Arrival in Beer Sheva.

This month feels unusual. It should be unusual, as this month I have begun a PhD in archaeology. This month I have also moved country to the Negev desert in southern Israel. The two are connected.

I want to take some time to tell you a little bit about how I got here.

I left school with little understanding of what I wanted to do in life. I liked English- I enjoyed reading and hoped I might be able to be a writer or an artist. I had a set of good A-levels and GCSEs so I began an English degree at University College London. But that degree felt like a drag. I pushed on through essay after essay, because I felt sure it was the way to fulfill my dreams. It made sense logically. My mind could comprehend a natural path from English student to journalist to writer in maybe 10 years. But somehow it didn’t feel right.

As I was praying one morning in my apartment in the final year of my English degree, I felt God speak to me clearly. He said, ‘I have anointed you as an archaeologist’. I had been on an archaeological dig in the summer of that year with a friend of mine from school who seemed as bored with his archaeology degree as I was with my English degree. I had enjoyed the dig, but when God said those words, they sounded as crazy to me as I have no doubt that they did to you as you read them. I didn’t even know it was possible to be anointed as an archaeologist never mind what it meant, but something inside me knew that this was not just me and I was going to have to accept what God said one way or another.

So I looked at the archaeology section of my university website and scanned through the Master’s degrees. I didn’t want to do another Bachelor’s degree. The prospect of studying alongside another group of undergraduate students, many of whom were only in it for the beer, held little appeal. I saw one degree which sounded interesting- MA in archaeology of the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East- and I remembered how God had always drawn me to Israel since I was a child listening to prayer updates from a man called Lance Lambert in my parents car- he had a nice voice… I thought that I would go and speak to the course convener for this MA and see whether he thought it would be possible to do an MA in archaeology after having finished a BA in English. To my astonishment, his response was that it was what he had done at Oxford. This was the first in a number of unusual circumstances which were about to occur.

It turned out that my university was the only university in the country that provided a kind of ‘conversion course’ in archaeology that would allow me to proceed straight to MA level. Not only that, but the archaeology department was asking for students who wanted to participate in a dig in Israel that summer. At once I remembered what I had heard God say in a time of prayer during the first year of my BA. ‘You’ll go to Israel at the end of your degree.’ It made no sense at the time, but it’s exactly what happened.
While on that dig, I fell in love with the country I visited, despite how unromantic my experience was. I had no convenient schedule of visits to holy sites with expedient accompanying Bible readings. I used public transport with pathetically stunted Hebrew addressed to nonplussed drivers who evidently had no intention of speaking any English. I stayed in student dormitories with cockroaches as roommates.

I find that the little impressions God gives that catch unawares are often the most significant ways in which He speaks to me. One of those occurred while I was on excavation for the first time in Israel. As I wandered around the empty university campus in the height of summer, praying quietly, I had a sense – just an impression but undeniable, that I would study there for a long time.

And here I am beginning my PhD at that same campus. It could take 5 years to complete and a minimum of 4.

This is a much abbreviated account. I returned to excavate again at the same university in the middle of my MA, and I did not have to push to study here. My soon-to-be PhD supervisor approached me during the dig and asked me about my plans after my MA. It was maybe our third or fourth conversation and he essentially offered me a PhD on the spot.

At every turn, I have found that God is writing an amazing story as long as I’m not the one that’s in control. There are plenty of other tales to tell, and I am sure that there will be many more to come. The common denominator in all of them being my lack of forward-planning. I could never have planned these things.

But God did, before the foundation of the world, according to the Bible.

…He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will… (Ephesians 1:4-5, NKJV)

For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:10, NKJV)

I heard a saying recently, flying around on social media. It says, ‘Life isn’t about finding yourself. It’s about creating yourself.’

Don’t believe it. You aren’t capable of writing a story like God’s.

I think the point of all this is that God is a God who makes way, as long as He is the one who gets executive creative oversight.

Jesus says in the book of Revelation that He is always standing at the door knocking and waiting for someone to let Him in. We pass this scripture off as one for evangelism, but Jesus addressed it to believers. I am convinced that too often we who claim to love Him are the ones who are leaving Him out in the cold. He wants to write our lives as miraculous stories that only He could tell so that He will get all the glory, but the truth is that too often we still want to be sheep going our own way just like it says in Isaiah. He has to be the one Who makes the way. I leave you with the scripture from whence comes this blog’s name- it seems fitting…

Do not remember the former things,
Nor consider the things of old.
Behold, I will do a new thing,
Now it shall spring forth;
Shall you not know it?
I will even make a road in the wilderness
And rivers in the desert. (Isaiah 43:18-19, NKJV)

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Life at the very centre of pain.

On 26 January of this year, director Steven Spielberg (Schindler’s List) gave a speech in Krakow, Poland, one day before the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.  He spoke to a group of around 100 survivors of the holocaust, warning them of the continued dangers of what he referred to as the ‘perennial demons of intolerance’ (for a full transcript of the speech, click here).  Something he said at the time has stayed with me since.

If you’re a Holocaust survivor your identity as a Jew was threatened by the Third Reich… Antisemites, radical extremists and religious fanatics that provoke hate crime – these people…want to, all over again, strip you of your past, of your story and of your identity…

I had heard much about and studied the events of the holocaust.  I had seen films such as Schindler’s ListLa Vita e Bella, and The Pianist.  On my first visit to Israel, I had spent hours at Yad Vashem (the national Holocaust museum) overwhelmed by the magnitude of the suffering and pain which had been endured by the victims of the Nazis, and emotionally exhausted by the seemingly endless stream of personal testimonies that became ever-increasingly and tragically predictable in the destructive horror of their content.  But I had never considered the actions of Hitler’s demonic regime as an attack on Jewish identity.

But of course it was.  When the imports of this officially designated ‘sub-human’ race arrived at Auschwitz I (before systematic mass-murder was initiated at Auschwitz II-Birkenau, where four gas chambers and crematoria were constructed) they were stripped of everything which would have made them unique.  When the camp was liberated in January 1945, a room was discovered which housed pairs of shoes, floor to ceiling, which were taken from the prisoners.  Another housed sacks, piled floor to ceiling, of human hair shorn from the heads of man, woman and child alike.  Another housed suitcases.  When they arrived, all their possessions, clothes and even hair was taken and replaced by a number tattooed on the arm and a pair of striped cotton pyjamas which would be no match for the frequently sub-freezing working conditions at the camp.  Even dolls and other children’s toys were demanded from every child.  The hair was taken and used to make textiles, and many of their possessions were sold.  What was found was only a modicum of what was stolen; a token of a people reduced to saleable commodities.

Recently, I had the undesirable opportunity to visit the ‘death-factory’, Auschwitz, itself.  The prospect was hardly coveted.  I find the concept of ‘holocaust tourism’ disturbing on many levels, although I recognise the need to accurately record and remember the events of the holocaust that the lessons of history might at least be available to (and stand as a witness against) posterity.  But academic relationships took me to Krakow early this month and, having a day of free time, I felt that I needed to visit this place which bore witness to surely the most wicked acts of living memory.

As an archaeologist, I attempt to understand the nature of societies from the material remains that are left behind by their populations.  I spend a great deal of time, attempting to understand and identify people from their possessions.  So as I walked around the buildings at Auschwitz, and saw many of the accumulated possessions of those who were murdered there, it became startlingly vivid to me that this was an identity theft on an unprecedented scale – not for the purpose of possession but destruction.  The Nazi enterprise at Auschwitz was an attempt to permanently brand the Jewish people with death as their identity.  The Nazi ideology defined the very existence of the Jews as a ‘problem’ that had to be ‘solved’ by eradication.

Conversely, the identity and destiny of the Jewish people as defined by Biblical history and the words of God is full of beauty and vitality.

For you are a holy people to the Lord your God; the Lord your God has chosen you to be a people for Himself; a special treasure…  (Deuteronomy 7:6 NKJV)

You shall also be a crown of glory in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God, (Isaiah 62:3 NKJV)

Israel in the Bible is eternally and irrevocably identified with God Himself.  They are given divine and royal associations.  It was through this people that the God of the Bible chose to reveal Himself to the world; an uncomfortable truth for many Christians that also carries through into the New Testament.  All of the New Testament writers (with the possible exception of Luke) were Jewish and Jesus Himself is Jewish.  This centrality of Israel will continue into eternity.  All of the names on the gates of the New Jerusalem (the 12 tribes), and all of the names on its 12 foundations stones (the 12 apostles) will be Jewish names (Revelation 21:12-14).  God’s future home in the book of Revelation is apparently a very Jewish city!  All of this is wrapped up in the mystery and permanency of God’s election.

For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable. (Romans 11:29 NKJV)

It is one of the great mysteries of scripture that God has permanently given the Jewish people a divine and royal identity, regardless of their faithfulness to Him.

As I took the bus from the site of Auschwitz I to the Auschwitz II-Birkenau complex, I felt only a sense of deep desolation.  The tragedy, injustice and filthiness of the actions that had taken place seemed to be like a heavy cloud over my soul.  But when I arrived at Auschwitz II-Birkenau, I found something that shook my heart into one of the most profound experiences of hope that I have ever known.

Birkenau is the more famous of the the three compounds at Auschwitz dedicated to the fulfilment of the ‘final solution to the Jewish question’.  This second camp was constructed with optimum efficiency of extermination in mind.  The iconic train tracks stretched into the camp up to just a few yards from the gas chambers and crematoria.  The vast majority of those who came to Auschwitz II were dead within minutes of arrival.  As I arrived and saw the entry of these train tracks into the camp, I was deeply moved by just how sudden it would have been, and how unprepared the thousands of arrivals would have been for the closure of their lives.

I walked along the tracks until I reached where the gas chambers had been.  They are mostly ruined now, but what remained has been preserved.  The Nazis attempted to hide their activities with a hurried demolition of the structures after the war was lost.  As I approached the first of these structures, I heard a sound that I have come to know very well; it was the sound of Israeli Hebrew.  It was fluently and natively spoken by a young woman of about 17 or 18.  I noticed it as her voice began to falter and break into a quiver.  She was obviously trying to contain a great deal of emotion.  She was relating a story (I think!) of a family member who had died at Birkenau to a group of around 20 or 30 young Israelis, all wearing white and blue hoodies.  As she began to sob, many of the other girls from the group gathered around her in an embrace.

As I looked back across the site, and continued walking, I noticed that there were several of these groups.  There must have been around 200 Israeli young people visiting the site at the same time as me, learning together and comforting one another.  What was amazing to me was that in the midst of this place of such deep horror and grief, these young people were there and were filled with exuberant joy.  Some of them were running and laughing along the train tracks as they were heading towards the exit!  I couldn’t help imagining what rage Hitler would have felt if he could have seen this – how much he failed to destroy the identity of the Jewish people.  Instead, the presence of this new generation of native-born Israelis seemed to prove their resilience.

Those young people were a potent illustration to me of the unquenchable spirit and life that is the identity of Israel.  I was reminded of these verses from Isaiah, promises God gave relating to the time when Israel would become a nation in its own land again (that’s right now!).

So the ransomed of the Lord shall return,
And come to Zion with singing,
With everlasting joy on their heads.
They shall obtain joy and gladness;
Sorrow and sighing shall flee away. (Isaiah 51:11 NKJV)

For you will forget the shame of your youth,
And will not remember the reproach of your widowhood anymore. (Isaiah 54:4b NKJV)

The words spoken by the prophets of the Old Testament about Israel’s future in the land of Israel seem to be coming to pass.  The bold, vibrant and vital identity of the Jewish people is being reawakened.  As I write, I am filled with a fresh desire to pray, that Israel might come into the full inheritance that she has in God; that she might receive her own Messiah, Jesus, and that her glorious identity might be realized.  As the apostle Paul wrote,

For if their being cast away is the reconciling of the world, what will their acceptance be but life from the dead? (Romans 11:15 NKJV)

I am amazed at the faithfulness of God, that in the places of the greatest pain He is still able to come and show His life.  Like, Ezekiel prophesied, He has caused His people to come up out of their graves (Ez. 37).  He has given them breath and sinew and flesh.  He has revived them as He repeatedly promised, and brought them back to their own land.  As I walked around Birkenau, I kept hearing the famous Hebrew phrase, ‘Am Yisrael Chai!‘  ‘The people of Israel live!’  The identity of Israel is too powerful to be destroyed or permanently tainted.  It has its roots planted in the identity of God Himself, who makes everything beautiful in its time.

My thanks go to L-J B, who unknowingly helped condense some of these thoughts into something I could express on paper.

Isaiah 43:19

Dear friend,

The scripture above has for a long time been significant for me, not so much as a divine direction or instruction, but really just in that it has always felt familiar.  I can’t remember the first time I heard the words,

I will make a way in the wilderness
    and rivers in the desert. (Isaiah 43:19)

But, when the ‘way’ first opened for me to work with a university in southern Israel which is located well within the desert of which this scripture speaks, I began to take notice.

For someone who may have stumbled across this page in the endless availability that is the internet, I am a Christian.  I was brought up in a home that valued the truth that everything I have as a Christian, and the very constitutional foundation of my nation as a UK citizen, has passed to me through one unique and remarkable people; Israel.  My whole ethical code and system of values began to be birthed when the Creator spoke to one man living in southern Iraq and told him to go to the desert.  When Abraham became God’s friend, did he know that God would use him and his family to show who He was to the whole world?  I believe God still wants to do that.

In the verses that follow Isaiah 43:19, God repeats His statement but adds something special:

…for I give water in the wilderness,
    rivers in the desert,
to GIVE DRINK to MY CHOSEN PEOPLE,
21     the people whom I FORMED FOR MYSELF
that they might declare my praise. (Isaiah 43:20-21, emphasis added)

When God asked Abraham to be His friend, and to come with Him to the desert, He created a nation.  He separated Abraham and his family to Himself by showing them Who He was.  This family that became the nation of Israel experienced an intimacy with God that no other family had access to.  In the prophet Jeremiah, it actually says that God ‘married’ Israel around the time that He gave Moses the ten commandments.  He became united with this nation in a way He never has with any other; and it all started with friendship.  Ultimately, God sealed His commitment to this nation by becoming personally part of it in Jesus.  Do you know that Jesus has a nationality?  Some Christians think that when Jesus came, it meant that God had finished with Israel as a nation; their purpose was accomplished and now He could move on to everybody else.  I think exactly the opposite.  When God became part of Abraham’s family personally, He committed to them in an astounding and unprecedented way.  It is a miracle and a mystery that through the cross and through personal identification with Jesus I can become part of that family too as an adopted child, but I am certain that God’s plan is still to ‘give drink’ to His natural family in Jesus.

So in this space you will probably hear some news updates, maybe even some archaeology for the geek followers.  I will probably talk about God a lot and share some of the things He has shown me about Israel.  For now, thanks for getting this far – hope to see you again some time soon.