“One quick question,” I said to my pastor. He was heading back to his lunch table with a full cup of coffee; I’d finished my lunch and wanted a word with him before I had to leave.
“Oh hi, Aileen,” he said, more gracious than most would have been, having been caught between coffee and dessert. “What’s up?”
“A lot. For one thing I just lied to my pastor." I realized in that moment what he no doubt already had guessed. “My question is neither quick nor singular.” Guy Sayles smiled, relaxed and unhurried. I forged ahead.
“My friend’s son—he’s 10—has inoperable brain cancer. He got bad news yesterday, really bad news. His mother and I were talking last night, and she asked me some tough questions. I’m only in the second semester of seminary here. I have no idea what to say.”
"I’m not sure theological degrees give you the words to say under those circumstances," Guy said, speaking the frustrating truth of pastoral care.
“My friend's question was this: ‘If God is omnipotent as we believe God is, then why hasn't my son been healed?’ Good question right? So, ya know, why?”
Setting his coffee on the counter, Guy shook his head. “Well the first thing I would ask myself is, 'Is this really an appropriate time for a theological discussion?' It probably isn't. If not, I would say, ‘I don’t know. I’m so sorry. I love you.’”
I found this to be brilliant instruction. How many times do we spout off theological treatises when it just isn't the time? The person really needs to hear, “What you are going through is awful and I’m sorry that you are going through it because you matter to me.” And we start quoting scripture, telling them about God’s will or the nature of creation. Sometimes, we need to say less in order to say more.
Guy continued. “If it is a good time for a theological discussion, then I might say, ‘Well, God doesn't always get God's way.’”
He must have noticed my hesitation because he elaborated. “When people disagree with me on this, I ask them, ‘Does God always get God's way with you?’ Of course not. If it is true with one person, it must be true with others. And if God doesn't always get God's way with people, then God doesn’t always get God's way in the world. After all, if God did, then why would Jesus have commanded us to pray for God’s will to be done? It would just be done whether we prayed or not.” (Intriguing, huh?)
“But,” Guy said, “If God is omnipotent, and we are Christians, then we believe
Christianity is confusingly full of contradictions. The equations just aren't as simple as we would like them to be.”
I knew he was right. But what could I tell my friend that could comfort her, if only momentarily?
“There is one simple formula, though,” Guy went on. “God loves us. God just loves us. God always, completely, beyond-our-imagination loves us.”
“So, when our hearts are breaking. . .”
Zach, the Palestinian who guided our tour of Israel, knew a little something about aging gracefully. A grandfather who had been considering retirement for months, Zach was hard at work, leading our group of 34 American tourists through his homeland. He walked all over Masada and Qumran in 100° heat. He hiked through Megiddo and strode up and down the ancient streets of Old Jerusalem. All the while, Zach shared his knowledge with us: telling the history of the area, quoting scripture chapter and verse, and recalling vignettes particular to the sites we visited. As far as I know, he never once sat to rest; he walked every step I did.
A month after my trip, my family and my sister’s headed to North Myrtle Beach, my parents’ hometown, for our annual vacation. My brother, Hal, and his family were already there. A few weeks earlier, they had moved back to the area and purchased a home right down the road from our parents.
Unfortunately, things were not going well. Because of a series of complications and botched repair jobs, Hal was still not in his new house. For six weeks, his family of five had been living with our parents while my brother became increasingly frustrated with the work crews he’d hired to make his home safe for his family. As we sat around Mother’s dinner table one night talking over my brother’s predicament, the doorbell rang.
“It’s Mr. Rothman,” Mother announced. “Come in Dick; have some supper.”
Mr. Rothman has been a family friend for 25 years (he watched my brother grow up). He passed retirement age at least 15 years ago. Since that time, he has nursed his beloved wife through Alzheimer’s, becoming her daily visitor when he made the gut-wrenching decision to place her in a nursing home. In addition to spending hours with his wife (who long ago had stopped recognizing him), he visited the other residents of the home. Mr. Rothman brought sunshine to the lonely, even when he was heartbroken with loneliness himself. More than ten years after she became ill, Mr. Rothman’s wife drew her last earthly breath, while her devoted husband looked on, weeping.
Also during the last 15 years, Dick Rothman has been running his own business. An electrician and an expert in air conditioning repair, Mr. Rothman has plenty of opportunities to stay busy. So by 9:00 every morning, Dick Rothman is out making his rounds, visiting customers who’ve relied on him for years.
“Hey, Hal,” Mr. Rothman began that night, “I’ve been thinking about that job you’ve got going on over there at your house.“ He had been over helping my brother with odd jobs while a larger company had replaced all of the duct work in the house and then worked to get the air conditioning running again. The company, though it had come highly recommended, seemed to be botching the job.
“Here’s what they’ve done,“ Mr. Rothman said, taking a ballpoint pen from his shirt pocket and drawing on a table napkin. Hal nodded in agreement. “And here’s what they should have done.“ He drew a different diagram.
“Uggh!” my brother groaned, “I knew it! I knew they were not doing it right.” Dejected, Hal slumped as he propped his elbows on the table and covered his forehead with his hands.
And then Mr. Rothman laughed aloud. “Oh now, Hal,” he said, “I didn’t come tell you this to get you worried. Let’s worry about it tomorrow if they don’t fix it.” He folded his hands in his lap, smiled and shook his head, seeming to recall some distant memory. “’Wait to worry.’ I’ve got that written all through my Bible. ‘Wait to Worry.’ I have to remind myself of that. But the thing is, we’ve got plenty of time to worry.” He patted my brother affectionately. “Let’s worry later.”
Hal knowing Mr. Rothman was right, laughed with his friend--a friend more than four decades older than he, a friend who had reached out to him and pulled him out of his despair.
“The olive tree never dies,“ Zach said. No matter what it has been through, no matter how old it gets, the olive tree keeps bearing fruit. Just like Zach. Just like Dick Rothman.*
On November 6, 2014, Dick Rothman celebrated his 90th birthday. Two days later, he passed from this world into the arms of his Savior, Jesus. Hal's air conditioning still works just fine.
Soon I will be leaving Jerusalem and heading into Jordan to begin the journey back to my own promised land--Asheville, North Carolina. We leave the hotel before 7:30 in the morning and it is after midnight. (My mind seems to be unwilling to slow down for rest. . . )
Our guide and our lead professor told us that today's first two sites were not biblical sites per se but rather historical sites. But me, I'm a fool for a set of ruins so I couldn't wait to get to first Masada and then to Qumran. The plan was to leave Qumran after lunch and head to the Dead Sea for a swim before going to the Garden Tomb for our final worship experience in Jerusalem. It was an amazing day.
Masada, positioned off the coast of the Dead Sea, stands out from the rocky desert mountain landscape as fortresses are prone to do. The ruins there amazed me--towers, aqueducts, baths, a sauna, even an early version of a post office. Unbelievable. I got great pictures there.
Do you know where Qumran is? Well, it's right down the road from Masada, but that's not the important thing about this little mountain range of caves. I'll get to that in a minute. First, let me ask you this. Have you heard of Ein Gedi? What about En Gedi? (Same place.) En Gedi is a desert Oasis and we went through it today between Masada and Qumran. I don't have the scriptures handy, but you may remember the story of David pursuing Saul into a cave at En Gedi? Saul had gone in there to. . . well. . .you know. . .and then he fell asleep (note to self, never fall asleep on the toilet). David finds him there, decides not to kill him but just cuts a swatch of fabric from his robe (maybe to have himself a king's robe made?) much to the protests of his soldiers. En Gedi. That's the place. We went through it today and it is so plush and green in the middle of this rocky, sandy, ruddy desert. Beautiful.
Okay, so Qumran. Did you go over to Wikipedia and look it up? Well that was silly because I was getting ready to tell you. Qumran is the place where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. Remember I told you that Qumran is down the street from Masada and that Masada is off the cost of the Dead Sea? Thus the name. Dead Sea Scrolls. And I was there. Right there. Blessed Assurance.
Next we went to the Dead Sea itself where we floated and played in the water. We covered ourselves in the mud--supposedly it's good for the skin. Very refreshing.
We ended our day back here in Jerusalem at the Garden Tomb. As with much that happens here in the Holy Land, these sites are often disputed. Some believe absolutely that this site is the site where Jesus was laid. Our guide and our professor don't really think it is possible. Instead they challenged us to see it as the type of tomb were Jesus could have been laid. This was most instructive and helpful.
The Garden is lovely. The landscape includes ancient artifacts, blooming flowers and trees while small chapels hide here and there all around the garden. The Garden guide, an older man from the UK with a thick British accent, said before we went to our appointed chapel, "I don't know what you believe about this place being the place where Jesus was taken to be buried and I don't care. Because we who are Christians do not serve a dead God, we serve a living God. Our faith is not about where Jesus was laid when he died; It is about where he lives now that he is resurrected."
Our communion service will hold a private, special place in my memory forever. It was so sacred, so precious. And such a perfect ending. . . no beginning. . .to our Jerusalem story.
On my way back to God's Country,
Well I've come out of Egypt and am in Jericho now. It seems Egyptian computers don't speak Aileen. I could not access my website the whole time I was there. Oh well, I'm in Jericho for a moment or so and thought I'd sent a quick update.
We arrived in Cairo safe, sound and sleepy. We spent three nights there and two full days exploring Cairo and Memphis. The great pyramids of Egypt are something to see, but the venders who lurk there are something to avoid. The Egyptian museum offered lots of treasures, including the artifacts from King Tuts tomb. Here's something I learned: King Tut was so young and such a minor king that his treasures were really pocket change compared to what a great and older king would have had. Amazing. I actually saw the coffin mask--the coffin mask that is in all the text books. Hard to believe I was standing there looking at it.
Yesterday we visited a carpet factory where they make Egyptian rugs. They were so beautiful, so artistic. Children go to school at this factory to learn to make the rugs so that they can graduate with a skill. I took video there so you could see how fast their fingers move. You wouldn't be able to imagine it if I tried to tell you.
We also went to a papyrus institute. Paper was invented by Egyptians; did you know that? Indeed the word paper comes from Papyrus. The art there was captivating.
Today we spent travelling. Tonight we sleep and get up tomorrow to tour Jericho. As we travelled from Egypt to Jericho, I thought about the children of Israel. It is such a barren wasteland and I can't imagine what those people must have been experiencing. Egypt, even then, would have been so bustling and alive. The desert--the wilderness--so void, so dead. How bewildered they must have been once the running game stopped and they looked around to see where they'd landed. It is no wonder it took them 40 years to get their bearings straight.
As we were coming through the desert, at first we hit miles and miles of emptiness. Next, we approached mountains--and they looked nothing like the Blue Ridge. These mountains are jagged, red earth, with no place to even grab a foot hold, much less for a plant to take root. It must have been so scary for the Israelites. It's a wonder they didn't turn back. They must have been walking towards a promise. . .
Walking with the Children of Israel,