“She’s not here.”

I was just trying to do my job. Just doing pastoral care the best I know how. I figured if I timed it right, I could stop by to see one member in the hospice house and make another home visit before Good News Club this afternoon.

I walked into the hospice house and headed for the room I had just visited yesterday. It was empty. Oh boy. I’m glad I visited yesterday. She must have passed. The room was empty, clean and ready for the next patient.

As I walked out, I stopped by the front desk and asked about the person in room 2. “Oh, they moved her.” Really? “She was transferred to Fish.” Fish is short for another hospital in the AdventHealth chain. That’s unusual. Why would you move someone who was in the last hours of their life? I asked, “I know you can’t tell me much, but why would they move her?”

Someone who appeared to be a nurse said, “I don’t know. I hadn’t seen her.” Another front desk person said, “There could be a thousand reasons.” Another apologized, “I’m sorry.”

When I got to my car, I tried to call, then texted the daughter. A few minutes later I got a phone call fro her. Her mom had died last night. That’s what I thought. But why didn’t anyone at the front desk or nurses station know that? Why didn’t anyone care to pass along that important detail?

I started to call the hospice house, just to let those at the front desk know that one of their clients had died. But I didn’t. Why waste my time?

I’m glad that God knows when a single sparrow falls to the ground, much less one of his loved ones. By grace, she was someone! By grace, so am I.

The best and the worst

After two worship services this morning, I headed out to Stuart Meyer hospice house (in Palm Coast, FL) to see Kay. By the grace of God I last saw Kay on Wednesday, the last day she was awake and aware. I was glad to talk with her, give her communion and pray with her. Within hours, the doctors found a brain tumor and plans were made for hospice care. From that time one, she was unconscious.

Early this morning, I realized I’ve known Kay for more than twenty years. Before we built a new sanctuary, and before we paid someone to be an office manager, she was a volunteer, answering phones and helping me get ready for Sunday morning. I did the memorial for her husband ten years ago. I will soon do hers.

A lot of pastoral care happens on the extremes of life. I am there at birth and baptism, and then at death and funerals. In between I get to be a part of weddings and marriages, confirmations and graduations, and birthdays and anniversaries. I get to share in the best of life as well as the most difficult times.

That’s what makes this job pastor so unique, interesting and rewarding. I get to ride the waves of celebration, wade through the muck of disappointment, cradle a new life in my arms and hold a hand one last time before their last breath. The words of encouragement, hope, strength and comfort are always my Lord’s and never my own as I represent Him in times of both life and death, beginnings and ends, joy and sorrow, and laughter and tears.

I began my day by holding a newborn baby in my arms and welcomed her into God’s family. I ended it by holding the hand of a child of God about to take her last breath in this world. What a privilege to experience both!

A few interesting people in a few interesting places

I quickly took this picture in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. I’m not sure who this man was or what religious tradition he follows, but I was amused to see him focused on his smart phone, just like I could be in any given moment.

Guarding a door at the Dome of the Rock

A little girl wandering around on the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. Her family is close by. She has the same sippy cup as my grandchildren.

Priest saying mass for a small group of worshipers at the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth. I believe he was speaking Spanish.

Great beret, sippers and tote bag.

An older Hasidic man browsing at Mehane Yehuda market.

Tell your story

On my recent trip to Israel, I encountered two very different styles of selling. One bugged the heck out of me. The other got me to purchase something.

After one full day of touring near the Sea of Galilee, our group was dropped off at a diamond store just down the hill from our hotel. We were assured that this was the best place to go if we wanted to purchase jewelry since Israel is one of the world’s leading exporters of diamonds. One of the store managers gave us a quick quick presentation on diamonds on the lower level. He then took us upstairs to the showroom.

A very kind gentleman with a clipboard immediately became my wife’s shadow as soon as we walked into the showroom. There were at least a dozen more like him, all of whom attached themselves to other members of our group. My wife simply wanted to look at what they had to offer and see what kinds of settings they had. Our friend followed us from display to display, from one side of the room to the other, just waiting for a nanosecond pause that might reveal interest in an item. It wasn’t five minutes before she said, “How do we get out of here?”

Later in the week we went to Bethlehem. Upon entering the city, we had an excellent falafel lunch, and then went to the olive wood store next door. We were told that this was the best place to get anything olive wood. It was genuine, handcrafted right there, and was far better than anything we’d see in the markets, which probably came from China.

After a little talk about the different products there, the same person who had waited on us in the restaurant gifted me an olive wood covered bible. Then we were free to look around. The selection was amazing, as were the prices. Once again, we attracted a number of folks who pressed hard for a sale. Each time we paused to look at something, someone was right there to make sure we got something off the shelf. They upped the ante by offering me the special pastoral 25% discount. Time was of the essence, too. When another tour group came in, we were herded towards the door. We bought some Christmas ornaments for the grandkids and headed for the bus.

I wasn’t surprised by those two experiences. I’ve been there, done that before. It’s just annoying. It makes us want to get out as soon as possible.

We had a totally different experience in the markets, though. Strolling through the Arab market in old city Jerusalem, we came across a different kind of store, one that sold antiquities. This store had everything from coins to oil lamps to pottery and other items found at archeological digs. The owner of this store was still opening up his store as he welcomed us. As my wife looked at some of the coins from the time of Jesus, I asked him how long he had worked in this store. “I am fourth generation,” he proudly explained, “And my son works here, too.” When his son walked in a few minutes later, we got to meet him.

He asked where we were from and when he learned we weren’t far from St. Augustine, told us his brother owned a pizza restaurant there. (I found the place on TripAdvisor, but we haven’t been there yet.) My wife had a few questions about some of the coins, and he pulled out a reference book that explained when each was used and where. He never asked us once to buy anything, but had a story about each item that caught our eye.

My wife not only purchased a coin mounted in a pendant, but also bought another as a gift for her mom. Our friends came in and bought something, too. We stayed in his little shop for about an hour altogether.

Later, as we walked by the many, many booths of Menahen Yehuda market, we paused at one booth with an amazing display of spices and dried fruit mixes. The smells coming out of that booth were amazing. When we pointed and asked, “What’s this?” he explained what the dried fruit mixture was, explained how it could be used to make tea or added to wine or eaten as is, and then gave us a generous taste. He did this over and over, working through the sweet and then the savory side of the booth. He told us how long each could be stored. He explained how he would wrap it up to take home. I bought four different kinds of dried fruit mixes, about two pounds in all.

I asked him if he was the person who’s name was over the booth, and he told us that he was almost family, but not quite! I then asked where to find the best coffee and baklava in the market, since there were so many stores. He thought for a moment, then pointed out where we needed to stop next.

Where we stopped next was a little coffee shop. Basket after basket of coffee was on display, and the young man working explained where each came from and which blends were his favorites. He gave us a little sample. You don’t have to work very hard to sell me coffee. I picked out the coffee labeled “Tanzania” and he told me they roasted that one right there. He scooped up some beans, ground them and brewed a nice long espresso for me. Delicious.

Not many steps from there was an impressive display of baklava. No one else was at the shop when we arrived, so the owner explained each variety. and which ones he liked best. He let us try one, too. Delicious! Could we take some home? Absolutely, he said. He handed us a box to fill up, then he wrapped it securely to pack in our luggage.

I’m fascinated between these very different experiences. I couldn’t wait to get out of the first two stores. But I could have hung around all day at the last three places. I’ve read a lot recently about how to promote your business or sell your product by telling your story. I got to see that method in the markets of Jerusalem from some vendors who did it extremely well!

A tale of two memorials.

Last Saturday, I did two memorial services, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. The services were similar, yet very different. Seven people attended the first service, including the organist and myself. More than two hundred attended the second, including the organist and myself, the choir, a soloist, an honor guard, plus a bagpiper and drummer.

I don’t often have a doubleheader, but I had been traveling our of the country for the last few weeks (as my readers know), and the families were waiting for my return.

I knew everyone who gathered for the first service in our chapel, including the widow, her elder, her sister, her sister’s husband and a family friend. After my sermon, I had a chance to ask them to share a memory, a story, or a quote and everyone did. It was a moment that produced more laughs than tears, speaking powerfully of the family’s love and closeness. I love it when God’s Word does exactly what it say it will, and turns our mourning into joy.

I did not know most of the people who attended the second service in the main sanctuary. The family began arriving ninety minutes before worship began. There were flowers to arrange, pictures to display, details to go over, more copies of the worship folder to make, sound checks, food to prepare, and seats to be reserved. After my sermon, the son of the deceased shared some wonderful memories which also made us simultaneously laugh and cry. More memories were later shared at a meal served in our fellowship hall.

From my preacher’s point of view, these were two very different experiences. Of course I enjoy a church full of people, but sometimes it’s easier to connect with a smaller crowd in a smaller space. With a smaller group you get immediate feedback. After speaking to a larger group, responses tend to come later. A big attendance tends to make me feel important (not good). Smaller numbers remind me they are important.

Jesus spent some afternoons with thousands of people. Other nights with just one. John’s visions of heaven in Revelation include multitudes no one can count. I’m looking forward to being a part of that crowd. He is certainly worthy of such honor and praise.

Early in the morning, though, it feels like just Jesus and me. I don’t deserve that kind of attention. But I always look forward to that private audience, too.

Mahane Yehuda Market

Our last day in Israel was the “go do whatever you want day.” My wife and I and a few friends decided we wanted to return to the Jewish quarter of Old City Jerusalem and then check out the highly recommended market, Mahane Yehuda.

When we started out, we didn’t even know the name of the market. But a shop owner said, “You are probably looking for Mahane Yehuda” and he wrote down the name for us. Great. Now, how do we get there? “Oh, it’s easy. You have to go deep into the Arab market, out the Jaffa gate, and head towards Jaffa road and St. George.” We thanked him as if we knew what that meant, and headed towards the Jaffa gate, where our taxi had dropped us off early that morning.

We got to the Jaffa gate. Now what? Aha, there’s a tourist center here. He sent us out the gate and up the hill to where we could catch the tram, a light rail train that would take us to the market. We saw the tracks in the road, and waited for the next train to come so we could see where the stop was. Once we got to the stop, it looked like we would need to buy a ticket. Not quite sure how to do that, a random guy simply directed us to a machine that had an English option. As I fiddled with the buttons and my debit card, a train came and left. Finally the machine spit out five tickets for us, and we boarded the next one.

I think this is the first time my wife and I have set out to explore a city on our own without a translator or guide with us. I really enjoyed the adventure! As we were told, everyone we asked for direction was extremely gracious and helpful.

Sitting on the train, I looked up and saw a sign announcing the next stop – in Hebrew. I can figure out some Hebrew, but now quickly. Before I knew it the announcement changed to Arabic. Not helpful. Finally came the English. We reached the stop specially designed to bring traffic to the market, and started down the street.

There is a lot of information on Mahane Yehuda Market on Wikipedia. Over two hundred and fifty vendors lined the streets, some out in the open, some under cover. There were fruits and vegetables, fish and meat, bread, halva, baklava, coffee shops, spiced and dried fruit, olives, and candy as far as my eye could see.

Turning into one of the covered areas, we came across Haachim Levy spices, teas and fruits. The young man working the booth enthusiastically described and let us try many of the blends of dried fruits out front that could be used to make tea, infuse drinks, or mixed into oatmeal. We bought three sweet and one savory blend from him.

Baklava, anyone?

We asked him where to get the best baklava and coffee in the market. With booth after booth selling those items, we wanted a recommendation. He directed our eyes down the long row of booths past several signs his favorite coffee roaster. “Just past that you’ll see an old man – that’s where you want to buy your baklava.” At the coffee roaster, I got a delicious long espresso made from a Tanzanian blend. Sure enough, just a few booths down we found a huge display of baklava. We loaded up a box with one of each that was sealed up so we could take it home with us.

As we continued to walk through the market, I couldn’t help but wonder how many in Jerusalem did their food shopping here. Throughout all our travels, we hand’t seen any grocery stores or Walmarts in Jerusalem. Maybe we just didn’t go through those parts of town. After a little research, I learned that there are some grocery chains there. But most people talk about the markets.

The experience reminded me of the markets in Baltimore when my wife and I lived there. The best thing is you buy everything fresh! I suppose after a while you would have your favorite vendors and be able to get exactly what you wanted in season and for special events. I could get used to a great selection of fish, meats and vegetables. I am too often disappointed with the grocery stores near me.

One cool thing about the market is that you get to talk to the person working the shop. Everyone was very proud of their booth and products, encouraged me to try samples, and loved to talk about their product, their family and the market. The few farmer’s markets near us give us a bit of that, but it just wasn’t the same.

I think I could have spent the whole day there!

Travel tips

Before a trip I often scour the internet for travel tips to various places. Here are my tips, gleaned from my recent 10-day trip to Israel.

Packing cubes are a gift from God. I tried a simple set from Amazon basics, and I am hooked. A few zippered bags made it so easy to organize and pack for each part of my trip. Where have these been all my life?

Travel-sized bottles of shampoo and conditioner, contact lens solutions and tubes of toothpaste last a lot longer than you think. Those quantities don’t seem much, but a bottle of each lasted us the whole trip. i brought extra, but never opened them. Good to know when you want to pack light.

Bring some instant coffee. My wife and I really look forward to our coffee in the morning, but quickly learned that whatever the hotel provides in your room will disappoint. Pack some instant from Starbucks.

A travel power converter is priceless when traveling overseas. Ours was light and affordable. It not only let us charge up our phones each night, but powered my wife’s hair dryer and curling iron each morning.

Pack snacks. I was pleased to learn that we would get two meals on the long flight from Miami to Vienna. I was not pleased at what they called a meal. I’m not even sure what some of that food was. Bring some fruit, nuts and bars. Your stomach will thank you.

I journal each day and love to use a fountain pen. I had no problem using a Kwaeco Sport with cartridges. I had no problem writing on the plane.

I brought along a money belt for my cash, credit card and passport. They weren’t very useful. Pants with zippered pockets worked better for me. I only brought along what I thought I would need for the day. Credit cards were welcome just about everywhere I went, so you don’t have to carry a lot of cash. My daily carry was about $100 cash, some local currency and one credit card. All the places we went welcomed American currency. Visa and MasterCard worked the best. I sometimes had problems with American Express.

By the way, you don’t have to let your credit card providers know about your travel plans. They let you know by text or email when your card is used away from home. If you have your phone in your pocket, they know it is you using your card.

I didn’t bring my computer on my recent trip and didn’t miss it at all. I was able to blog, navigate and WhatsApp with my phone. Leaving my computer and charger at home probably saved me five pounds in my luggage.

When you leave your country, just watch, listen and learn. I usually figured out what to do by watching the person in front of me. If I waited long enough, the announcement I didn’t understand was repeated in English. People are nice, helpful and friendly in every culture.

That’s all I’ve got for now. More later.

The sounds of Israel

So after spending 8 days in Israel and simply recording where we went each day, I now have time to stop and reflect on our amazing trip to the Holy Land. From the first moment, our tour guide, Tali, told us to take in our eight days with all our senses. I’ll begin with what I heard.

Twelve hours in the air from Miami to Vienna and then Vienna to Tel Aviv on Austrian Airline meant I had numerous chances to hear German followed by English instructions and updates on the plane. I took two years of German in high school plus two semesters in college. I may not remember much of the vocabulary, but surprisingly I could follow the conversation when the pilot let us know how far we were from our destination or what kind of food might be served next.

It was hard to get to sleep our first night at the hotel on the Sea of Galilee because of a large, loud party on the beach below us that didn’t break up till about midnight. I might not have minded had we been invited!

I sat in the front row of our tour bus, so I got to hear the wide variety of music our driver, Anatoli, played while on crowed city streets and highways between destinations. He switched between Hebrew talk radio, classical, Broadway show tunes, country, and a little techno thrown in for good measure.

From time to time we would be outside to hear a Muslim call to prayer. These were digital, not live. I am not sure I’ve ever heard one before and was surprised at how long a call lasted. Each seemed like a minute or more. We must not have been in Arabic locations, because I did not see many people bow in prayer.

A sea of tour busses surrounded us everywhere we went, filled with visitors from all over the world. As the groups passed, I heard Spanish, Portuguese, French, Russian and English tour guides pointing out the sites and explaining some history behind each. Each person in our group wore a headset, too, and the voice of our tour guide was always in our ear, explaining what we were looking at and where we were headed next.

Sometimes I heard nothing. Silence. Some sites prohibited explanations, so we took it all in with our other senses. At some, reverence for the moment and respect for those praying or meditating dictated quiet. Silence has a way of accentuating the holy. It was very quiet at the Church of the Beatitudes. A nun made sure of that. It was also virtually silent at Mary’s house in the Church of the Annunciation.

Church of the Beatitudes
(See the water flowing from the altar)

It was not quiet at all in the church of the Holy Sepulcher. I thought the place was packed, but our guide said it was only about 60% of what she had seen. Crowds of people in long lines and constant conversation in every conceivable language surrounded us everywhere we went. We did not stay long, but it is a busy, busy place!

Church of the Holy Sepulcher

In some remote places like Qumran, Masada and Caesaria Philippi, I heard the songs of birds. Some where there because our guide brought a few crumbs to feed some of them. Others were just curious or up in the trees.

At the Western wall in Jerusalem I was surrounded by many speaking or singing prayers. They sat in chairs in front of the wall with prayer books or scripture open before them. Many sang psalms at the site of King David’s tomb as well. We didn’t spend a lot of time in those places, but I imagine that some who came spent a large portion of their day there.

The souvenir shop at the Jordan River baptismal sight had a selection of shofar (rams horn trumpets) you could try. I heard these being blown in the store and also several places along the way. I was the only one in our group to blow a few notes.

At Temple Mount, a vigilant voice broke up couples who were simply holding hands or had arms around one another for a picture, warning, “No hug! No touch!” No one had to be warned more than once.

A boat took us out onto the Sea of Galilee. Once out there, the pilot cut the engines, and I heard nothing but the breeze, a few birds and the sound of gentle waves against the side of the boat. I really enjoyed this calm, peaceful moment.

On our way from someplace in Jerusalem to some other place, we came across a family celebrating their three-year-old son’s first haircut. I didn’t know that was a thing. But they beat on drums, sang songs and released blue and white balloons into the air, too.

First haircut celebration

Other sounds included the hiss of the espresso machine at a market coffee shop, the sizzle of an omelette griddle at our second hotel, the enthusiastic description of so many dried fruit mixes at one market stall, and the endless invitations to check out the merchandise at each and every shop in the Arab market.

For me, the best sound was my own voice singing in St. Anne’s church by the pool of Bethesda in Jerusalem. The acoustics were amazing. A sung phrase would linger in the air for five seconds. So I could sing and then listen, sing and listen, and marvel at the rich sounds surrounding me.

St. Anne’s

Unfortunately, my days were peppered by voices in our group complaining about long lines, waits and walks during the day and hotel room problems at night. Each concern was legit, but come on, folks. The opportunity to walk where Jesus walked and see all those places I’ve only read about before is worth a little inconvenience. At least it was for me.

When I began writing this, I had no idea how many sounds I would recall. I suspect I’ll remember more, so there might be a part two.

Israel (Day 8)

Today was our “free” day. A few of us decided to spend s little more time in the Old City of Jerusalem.

When we met in the hotel lobby after breakfast, there was already a cabbie looking for a fare, so we hopped in. Our driver was a native of Jerusalem and shared s little of his views on yesterday’s election.

He dropped us off at the Jaffa gate, after we got our bearings, we headed down through the Arab market. We happened across Bassam Barakas, a fourth generation antiquities dealer who had more to offer than the usual trinkets (like yarmulkes with NFL logos). We purchased a pendant with a “widow’s mite” from the 1st century B.C. from him.

Bassam told us that his brother Yosef owns Tony’s Pizza in St. Augustine. We’ll check it out when we get home.

We returned to yesterday’s lunch place, the Upper Gate, for fish meatballs, salmon, and falafel.

After lunch we left the city and took a tram to Menachen Yehuda market, a huge area selling everything you can imagine. We bought some awesome dried fruit from Haachim Levy, drank a Tanzanian long espresso from a little coffee roaster, and bought some baklava to bring home with us.

After a quick taxi ride home, we packed a little, had a drink, and joined our group for a farewell dinner. Our bus to the airport leaves very early in the morning, so it’s time to get a few hours sleep.