Westmont Magazine Finding Peace in Israel
Nancy Voskuyl Prayer Chapel
By Kim P. Kihlstrom, Professor of Computer Science
On Nov. 14, Ken and I were traveling in Israel with Westmont’s Europe Semester. We’d had an amazing time as co-leaders with English Professor Randy VanderMey and his wife, Dana, especially as the 43 students included our son, Kevin. For more than three months, we studied in and visited 13 European countries, ending with three weeks in Israel.
At a vespers service before we left Europe, the student chaplains asked everyone to write down a one-word answer to “What I want” and “What I need.” When they read the responses aloud, I noted how many times “peace” was mentioned and how appropriate that seemed as we looked forward to being in Israel. Shalom, the Hebrew word for peace, is well known as a greeting. Seeking peace in the Holy Land, the place where Jesus walked and the early church was born, seemed right. We couldn’t foresee how important peace would become to us while there.
Mark Thomas, whose son, Ryan, was a student chaplain on the trip, exhorted us with challenging and inspiring words at the service. Having been to Israel himself, he told us this part of the trip would be life-changing and spiritually transforming in a qualitatively different way than the rest of our time in Europe had been. His words became prophetic.
On the morning of Nov. 14, we received a phone call telling us that a brush fire threatened Westmont and our neighborhood. We talked to Katrina Harman, one of the four students staying in our home while we were away, and she told us that they’d been forced to leave rapidly but were safe with a relative in Carpinteria. They’d not been able to get our cats or any of our belongings out of the house, but what mattered to us was that they were all safe.
We left on the bus around 7 a.m. for our Benjamin field study. We told the group about the fire, and we prayed together. It was encouraging to learn that students on campus were safe in the gym, the designated shelter. We also cautioned them that early information about the fire would be sketchy and sometimes inaccurate.
We heard a report that the prayer chapel, Bauder Hall and the physics and math buildings had burned. Then Ken received a call from Katrina. “I have some bad news,” she said. “I was watching the media coverage on TV, and I am 95 percent sure I saw footage of your home burning.” I felt shock; however, a remarkable sense of peace fell on me. We told Kevin and the three of us huddled together. Then I went to the front of the bus and used the microphone to tell the others what we had just learned. I said that we felt great peace; the loss was that of material possessions. The important thing was the people, and they were all safe. Kristen Shomber, one of the student chaplains, took the mic and prayed for us. At our next stop, we sang “Great is Thy Faithfulness,” which is the college hymn. The text is based on Lamentations 3:22-23: “Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning. Great is your faithfulness.”
We continued our field study that day, receiving updates via cell phone and encouraging each other. That night, we received positive confirmation that our house had been burned to the ground. We continued to experience incredible peace. John and Debbie Preston, dear friends at home, filed an insurance claim on our behalf within about an hour of the visual confirmation. I also received some good news from my friend, Professor Lesa Stern. Before leaving for Europe, we packed up some of our personal items to make room for the four students. Most of these things we put into a newly purchased storage shed on our property (which also burned), but at the last moment Lesa had taken my wedding gown to her house, and it was safe. We felt so supported and blessed by our friends at home and by those with us in Israel.
On the following day, we visited Dominus Flavius, the church that commemorates Jesus weeping over Jerusalem. Carl Rasmussen, our instructor from Jerusalem University College, described how the Bible emphasizes the presence of God. In Genesis 23, God is present in the Garden of Eden; in Genesis 12, God makes a promise to Abraham; in Exodus 29:45-46, God says he will dwell among the Israelites; in Psalm 132, David speaks of finding a dwelling place for the Lord; and in 1 Kings 8, Solomon dedicates this dwelling place, the temple in Jerusalem. However, Solomon also says, “But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built.” That very temple was destroyed and rebuilt. Just as our home was destroyed, it can be rebuilt. Even more importantly, in 1 Corinthians 3 we learn that we are the temple of the living God. We are God’s presence, not the temple. God dwells in our hearts, not in houses made by human hands. This was very meaningful to me. Our house may have been lost, but God’s presence was not in the structure of our house, but with us always.
Carl also quoted Matthew 23:37, “How often have I longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings.” He pointed to a mosaic on the altar depicting a hen spreading her wings, and explained that when there is a barnyard fire, a mother hen will spread her wings over her chicks, sacrificing herself to protect them. The reference looks forward to the death of Jesus, who sacrificed his life to save us. But it also had special relevance to me that day as I realized that our three children (and all the Westmont students, our “adopted” children) were saved from the fire. As Ken commented later, we had visited Auschwitz earlier on the trip and saw what real tragedy looks like. We had lost our pictures, but we still had the people in the pictures.
During our time at Dominus Flavius, Ken received a cell phone call telling us that our entire neighborhood had not burned as we had thought. Our home was one of only a few that was destroyed. This was a shock. It seemed so unfair; why didn’t God spare our home, especially when we weren’t there to try to take treasured items? Ken, Kevin, and I huddled together on the steps for a few moments, sharing a few tears of sorrow. Many members of the group comforted us and showed their concern.
We then visited the Garden of Gethsemane. As we walked through the garden, I passed a plaque, but then out of curiosity went back to look at it. It read, “My father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt. Matthew 26:39: O Jesus, in deepest night and agony, You spoke these words of trust and surrender to God the Father in Gethsemane. In love and gratitude I want to say in times of fear and distress, ‘My Father, I do not understand you, but I trust you.’”
These were incredible words to me at that moment! No, I didn’t understand why God would spare other homes and allow ours to be destroyed. But in my time of fear and distress, I did trust him.
That evening, the student chaplains organized a prayer service for Montecito, Westmont and us. We prayed for the community, for the firefighters, for President Beebe and other college leaders, for students, and for the faculty who lost their homes. At the end, they asked Ken, Kevin, and me to go to the center, and they laid hands on us and prayed for us.It was an amazing time of comfort and encouragement! We heard words of scripture, words of affirmation for our ministry, words of hope, and words of compassion. We cried together and the words washed over us, bathing us in comfort. One particular passage (prayed by student Greg Poyar) stands out in my memory, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart. The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.” (Job 1:21)
Truly, God has given us everything we have. When we first came to Westmont, it had been a difficult choice. Ken’s other offers had promised more prestige, more money and dramatically less expensive housing. We had almost nothing at the time; we had never owned a home, and I was pregnant with our second child. A verse that stood out was Matthew 6:33, “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
God called us to Westmont very clearly through an amazing orchestration of people, events and timing, and he provided abundantly for our needs. The college offered us the opportunity to rent a home near campus when we first arrived, and we moved in sight-unseen. We loved the home from the moment we walked in, and when the college decided to sell it a year later, we were able to enter into joint ownership so we could stay. This is the only home we have ever owned, the one our kids grew up in, and the one we opened regularly to students for Bible study, Super Bowl parties, cookies, barbecues and hot tubbing. God has blessed us in so many ways through that home for 24 years, and we are so thankful. Now he has chosen to take it; and we will choose to trust him.
A few days later, we received a message from a trustee family offering us the use of their guest cottage not far from the college. What an unbelievable blessing! Ken, Kevin and I will have a place where we can come home. Our two daughters who live out of state (Kathy at Princeton Theological Seminary and Karen in the Wheaton College area) can spend Christmas with us. We will process together, grieve together, comfort each other, and celebrate Christmas together. Our hearts are full and overflowing with thankfulness to this wonderful family!
As I write, we are still in Israel. We have heard the words of Matthew 6:33 recited on the Mount of Beatitudes, where Jesus spoke them. We had the privilege of baptizing several students in the Jordan River. We have taken a boat across the Sea of Galilee as Jesus did so often. We have learned so much, and scripture has become so alive as we have walked where Jesus walked.
We do not know what the future holds. Just as the temple was destroyed and rebuilt, we hope and plan to rebuild our home. And yet we are confident in the knowledge that God does not dwell in temples built by hands (Acts 17:24), but in our hearts. Truly, we have found peace in Israel. Blessed be the name of the Lord.