Dirt Tracks 6: The false summit
In the mountaineering world there’s a cruel phenomenon that has tricked many an optimistic climber.
The false summit.
From the ramblers of England’s green hills to the pioneers of Everest, pretty much anyone who’s ever climbed a hill has experienced this prank of nature.
Maybe you've know it too.
Step by step, you fight your way up the slope, eyes fixed on the summit. Little by little, it edges closer, beckoning you on through burning legs and gritted teeth.
The view opens up, the wind tickles your face, the pain is eclipsed by the feeling of euphoria as the pinnacle of your journey comes into reach. Sprinting the last few metres, you roll up onto the peak and discover…
…it’s not the top. The real summit is up another incline which wasn’t visible before.
Or maybe the one beyond that one.
For me, Jerusalem was that false summit.
But it really shouldn’t have been: I always knew the final destination was Nazareth and I had no reason to quit halfway. I’d told myself, ‘If I can make it to Jerusalem, I can make it to Nazareth’ and somehow that promise had reduced the second half of the journey to nothing.
The wonderful trail angels whom I met on the journey only reinforced this belief. ‘The Negev is the real challenge’ I was often told, ‘and the most beautiful’.
The second half, in comparison was set to be a dull, almost unnoticeable walk in the park.
The Negev certainly had delivered on the challenges, and the beauty. Rolling into Jerusalem after nearly 300 miles, I felt no small sense of relief. It seemed as if I had faced every trial and temptation known to man, from wolves and wild dogs, to searing heat and driving rain, with tired shoulders and bleeding feet. But I made it, with a little help from my new friends, and Jerusalem felt like heaven, the light at the end of the tunnel.
There were stalls of freshly squeezed pomegranate juice blended with root ginger, hot Arabic coffee roasted with cardamom and oven-baked trays of sweet melted cheese wrapped in a sort of oily sugar known as ‘kanafeh’ - the Middle-Eastern equivalent of a battered Mars Bar.
It was glorious.
I wandered the streets of the Old City, weaving through crowds of tourists, on paths that have been walked for thousands of years.
There were multi-coloured mountains of spices on every corner and the air was thick with smells and sounds, as thousands of pilgrims from every tribe and tongue joined the cacophony of languages and emotions. The intensity of being in a city that the whole world is watching was a surreal experience after the solitude of the desert.
I knew a Palestinian family in Bethlehem from a previous visit, so I made the complex 5-mile journey over the border to enjoy their quintessential Arab hospitality, chat about faith and football and write up the journey so far in the comfort of a warm family home.
I had friends from Bristol come out to join in the adventure and research a new documentary we're planning about the peacemakers of the land: men and women from both sides of the conflict who, despite opposition, have chosen to forgive their enemies, love their neighbours and demonstrate what it really looks like to be a follower of Jesus - the ‘Good Samaritans’ in this generation. In the days that followed, I travelled between the two cities, hearing their stories and discovering hope in the midst of the chaos that surrounded us.
It was one of the best fortnights of my life.
But I couldn’t stay there forever.
I filmed a couple of vlog posts from the Mt of Olives, hugged my Bristol friends goodbye and gazed out at the open road. It suddenly dawned on me that in the relief and triumph of making it to Jerusalem, I had entirely underestimated the task of walking another 200 miles onto Nazareth.
That’s London to Liverpool.
Or New York to Boston.
Admittedly, I was taking a more roundabout route than Jesus’ original journey, but I had one saving grace - an old Swedish friend, Daniel Abrahamsson (whom the Bristol guys dubbed ‘Swe-dan’ to differentiate between us). He had joined the team in Jerusalem and stayed an extra week when the others left, to walk the trail onto Tel Aviv with me.
If you’re going to have a Scandinavian friend, they might as well look the part: blonde beard, Viking strength, and boundless energy. In the 5-day slog from the rolling hills of Jerusalem to the stuffy plains of the coast, Swe-dan was a brother to share the journey with; a friend to bounce ideas off and a relentless source of encouragement.
Back home he lives with refugees from the Middle East who are seeking asylum in Sweden and he had just as many questions about the land as I did. He’s a folk singer by trade, a sort of Nordic answer to Johnny Cash and as we walked the winding forest paths he rumbled around a couple of new tracks, musically processing the emotion of the previous week.
My favourite track was, 'We refuse to be enemies' based on the lives of the Nassar family from the Tent of Nations, a Palestinian hill-top farm outside Bethlehem. I met the family last time I was in the West Bank and I wanted the others to meet them too, so we spent a day working on the farm with Daher and Daoud and catching up over lunch.
The farm has been in the family for over 100 years so when the government tried to seize it, the Nassar family politely refused. They were taken to court and - in a rare victory for Palestinian farmers - they won, thanks to the paper trail that Daher and Daoud's grandparents had kept from the Ottoman era.
Their court victory has not been popular with some surrounding settlers and they've faced no end of persecution. Their water and electricity have been cut off, access to the farm blocked and at times, people have even broken into the farm and cut their trees down.
Not revenge, or retribution...
That's not a story you hear very often in the Middle East.
'We refuse to be enemies' is their mantra and they overcome difficulties with good old-fashioned creativity. Rain-water harvesting supplies their water, solar panels provide their electricity and when they were denied building permits, they simply moved into caves.
When people visit from Israel, Palestine or further afield, either to support or challenge them, the Nassar family have a standard response: not a sob story or an angry rant, but a hearty meal and the offer of friendship.
Their movement hasn't gone unnoticed. Their struggle has inspired people from all over the world. When their trees were chopped down the first time, a Jewish group from the UK came out to help with the replanting and the second time it happened, a different Jewish party from the US joined in too. Their farm is a safe haven for their neighbours, Jewish, Christian and Muslim alike and their example has shown people that rather than the battle being, 'us against them', it can simply be, 'love overcoming hatred', or even 'enemies becoming friends'.
They are clear about the motivation behind their movement. They described their approach as the 'Jesus way', neither violent resistance not victim syndrome but something altogether different. You can read more about it in Dan Coe's blog post, 'The Fourth Way'.
It was so refreshing to meet people who were pioneering Jesus' way of life today in the very land his movement started in. 'Love your enemies' was undoubtedly one of Jesus' most provocative teachings and it wasn't just words for him. During his time in Galilee he would often travel into perceived 'enemy territories' such as Tyre and Sidon in modern Lebanon or Samaria in what is now the West Bank, not to curse them, but to bless them.
Jesus walked and talked the original Jewish mandate to be a 'light to the nations'. It wasn't enough for him to fulfil the story of Israel, he came to change the world, to redeem people from even the farthest lands.
That might sound far-fetched, but there we were, a scruffy Brit and a Swedish Viking from far-away nations, walking in Jesus' footsteps thousands of years later. We are but 2 friends out of the 2 billion or so, from every corner of the world, who look to Jesus today.
Not so far-fetched after all.
I assumed Jesus had deliberately chosen to settle in his hometown of Nazareth and the surrounding region of Galilee for exactly this reason, for the area was a melting pot of every nationality and religion in the land. But as I opened my Bible App and scrolled through the opening chapters of Matthew's gospel, I made a surprising discovery.
His family had never intended to go to Nazareth. Jerusalem was the city they had set their sights on. It turns out Jerusalem was a false summit for them, long before it was for me.
Jesus' family were from Bethlehem, next door to Jerusalem and the only reason they left it in the first place was that they had no choice. ‘Herod the Great’ was the supposed king of the Jews when Jesus was born and his reputation as a leader was not pleasant. He defended his position with violent paranoia, even putting his own wife and children to the sword, so when a royal party from Eastern lands turned up in Jerusalem looking for another 'King of the Jews,' Jesus instantly had a price on his head.
That’s a tough start in life for a 2 yr old.
No wonder they fled for Egypt.
When Jesus' father Joseph was informed that Herod the Great had died, he must have felt no small amount of relief. At last they could return home.
As they started out on that long journey through the desert, the expectation and excitement must have been tangible to the young Jesus, finally approaching a place he could call home.
For Joseph and Mary, returning from Egypt to their home in Bethlehem, they wouldn’t have missed the parallels with the great history of their own people. Egypt behind them, the Promised Land in front of them and God himself alongside them, it would be a triumphant return from a traumatic episode of their lives.
After weeks on the road, they would have swung east from the coast, probably just after Gaza and journeyed up into the hill country of Judea. Jerusalem would have appeared over the horizon as a shining light and the tantalising promise that they were nearly home.
If Jerusalem had seemed like heaven for me after 3 weeks in the desert, imagine how it must have looked to Jesus’ young family after years in exile.
Their summit was in sight.
Or was it?
Sadly, the despotic Herod Dynasty didn’t end with Herod the Great. When he died, his kingdom was divided between his 3 sons and a daughter, and a large slice of Judea, including Jerusalem and Bethlehem, fell to his son Herod Archelaus, who had the same disregard for human life that his father had shown. When Joseph heard that Archelaus had taken the reins of tyranny in Judea, he pressed on to Nazareth in the safer region of Galilee, further north.
Like many other details of Jesus’ journey, this is typical of the refugee road today: you’re never quite sure where your final destination really is. Last minute changes, unexpected dangers and false summits are just part of life for refugees. For the child Jesus, nearing Jerusalem, his long road home just got a bit longer.
All this was rattling around my mind as the bright lights of Tel Aviv came into view.
We tracked the Yarkon river north and west through bamboo forests, grapefruit orchards and endless bogs of thick glue-like mud. Swe-Dan kept my spirits high, strumming a six-string guitalele (apparently that's a thing) as we snaked around the sweeping meanders of the Yarkon all the way to the beckoning shore of the Mediterranean. We arrived late in the afternoon to see the watery horizon wolfing down the sun and we sat for a minute on the wooden decking that hugged the urban coastline, lost in the expanse of the ocean view.
There is something incomparably majestic about the ocean, but it’s not always a comforting majesty like the warmth of a summer’s day. For some, the rolling expanse is tinged with dread.
Like all great waters, it can turn on you in a moment.
A bit like Herod.
In the wake of the Arab spring, many fleeing refugees on the North African coast took their chances with the Mediterranean in perilous boats at the hands of human traffickers, in search of the supposedly safe haven of Europe.
Some never made it.
One picture in the newspapers of a three-year-old boy washed up on the shores of Turkey seemed to change the nation. My nephew was a similar age at the time and it stopped me in my tracks. I remember where I was when I saw it, standing by a newspaper stand on my way home from work, staring at the picture, glassy-eyed and helpless.
All across Britain, that image evoked the same reaction in millions.
Suddenly the political issue of the refugee crisis became a human issue, a tale of someone’s son or daughter lost at sea. There was a public outcry and a political U-turn. People decided that we had to do something, streets exploded with signs saying ‘refugees welcome’ and David Cameron, in response to growing public pressure, declared that Britain would take 20,000 refugees by 2020. Whether those targets will be met, or whether they are even enough remains to be seen, but for me, it was a sign that sometimes people can respond with action rather than apathy. The scale of crises like this can overwhelm us to the point of confused inactivity, but not this time. We can all do something, even if it’s just a drop in the ocean.
If I could walk 500 miles to raise money for A21, and those funds could enable them to save just one child, would it be worth it?
I thought about my 2-year-old nephew.
Suddenly 500 miles felt like nothing.
I thought about my own life, I was a small boy once.
In the great lottery of life, through no choice of my own, I started life in the relative safety of rural England.
But what if I’d entered the world in Libya?
Would I have ended up on a crowded ship in the middle of the Mediterranean?
Would I be here now?
Or would I now be standing by a wire fence at a camp in Greece, waiting, wondering?
What if I’d been born, not in the 21st century, but the 1st century, in the obscurity of a rural village in Egypt? I might have brushed shoulders with another young boy, as he passed through on a long and dangerous journey home.
That little boy, whose early years were so fragile, would grow up to be the man whose life and legacy would eclipse the Roman Empire - the same empire that buried him one cruel Friday afternoon, the day we remember ironically as 'Good Friday'.
Good for Herod maybe, for he finally got his wish, but not good for Jesus.
Or was it?
History records that the following Sunday his tomb was found empty.
What if Jesus came not to destroy his enemy but to redeem them, to love them even? What if his death really did pay the penalty for the weight of all human evil and his resurrection really did provide a second chance for all of us to live a different way?
The Jesus way.
It's a crazy idea, but as I reflected on my friends at the Tent of Nations, the Palestinian farm on a hilltop outside Bethlehem, I couldn't help but think... it might just work.
To make a donation to A21 and join the fight against human trafficking, click here https://www.a21.org/fundraising/dan-morrice/dirt-tracks
All images are taken by the author unless otherwise stated. Thanks to the LUMO Project for their reconstructions of Jesus' life. See lumoproject.com