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Climb the Mountain: Recollections of a Christmas Journey to the Holy Land

Yasmina and her sister in Cairo

Three years ago on Christmas Day I made a pilgrimage to Israel and Egypt to visit the Holy Land. It was a vacation that touched me deeply which I will never forget.

It was after my 15-month deployment to Iraq. I had extra money in my pocket from the deployment, all that tax free cash.  (Let’s reminisce about that line for a moment conservatives! Ahhh. No taxes.) I decided to make the pilgrimage because it seemed like the right time, and I might never get the chance again. There is no safe time to go, so if you really want to do it, you will.

I wasn’t disappointed. It was well worth the money. I arrived in Ben Gurion Airport outside of Tel Aviv shortly after the holiday. I took a cab to Netanya when I should have taken the train. I over paid the cabby, who pretended not to be able to speak English, paying him in the local currency and in American Dollars. (I didn’t understand the exchange rate and didn’t have enough of the local currency. It wasn’t the cabby’s fault. Oh well.) I had arrived. My hotel, the Blue Bay Hotel in North Central Israel, was right on the Mediterranean. I spent two days by myself hanging out in the hotel and wandering around the city waiting for my tour group. I spent hours on the beach meditating on my life, praying in anticipation of what I would see on my trip. It was beautiful. (My second mistake of my trip was to travel by myself without the tour group. I won’t do that again. I had traveled alone in Germany and thought I could do it. In the new normal it’s always better to go with a friend or with a group. Lesson learned.)

I met a lovely family from Canada who I hung out with for a few days there in the hotel. I still keep in touch with them on occasion on Facebook. The mom would later get symbolically baptized in the Jordan River, an emotional time for everyone. Their young son and I bonded well and I think of him as a new nephew. We enjoyed exploring the grotto beneath the ancient city of Megiddo together.

It’s hard to rate all the great locations we visited and the historical and religious meanings behind them. There was a snap and a tension in the air that was palpable. The Jewish people both the Christian Jews who were our guides and the religiously practicing and secular Jews were all very pleasant. The cities and the country side were all very beautiful, beyond expectation. I had anticipated seeing a lot of desert, but the Israeli people have done wonders taking back the land from the desert and turning it green. I went hiking in thick woods one time at the ancient city of Dan. We climbed the slopes to the top of the Ancient Fortress of Masada, and we took a dip in the Dead Sea. It was spectacular.

Jerusalem was beautiful and totally worthy of its own column. Maybe someday I’ll tell you about it.

What I really wanted to talk about is the Egypt portion of the trip, particularly the climb up Mount Sinai.

Only a small contingent of our fellow travelers continued with us from Israel to Egypt, and of those, only the youngest had any interest in climbing the mountain of Jebel Musa in the middle of the night. While the older people slept, the four of us gathered our belongings, warm coats, hats and gloves, flashlights and other gear and exited our bungalows at the foot of the mountain, ready for our trek. It was midnight when we set out. There was my Spanish friend Yasmina, her young sister, myself and one older gentleman, a 55-year old pastor from California. To get to the site where we were to begin our climb we would first have to trek three miles in the dark to the foot of the mountain. The mountain loomed over us and I could not tell the difference between sky and earth except for where the heavens were punctuated by moon and stars. It was terribly cold.

We met our guides at the foot of the mountain and we mounted camels there waiting for us, paying a dollar for the privilege. As we started up on camelback, I promptly lost track of the pastor and the two girls there in the dark. Half way up, the pastor paid his guide an extra dollar to take him back down. The saddles we were given were so small that they were only appropriate to accommodate the hips of a teen aged girl, with pins poking up in the front and the back keeping the rider snuggly in place. To me, the saddle was an annoyance. To the pastor, who was heavy set, it was intolerably painful.

The trip up the mountain was the most thrilling, scary thing that I have ever done, to include taking part in armed convoys in Iraq, and dog-fighting over the Pacific. In my mind I imagined pitching headlong into the dark and plummeting thousands of feet to my death. Nothing like that happened and eventually we reached to stop off point where we were to dismount. The last third of the way we were to climb on foot.

As we climbed I could see the snake of flashlights and lanterns lighting the trail all the way to the  top. Upon dismounting the camel I set about trying to find the girls. I did not know at the time that the pastor had quit the trail. After a few nerve-wracking moments of searching, I found the girls and we continued to climb the last few steps up to the summit. The locals use the term “steps” very loosely. It was not as advertised. In fact the rocky steps were so sharp and dangerous that camels weren’t allowed to traverse them for fear of injury. We were slow and careful in our early morning ascent.

After nearly five hours we arrived at the summit. At the top of the mountain there is a stone chapel built by local monks. We huddled together in its shadow under a blanket we rented by a local for a dollar (everything on the mountain costs a dollar, from the toilet paper squares to the splinter of The True Cross somebody tried to sell me).  Then, we waited for the sun to rise. It was incredibly moving. I could barely move; there were so many people snuggled together there on the summit. I was afraid to move for fearing a fall through the abyss. The locals were unperturbed. They lept around like mountain goats over rocky crags with bottomless falls beneath. To them it was routine to climb that mountain every day. It was just a job to them.

After sun rise we started the procession back down the mountain. Our guide then told us what happened to the pastor. He laughed at us when we expressed our feelings about how much of a shame it was for our companion not to stick it out and climb all the way. When we asked him why he laughed at us, he replied, “you may have the best of intensions, but your body has to climb the mountain.” Good point. The Muslim local had inadvertently quoted Jesus Christ who phrased it another way, saying, “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” We laughed at the irony, but we didn’t explain ourselves to the guide, who wrinkled his nose in confusion.

Americans have had it so easy for so long, we no longer want the hard work of climbing the mountain. We want everything handed to us and we expect a better more equitable result. Only hard work and effort will turn this economy around and bring back freedom for the average citizen. More government and regulation and more entitlements don’t bring happiness or freedom. They bring chains. We have to rely upon ourselves. It’s time to break the chains and start climbing again. Only then will we be happy with the end results that we profited from though our own effort and toil. No politician or president can deliver that result.

Justice is not delivered through secular law. A godless society is outside the law, a law without standards that can be changed at whim by the mob. John Adams remarked that the laws of our government were meant for a Christian Nation, wholly inadequate for the governance of any other. Self discipline is the only way to return us to the moral center. When people continue to fight over Air Jordan retro sneakers and toaster ovens rather than spending the holiday with family and friends, we deserve the world we’ve created. In order to return to our religious heritage and moral core we must not be afraid to push back against the atheists and secularists who want to quash all reference to God and morality in the public square.

Banish God from the public square and see the result. Violence in the Middle East and chaos at home.

This Christmas I will be spending my holiday with family, close to home, and I will be thinking about my brother who is getting ready for his fourth deployment, who won’t be able to join us. On the anniversary of Christ’s birth, I will remember my trip to the Holy Land, and thank God for the friends I made along the way.

Merry Christmas!

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