Wednesday, March 16, 2016


A few years ago, Dara and I took our first cruise. It was a "Bible Lands Cruise" with 600 other United Methodists, and hosted by Educational Opportunities, a group that pretty much caters to Christian pastors and church people. It was a a superb trip, indeed. The actual cruise part was with Norwegian Cruise Lines, and was quite deluxe. The boat--The Norwegian Jade--had originally been outfitted for the South Pacific, but since it was capable of handling around 5,000 passengers, it was eventually deemed too large for that venue. Hence, The Norwegian Jade sailed us around the Mediterranean Sea.

What did I like about the cruise? I like boats, and have never had even close to seasickness that was, unfortunately, experienced by many on the choppy seas. Thankfully, this immunity applies to Dara as well (we've been on some of the choppiest seas on a small boat in the North Atlantic, when everyone on board got deathly sick except for the crew and the Sterlings). Norwegian offered "freestyle" dining, meaning we could take our meals in any of several different styles of restaurants for the ticket price, and for $10 extra, could dine at more exotic cuisine venues. We did not overeat, which is a common mistake, since cruises typically have food 24/7. And we were good about walking the decks to get some exercise. (I confess that late at night, we'd sneak off to some secluded little onboard bar for a glass of wine (Dara) and a really smooth 18-year Glenlivet on the rocks (guess).

OK, enough for the cruising. The trip was really about the "Bible Lands." We had ports-of-call on Cyprus, Turkey, Egypt and Israel. This was the real learning-for-a-lifetime stuff! (We did purchase a handmade Turkish rug at one of those places where you dicker, think you are getting a great deal, and probably pay at least twice it is worth; it adorns our town home living room to this day.) How interesting it was to walk some of the places where Bible characters like Paul and Barnabas, the Disciples and Jesus, and amazing Bible women like Mary, Mary Magdalene, and Mary and Martha, Lazarus's sisters, walked! We gazed out at the Sea of Galilee at the very spot where we believe Jesus fed the 5,000 and where he told Peter, "Feed my Sheep." They try so hard in these places to not be just "touristy," but it's pretty hard, considering the millions of visitors they get, and ones with fat wallets. Again, the Sterlings were pretty frugal about the stuff we bought--the rug, a few pieces of small olive wood sculpture, and a bit of pottery--mostly just to remind us of the experience.

Now to the reason this column is called "Compact..." When we arrived to the Mount of Olives and disembarked from the tour bus, there in front of us was the "Old City" of Jerusalem. We were standing on the place where Jesus departed the Earth for Heaven, gazing across the Kidron Valley, to the great walled city where it all happened. And, after all the requisite photographs with us in the foreground and the ancient city with its stone walls and the gleaming, gold "Dome of the Rock" of Islam, we began our walk down the "mountain" along the winding path that Jesus took on "Palm Sunday." Down the mountain, suddenly arriving in the Garden of Gethsemane (about halfway down) and then into the Kieron Valley, which hosts the above-ground tombs. It was interesting to note that each crypt had stones sitting on them--the number of stones marked the number of visitors who had been at the grave). And in about an hour, which included time to stop and sightsee, we arrived at the Damascus Gate of the old, walled city and entered.

I was struck by how "compact" this timeless chunk of world and religious history was! From the top of the Mount of Olives, down through the Garden of Gethsemane, through the Kidron Valley and into the city was really not a long walk! Every feature mentioned--all great Bible venues--is much, much smaller than what I ever visualized. I guess growing up in America, with its "amber waves of grain, fruited plains, and purple mountains majesty," we think big when we read those Bible stories. The winding road we walked down from the Mount of Olives (really just a small hill) was the "road" Jesus took into Jerusalem on what we commemorate as "Palm Sunday." It was hard to imagine "throngs" of people lining it and waving branches (or actually placing them on the path before him as he rode the donkey). The Kidron Valley is not much larger than the small valley along Kaufman Run in the Adams Ridge development in which I live! While this was a huge surprise to me, I must say that it made the stories of the Bible come to life, and they actually became BIGGER than life, despite the compact geographical context.

One good lesson to take away: the stories are the precious things. Whether they are the great biblical stories of the faith, or the stories of our families, our children, and our personal journeys, the stories really are what count. And the stories will live forever, long after our neighborhoods, our childhood homes, or even the City of Jerusalem are long gone. In Eternity, we will be telling the stories and meeting the characters. That is what will make Heaven HEAVEN. And that is what makes this life so rich, entertaining, fulfilling, and so worth living! May you have a "compact" life filled with Eternal stories, Yinz. Shalom!

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