmother's garden in Deer River.  Fava beans were larger, but I didn't gag when I ate them, along with the cheese and the ham and the bread.  So far, so good.

Vera served the marriage soup, which was actually a wedding soup made out of beef, chicken and vegetables that I had never heard of before.  I tried a couple of spoonfuls of it and decided it was okay - but I was glad we never served that on our wedding day.  The Easter bread wasn't too bad - it was a bread that was baked with ham and cheeses.  It was a bit too doughy for my tastes.  Then things started to go south in a hurry.

It began with the pasta with tomatoes and spices.  I did actually eat some of the pasta, but just didn't have the intestinal fortitude to try the tomatoes.  When the stuffed artichoke was placed before me, I just sat there and looked at it.  Vera asked me if I knew how to eat it - the more important question was whether I wanted to eat it, which I did not.  I was regressing into a midwestern-northern-Minnesota-give-me-a-hotdish-or-I'm-gonna-die mode.  I was completely checked out by now so I didn't even try the turkey with egg, although I did try a very small helping of the garlic potatoes.  Because I had helped to make the Easter pie, I know I needed to make an effort at that one, so I actually ate one half of my small slice.  Honestly, I was mostly hoping for the chocolate shavings in that one.

This experience has taken quite a bit to recount and I apologize for its length.  It was a big deal for me to expand my horizons and attend this class with Nancy and Erin.  I'm not as set in my ways as they think I am, but then again, I still have my limits.  I drew a line in the sand when the stuffed artichoke was staring at me from my plate.  It was not gonna happen.

Tomorrow, Erin has planned an excursion to doing one's fingernails.  I think I'll take a pass on that one.  My fingernails are just fine the way they are.

Then again, I'm pretty sure I wasn't invited.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Dining Out - Italian

One of the things that I know I am challenged with is my taste in food.  I know - people think I'm a fussy eater.  They may be right, but I prefer to think that I have distinctive tastes.  You have to understand, when I was growing up, the food I ate was generally neutral in nature... not in a bad way, just bland - there isn't any other way to say it.  I think my mom did a great job of trying to appease ten children and one husband who all may have had different palates.  I also think she might have preferred to cook a bit more exotically (which probably means something different to every one of us).  My meat and potatoes foundation was just the way I was brought up.

I actually believe that I am a more adventurous eater today - much more so than in my younger days.  My wife (or my children) wouldn't agree with my own assessment, but that's their prerogative.  I offer proof of this by pointing to some foods that I would have never touched as a teenager - broccoli, for example.  Oooooh, you might be thinking - that's really stretching it, Daren.  Believe me, for me, it is.  And I'm sure there are other foods I could name... but I can't recall what they are just now.

With this prohibitive background in mind, Erin brought us to an honest to goodness Italian restaurant for lunch today.  It was named Era Ora, which loosely translated means "it's about time" or "time is now" - not really certain if that is correct or not.  Nevertheless, I suppose it was about time I tested my ever expanding (?) culinary experience. 

I do have to say once again that on the way to the restaurant (which was only about a mile or so from the naval base) my belief in the ability of Italian drivers to be theological teachers was reinforced.  Several times the fear of God was instilled within me as drivers pulled in front of us, tried to pull in front of us, or just zipped to and fro with their smaller Italian made cars - designed for such zipping.  Maybe what makes this driving so hard to adjust to is the narrower roads in Italy versus what we are used to in the United States.  Smaller cars work well on narrower roads, but they also appear to be closer together.  At any rate, we made it to the restaurant in no time and entered the front door.

One of Erin's friends joined us - Lauren - with her daughter Elise.  Good thing because Lauren has a grasp on the Italian language.  I would have pointed to the menu and hoped that I received what I hoped for.  She was able to converse with the waiter more directly.  That was cool.  I looked over the menu and decided that I was going to try the Diavola pizza, which was a pizza with these ingredients listed in English: tomato, mozzarella, pepperoni, and spicy.  I didn't really know what the spicy ingredient was all about.  But I gave it a whirl anyway.  

Nancy ordered the Fresca Fresca pizza (flatbread pizza with fresh salad on top, fresh tomato and buffalo mozzarella); Erin ordered the Crocco pizza (mozzarella, crumbled crocche, ham, salami and cream); and Lauren ordered the Margherita pizza (different than what we might think - just a pizza with sauce, cheese and basil).  We also ordered a couple of antipasto appetizers which included bruschetta (a light bread toasted with tomato on top) and zeppalini (a fried bread which reminded me of doughnut holes that were not sugared - yeah, I tried one).

Our waiter was a very quiet, pleasantly dressed Italian with a gentle manner about him.  He watched over our table throughout the meal - waiting for any need we might express.  I wasn't overly adventurous, but I did try Erin's pizza which was different, but ok.  My pizza was very spicy, but I handled it.  I was impressed with the size of the pizzas - they appeared to be about the size of a medium pizza in the U.S. but only cost about 4 Euros ($4.96) which is a very reasonable price, I thought.  

My first experience of eating in an Italian restaurant - I'd give myself a C+ only because I stayed within the lines of my own experience.  Perhaps someday I may branch out and try other more interesting dishes, but for right now, I'm okay with where I am at.  

When in Rome... well, my driving perhaps, but maybe not when it comes to eating Italian... not yet, anyway.  Tomorrow might prove to be interesting - Erin has enrolled both of us in an Italian cooking class.  Wonder what will happen there...