My year at Jerusalem University College has come to an end. My bags are packed. My room is cleaned and checked out. As I post this, I am awaiting my 12:30 AM Sherut that will take me to the airport for my 5:30 AM flight. 28 hours later, I’ll be back in Austin.
The year has gone by in the blink of an eye (although, my wife might disagree). Yet, I look back on all that I’ve learned and experienced over these two semesters, and I am amazed at what’s been accomplished. It’s been everything I expected and more.
When I decided to come to JUC, I had pretty clear expectations of what I hoped to gain. I wanted to learn how to better study and understand the Bible in its proper context (cultural, geographical, archaeological, etc.). I wanted to study with world-class scholars and I wanted to explore this land with all 5 of my senses. I wanted to do this because the things taught here are just not really covered in seminaries and universities in the USA. In my view, it’s a big gaping hole in Christian education today. JUC has been everything I had hoped it would be and so much more. This place is probably the best-kept secret for Biblical study in the entire world—and I miss it already.
Yet, over the course of my life, I have found that God often has different plans than those I make. I have found that His plans are so much better than what I am even able to ask for or imagine. For example, back in 2005, my company asked us to move to Europe so that I could run our Europe, Middle East, Africa operations. It was a great opportunity that we jumped into with great enthusiasm. Professionally, it was a great experience. Personally, our kids got cultural exposure and education that most in the USA never get. Yet, I soon realized that God had put us there to work with a local church. Looking back, it was our work with that church and the relationships we developed there that were the true blessing of our time in Belgium. And now, God, in his infinite wisdom and steadfast love, decided to use JUC to teach me that there are even greater lessons to be learned than those learned in the classroom. For me, that surprise blessing was community.
Back in the USA, when people would ask about how things were going in Jerusalem, they often asked if I had an apartment. When I told them I was living in a dorm room on campus, most of them found it hilarious. How was it possible that I (at 54 years old) could go from living in a comfortable home to a single room and sharing bathrooms with 25-30 other people? How could I go back to living like a college student in a dorm room? Most couldn’t imagine doing it themselves. Yet, this life has been a real blessing to me this past year.
Something special happens when people are “forced” to live in close proximity to one another. Bonds are formed. People learn how to get along with one another. When everyone is in the same boat (i.e. away from home, a foreign country, taking the same classes, papers, exams, etc.) you find that your differences are much less important than what you have in common. That is exactly what happens at JUC.
The students at JUC come from diverse backgrounds. We were from different Christian denominations covering much of the spectrum (e.g. Mennonite, Pentecostal, Reformed, Anglican and everything in between). We were of very different ages (19-60+), from all around the world and from very different life experiences (this became very evident in a recent game of “Never Have I Ever” where I was the first out of the game…repeatedly). We had a wide range of beliefs about any number of theological issues and worship practices—not to mention political views. On top of this add in all sorts of different personality types. In fact, the only thing that all of us had in common was that we decided to come to JUC! Despite all these differences, we were united in the fact that we wanted to study here, for many of the same reasons. From that seed, a community grew and developed.
I don’t want to give the impression that living in community is easy. At times, it can be really hard. We’ve had to deal with sickness, depression, relationships and deaths of family members. On top of that, people can get on each other’s nerves. As in many situations, there was still a tendency to organize into subgroups based upon shared interests. And, of course, there are times when everyone just wants some time alone away from community.
What my JUC community has taught me is that when you are all “in the thick of it,” your focus changes. In a healthy community, everyone is focused on how can we all grow through this together. Your differences become much less important because you are united by common goals and passion.
What God has helped me understand better via this community is what he expects of His church. In Acts 2, Luke describes the early group of believers in Jerusalem after the day of Pentecost. He describes what they were like: “Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved” (Acts 2:46-47, NRSV). Luke describes a community of believers bound to one another through Jesus. From his description, things appeared to be working together in perfect harmony. In Hebrew, that is called “Shalom.”
If I use my “divine imagination” to re-write Acts 2:46-47 to fit our community at JUC, it might go something like this: “Day by day, as they spent much time together in classes, they broke bread in the dining hall and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were joining their community.”
Our society has pushed us towards isolation. We live in the suburbs only venturing out to cut our lawns or get in our cars to go to other places. We spend time alone in our cars and alone on our computers. We seek “community” from Social Media rather than engaging in face-to-face connection with people. We have lost touch with the “village” community that is the foundation of Scripture.
Unfortunately, our churches don’t always help either. We livestream our services so people can watch from home. We view church success through attendance, size of budget and quality youth programs. Yet, what can easily suffer is community. I know in our large congregation in Austin (which, by the way, I love deeply) it is too easy for people to slip through the cracks. It’s not because people don’t care about each other. It’s that with so many people, it’s easy to miss who is no longer there until it’s too late. And in case you are thinking that only applies to churches of 500 or more people, I’ve seen the same thing happen in churches of 100 or fewer. So keep your rocks in your pocket and step away from the glass walls of your house.
JUC has taught me that it’s possible to worship and have fellowship with other believers who think very differently than I might think. Our unity came through Jesus, the rest didn’t really matter. However, in the interest of full disclosure, I was singled out as a heretic to be burned at the stake for a certain class discussion. Yet, it was all in good fun—at least I think it was. But I digress. Anyway, notice that in Luke’s description of the early church, he doesn’t talk at all about their theological positions. His focus was on their life as a community. It was how they lived in community that brought others into that community. I wonder how God’s Kingdom would be impacted if all churches adopted this type of mutual acceptance in spite of our differences.
For most Christians, the word “church” means the building. Sure, we might know that’s not what it really means, but like me you probably say, “I’m going to church,” meaning the place more than the people. We could gain a lot by simply changing how we refer to the church as the people rather than the place—maybe something like, “I’m going to meet with the church.”
JUC has a tradition when students leave campus at the end of the semester. No matter what time of the day or night a student is leaving, everyone that can gathers at the gate to see them off and wish them well. It’s a really special time. Mine is coming up very shortly and, honestly, I am dreading it. As excited as I am to be home and to be back together with my wife and family, I am sad to see this chapter end and the loss of this community—at least for a while.
Even though I expect that many of us will continue to keep in touch as we move from here, it’s going to be different than living together in community day-in-and-day-out. As a Christian, I believe that in the World to Come there will be a restoration of all things back to the way they were intended to be from the beginning. I think one of those things will be community—a great big community of all God’s people. In that sense, I look forward to the restoration and perfection of the JUC community with those I have come to know and love here.
So, to my wife: thank you for being so supportive and strong throughout this wild process. I love you more than you can possibly imagine. This great adventure wouldn’t be possible without your love and support, and there is no one I’d rather be on it with than you. I can’t wait to be home.
To my brothers and sisters at JUC, thank you for living out what it means to be a community of believers. I have enjoyed every minute of this journey with you. I pray that God will continue to bless you and keep you and that His face will continually shine upon you and that He will give you His Shalom.
“Now to Him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to His power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever! Amen.” (Eph. 3:20-21, NIV)
PS. For those wondering if this is my last blog post, the answer is: No Way. You don’t get off that easy. I have so much more I want to share.
The journey continues…