O Little Town of Bethlehem  

Posted by Brock Booher

“O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie.”

I love that Christmas hymn! In my mind’s eye I can envision some small desert village with smoke rising from the chimneys of modest homes into a starlit night while shepherds tend to flocks nearby. I can imagine the newborn baby Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger while the villagers smiled on. I must admit that my recent trip to the Middle East almost ruined the hymn for me. Bethlehem was nothing like I imagined.
Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem (You may notice the red and yellow flags from the tour company.)

As our tour bus entered the outskirts of Bethlehem, we were greeted by a large red sign with a message in Arabic, Hebrew, and English. It read, “The entrance for Israeli citizens is forbidden, dangerous to your lives and against Israeli law.” That was not exactly the welcome I was expecting. Our bus navigated the crowded streets dodging cars, pedestrians, and other tour busses. It was not the quaint, bucolic village I expected. Like most of the area around Jerusalem, it was hilly and roads wound up and down the hillsides lined with homes, apartment buildings, and the occasional inn or hotel. Eventually we arrived at a large parking structure for busses where a man in a paramilitary uniform directed traffic. Somehow, with shouts and hand signals, our driver managed to jam our bus into the underground building with more than twenty other busses. We followed our guide with his yellow flag brandishing the tour company name – “Fun For Less” – through the chaotic parking structure with the smell of diesel fuel in our noses. Even before we left the parking lot, we were attacked by vendors selling everything from women’s scarves to ornate, olive-wood carvings. We climbed the stairs and walked up the street to tour of the Church of the Nativity, the oldest Christian structure, built over the grotto or cave where Jesus Christ was reportedly born. The noisy street was crowded with shuffling crowds of tourists, aggressive vendors, and annoyed local residents hurrying about their business. It was nothing like I had imagined, and the phrase “How still we see thee lie” did not come to mind.

Britt entering through the Door of Humility
We entered the Church of the Nativity by stooping through a very low door appropriately named, “The Door of Humility,” which opened up into the main hall adorned with 44 columns. Although built for Christians by the mother of Emperor Constantine, the site today is divided and administered in parts by the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Armenian Apostolic churches and is a divided structure. We passed from one area to the other and eventually down into the grotto. The dark cave would have provided shelter to the weary traveling family unable to secure more comfortable accommodations. I imagine it would have been a source of peace and comfort to Mary and Joseph in difficult circumstances. Since that historic night, the site has experienced its share of turmoil – ransacking armies, terrorists holed up seeking sanctuary, and even brawls between monks of different Christian sects. I was reminded of the “dark street” mentioned in the hymn intended to represent our current human condition. “Yet in the dark street shineth the Everlasting Light.”
Inside the Grotto

After touring the Basilica and the grotto, our group moved to an alcove in the courtyard. As we listened to a lecture from the educator Michael Wilcox, the loudspeakers from the local mosques sounded the afternoon call to prayer – “Allahu akbar!” – and were reminded of the religious and political tensions of the region. 
Then, while Christian tourists, priests, and monks ambled by, we began to sing Christmas hymns. We were not professional singers, but the acoustics of the alcove carried our voices. A crowd soon gathered around us. During the singing I looked into the faces of our group and saw the devotion in their eyes. These were good people trying to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ in their lives. The Spirit testified to me, “Where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in.”
A passing monk

After my experience in modern Bethlehem, I imagine ancient Bethlehem differently than I did before. Like today, the ancient city was full of political strife. After all, Joseph and Mary only traveled to Bethlehem because of the decree of an occupying ruler. Like today, it was full of the hustle and bustle of a busy town with street vendors, shopkeepers, and travelers. I imagine it was a noisy, smelly place with its share of discontent and contention. Life, with all of its imperfections and irreverence, filled the ancient town of Bethlehem. Yet, in the midst of all of the commotion and banality, a miraculous child was born. My guess is that many in the town of Bethlehem didn’t even notice the birth because they were so caught up in living their lives. They were so busy building, selling, cleaning, eating, sleeping, and just existing that they had no clue that their best and only hope had just been born in a small cave in their town.

Are we like the ancient inhabitants of Bethlehem? Are we so busy studying, texting, entertaining, eating, sleeping, cleaning, playing that we miss our best and only hope? Life, with all of its activities and demands, can sometimes distract us from the miracles right in front of us. Are we so busy with the demands and distractions of this life that we miss the gift of eternal life that Christ brings us. “How silently! How silently! The wondrous gift is giv’n.”

Bethlehem may be nothing like I imagined. It may not be the scene of peace and tranquility I envisioned. However, in the midst of it all, Christ was born. Bethlehem may not be at peace, but I testify that the Gospel of Jesus Christ can bring us everlasting peace. I testify that He is the wondrous gift given to us today to bring and hope to our lives.

Take a moment this Christmas season to stop and unwrap the wondrous gift of Christ.

The "site" inside the Grotto

The Winding Road  

Posted by Brock Booher

The celebrity on the front cover of the inflight magazine was laughing and the title’s headline suggested that she was “in a good place.” I stared at the cover and sighed before shoving it back into the seatback pocket in front of me. I couldn’t say the same at the moment, but I was on my way to a good place in hopes of lifting my mood.

As I get older, my sense of wonder seems to wane. It isn’t like I stopped caring about what’s happening in the world, but I just don’t see the value of keeping up with it all. That same attitude begins to bleed over into all the areas of my life until I’m no longer fascinated with a sunrise, or moved by a sunset. My whole attitude slowly evolves into one of “been there done that” and I lose interest in the things that once brought me joy, not because I no longer enjoy them, but because I have lost my sense of wonder. The intrinsic value of the event itself hasn’t changed. I just don’t get as excited about it as I used to.

This happens for several reasons. Perhaps I have been disappointed too many times before and no longer expect the world to produce anything that might surprise me. Maybe I’ve done so many exciting things and they no longer feel exciting. Life’s challenges may have numbed me into a state of existence in which I no longer live, but simply exist as I stumble from one crisis to another. The result is the same—I just don’t feel like putting forth the effort to get excited.

Yes, the celebrity may have been in a good place, but at the moment, I wasn’t. My mood tasted like old yogurt, bitter and slightly sour. I wanted to be in a good place also, but instead I felt like I wasn’t any place at all. I felt like I was traveling a dark, unfamiliar road wondering where it would lead in spite of the help of a trusted navigator and pleasant traveling companions. My thoughts and emotions were unsettled by a heavy dose of stress at work, regrets over parental failures, and debilitating self-doubt.

My flight was taking me to Atlanta, where I would rent a BMW K1600 motorcycle and tour the Smoky Mountains and the surrounding states with several family members—a two-wheeled family reunion. I was hoping the trip would help improve my mood.

I awoke before my hotel alarm the next morning. Maybe I was more excited than I realized. When the attendant at the motorcycle shop rolled out the rented BMW K1600 motorcycle and gave me a short orientation, I was nervous. It was bigger than my bike and I was worried about how it would handle on the highway. I shoved all my clothes and gear into the saddlebags, slipped on my helmet, and started north to the rendezvous point.

In spite of being three hundred pounds heavier than my motorcycle, the K1600 handled like a smaller machine. The six-cylinders purred like a jet engine and provided smooth acceleration and ample power at any speed. The adjustable windshield and upright riding position also made it as comfortable as a rocking chair on the front porch. My troubles seemed fewer and fewer with each mile I rode, but I knew there would be some unexpected twists and turns ahead.

We all converged on Fall Creek Falls State Park, Tennessee, and met near a large waterfall. A family favorite for many years, the secluded park is full of wooded hikes and beautiful waterfalls. It certainly qualifies as a “good place.” We took a break and jumped into the cool water before riding on to Athens, Tennessee for the night. We all had a connection to this place, but life had taken us down different roads and across different thresholds. We came together to ride, even though our life’s journey had taken us along different roads.

The next morning, we got an early start on the Cherohala Skyway heading southeast to Robbinsville, NC. For forty-three miles we wound our way along the ridgeline in and out of the low-lying clouds. Built in 1996, this stretch of highway serves only one purpose—scenic driving. It isn’t the straight interstate highway with multiple lanes of traffic carrying the commerce of a nation. It isn’t a mountain road connecting a hidden valley to the outside world. Instead, it takes you to the top of the mountain and gives you a sweeping view of the world around you as you enjoy the motion of every twist and turn. The road invigorated me and I felt a spark of wonder.

We stopped at a graveyard in Robbinsville. My brother-in-law was riding and old green BMW motorcycle that once belonged to a friend now resting in the cemetery, a victim of a violent crime several years ago. His life took an expected twist, that by not fault of his own, cost him his life. I was reminded that life’s difficult journey could end unexpectedly. We paid our respects to a young man whose life ended too soon, but whose memory lived on.

Out of Robbinsville, we headed northwest on highway 129 towards Deals Gap and the Tail of the Dragon. The famous stretch of road with 318 turns in eleven miles calls to riders like a siren from a dangerous coastline. The Tree of Shame (a collection of motorcycle parts left over from various crashes) located at the beginning of the ride reminded of the real dangers found on this section of the road. I elected to ride ahead of the group and face the Dragon alone.

The comfort of the straight and easy road gave way to constant hairpin turns and switchbacks. I eased into the pace of the unforgiving road and then slowly picked up speed trying to challenge my abilities without scaring myself. The large machine purred along accelerating and decelerating at my command and I settled into a rhythm with the road. A few times I pushed harder than I should have and found myself at the edge of my capabilities. I passed a couple of bikers with less ability, and I was passed by a biker with more ability. My sense of wonder may have waned, but that stretch of road demanded my attention. If I was unwilling or unable to give it the attention it deserved, my sense of wonder would have met me head on as I recklessly rounded a corner and either ended up in a ditch or on the grill of oncoming traffic. Towards the end of the stretch I began to throttle back and relax, but then I rounded a corner and slammed on the brakes for a flock of wild turkeys in the middle of the road. Sometimes, life demands all that we have. Maybe it needs to wake us up to its challenge and beauty.

We met up at the end of the Tail of the Dragon and continued our ride together cruising the back roads of the countryside along small creeks and through less-travelled hollers and passes. We paid homage to my parents by spending the night in their hometown of Burkesville, Ky. Most of the trip I lived off of fried food and soft-serve ice cream, but that night we rode the bikes through the cool evening air to our cousin’s house for the best meal of the week. Joe David and Linda put out a spread in their country home that would make a five-star restaurant jealous. After dinner, we watched for deer in the road as we eased our bikes back to the Alpine Lodge above Burkesville.

We got a late start the next morning and headed south before turning east on Judio Road. After dodging a deer, we eased our bikes onto the ferry at Turkey Neck Bend and crossed the Cumberland river. We continued east along Highway 100 passing through the small country towns with their county courthouses, multiple churches, and Dollar General stores dotting the landscape. I remembered traveling the road many times as a child, but now I felt like a stranger. Riding a rented motorcycle with my hi-vis yellow jacket, I looked like a strange tourist in the land of my childhood. After so many years away, my sense of identity with the location had a waned and I no longer felt worthy to call myself a Kentuckian. But what place did I identify with? What “good place” would I call mine if not my childhood home? My feelings were punctuated when we passed my parents farm. With their passing, the farm was sold and now strangers live there. I twisted the throttle as I rode by trying to ignore the piece of land that I once called home.

That evening, I took a solo ride through Simpson County, the county of my childhood. The country road was dark and I rode the rented motorcycle more like a little old lady on her way to church than a man out gallivanting around the countryside of his childhood. I wasn’t in any hurry. Maybe because the night air was cool and comfortable after the hot and sticky day I had experienced, or maybe because I wasn’t excited about where I was going. Either way, I putted along on a machine designed to go twice the speed I was traveling. In the dark I could see my destination, but it looked nothing like I remembered. I pulled off the road onto an old semi-circle driveway with grass growing up through the crumbling asphalt. Once there was a large brick building on the spot—my elementary school. It proudly stood on a small rise along the country road, the flag fluttering atop the large pole in front. Now it was simply a farmer’s field full of soybeans. The playgrounds and ballfields behind the school had been plowed up as well. The only vestige of the vibrant structure was the crumbling section of the driveway I parked on. For a moment I remembered the wonder I felt my first day of school. I slipped the bike into gear and rode away.

We had one last destination together before we split up and returned back to our separate lives. In Marion, Ky, our Granny was about to turn 96 years old, and we vowed to pay her a visit together. She greeted us with strained voice and vibrant smile, happy for our visit. She still manages to live by herself, with a little help. After a short visit and an unsuccessful attempt to get her to ride to the restaurant on the back of one of the motorcycles, we piled into her old car and drove to lunch for some of the best fried catfish and hush puppies in the entire state. She smiled and enjoyed the familiar setting content to be seen out and about with some of her grandsons, grandsons-in-law, and a one great grandson. I wondered if she still enjoyed the twists and turns of life or if the simple act of going to lunch at a nearby diner was enough to excite her about living. We left her sitting in her easy chair with a smile on her face.

My older brother started for home as the rest of us motored south to the Land Between the Lakes. The trip was drawing to an end and we had chosen the bucolic highway through the park as our final stretch together. After four days of twists and turns the meandering stable highway felt peaceful, and boring. The tree-lined highway felt like a Sunday afternoon drive with your grandparents. It didn’t challenge us. It didn’t push us. It barely kept our interest. As gorgeous as it was, the road failed to capture or spark my sense of wonder.

After we traversed the park, riders began to peel off and go their separate ways. I soon found myself alone on the busy highway wishing the ride together could continue. The next morning, I chased the sunrise on my way back to Atlanta feeling melancholy about ending the trip. After I returned the rented motorcycle and boarded a flight for home, the same inflight magazine with the laughing celebrity greeted me.

Maybe I didn’t start the trip in a good place. I really couldn’t say that I finished the trip in a good place either. The stress of work, family, and self-doubt still loomed over me. However, I was reminded that the journey, along with its twists and turns, is more valuable than the place. The road of life is full of surprises. Sometimes the challenging road can scare us a bit. We may not be ready for the turn and might find ourselves at the edge of our abilities hoping we don’t end up in the ditch, or on the grill of some oncoming vehicle. But the twists and turns of life can elevate us more than the long straight stretches of highway. The straightaways have their place, but to a motorcycle rider the long straight stretch can lull us into complacency. Life would also be boring without the twists and turns.

Life is a journey, not a destination. Maybe life is meant to be a ride not a place. I accepted the fact that I wasn’t in a good place, but I realized that I was on a good journey full of challenge and purpose. I wasn't on the long straight highway of complacency and ease.

--> I smiled at the winding road ahead.