Friday, November 16, 2012

Pray for the Middle East

For those of us who just returned from 8 days in Israel the escalating violence of the last few days reminds us of how much the "Holy Land" is a study in contrast.  As peace-filled and inspiring as our pilgrimage was, we were aware in the last couple of days that rockets were launching across the borders of Israel and Palestinian territory.  It now grows worse. 

The answers are not easy.  We learned while there that the region is a complex web of passion, rage, belief and yearnings for peace.  It brings to mind the words from Phillips Brooks' great Christmas Carol, O Little Town of Bethlehem: The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight. 

So as we descended a few days ago down the Mount of Olives and prayed, like Jesus, for the peace of Jerusalem, so we continue in that prayer.  And as Jesus the miracle worker long ago changed the course of history in that land, so we pray for miracles again to occur by God's grace, and through peace see history change again. 



Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Israel: Day 8
We awakened to a brilliant blue sky this morning, perfect for our last day in Israel.  With 36 hours of touring and traveling ahead of us we lingered a bit at breakfast and pushed off at 9:00.  Our first stop was the Garden Tomb.  This is an alternative site for Christians to remember and celebrate the crucifixion and resurrection.  The Golgotha-like hill and first century tomb and beautiful gardens put our hearts in a place of reflection and gratitude. We celebrated communion together and heard the testimony of many of how the risen Christ had appeared to them.

From the Garden Tomb we made our way back to the Old City where we visited the Pool of Bethzatha written about in John 5.  Here Jesus healed a man who had been paralyzed for 38 years.  Next to the Pool stands St. Anne's Church, a Crusader church from the 12th century that features lovely acoustics.  We sang Amazing Grace and the Doxology, pausing to hear the sound of our voices reverberate through the sanctuary.

Then it was off to lunch near the American Consulate and a tour of a diamond manufacturer's museum.  The gift shop below proved too great of a temptation for a few folks. 

We traveled then to Emmaus and to the Crusader church that stands to commemorate the walk to Emmaus by two of Jesus' followers Easter afternoon.  We were greeted by serene gardens, restored frescoes within and a welcoming brother of the monastery who held out hope for us that the world shall someday know peace through the gift of gracious hospitality.  His words were a benediction upon our eight days.  It was a perfect way to end our pilgrimage.

On the way to our farewell dinner we stopped for a moment for some to see the excavations of the 1000 B.C. City of David.

At dinner we laughed and talked and gave thanks for an incredible journey.  The coveted Baby Camel Awards (you'll have to ask one of the pilgrims what that means) were handed out to folks who uniquely distinguished themselves during the trip.  Best of all, we gave loving gifts and ovations to the two men without whom we could not have gone the first mile -- Andre our guide and Wallid our driver.  If any two men ever embodied the gifts of knowledge, navigation and graciousness these men do.  We shall remember them forever.

Off to Ben Gurion airport we fled arriving three hours before our flight.  It took just about every bit of it to get everyone through security and onto the plane.  At 11:22 pm we winged above the lights of the Promised and Holy Land rejoicing that the good Lord had kept us safe and blessed us with encounters that will alter our lives forever. 


Monday, November 12, 2012

Israel: Day 7
Our overnight prayers were not enough to keep the rain clouds away, but a little precipitation could not deter us from a full, full day. 

We began with the traditional pilgrim walk down the Via Dolorosa.  Starting at the site of the Antonio Fortress, where Pontius Pilate held court, we paused in the Chapel of Condemnation and reflected on the journey of Jesus to the cross, the Lamb of God slain forth sins of the world.  We commenced our walk through the Old City with brief stops along the Stations of the Cross.  We ended on the roof of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and then descended into the church where we took in the sites where Jesus was both crucified and buried.  The church seemed full of people from every nation, causing us to rejoice that the gospel has truly gone to the four corners of the world. 

From the Holy Sepulcher we paused for an early lunch at a small cafe.  After this brief respite, and with bodies fortified, we made our way back to the Temple Mount and waited for the gates to open so we could walk the   grand courtyard where the Temple once stood.  It is now the site of the Dome of the Rock, the most recognized of all Muslim mosques.  While we waited entry we had a front row view of the procession of four or five Bar Mitzvah parades complete with drums, shofars, tambourines, singing and dancing.  A few of our ladies even got recruited for a circle dance celebrating one young man's sacred passage.

After our tour of the Temple Mount, from which we viewed with awe the Mount of Olives, we returned to the bus for a short ride to Mt. Zion. 

At Mt. Zion we climbed the steps to the Upper Room and reflected upon the sacred meal of Jesus that celebrated the Passover and prepared the disciples one last time for the mission ahead of them.

From the Upper Room we walked a short distance to the House of Caiaphas, the High Priest in Jesus' day.  We viewed there a model of sixth century Jerusalem.  Afterward we toured the beautiful church that covers the site of the first century house and the dungeon below where Jesus spent his last night before dying on the cross. We heard a devotion encouraging us to remember that the same grace that was sufficient for Peter, who denied Jesus three times in the high Priest's courtyard, is sufficient for us.  We sang Amazing Grace in response to this good news.

Before we knew it the sun was setting and we were ready for our warm hotel rooms and dinner and one last night in the holiest of all cities.

Tomorrow we commune at the Garden Tomb and reflect upon the resurrection as we prepare for our final dinner together and a late, late departure from Ben Gurion Airport to home. 


Sunday, November 11, 2012

Israel: Day 6 
We title today: Two Rainbows Over Jerusalem.  Of course to have rainbows you have to have rain.  And we had rain.  Fortunately though it occurred in the afternoon after we had already descended the Mount of Olives and visited the "Wailing" Wall. 

The day began with standing atop the Mount of Olives and receiving a lesson from Andre on Jerusalem geography.  Once we got our bearings we pondered the great Pilgrim Psalm, Psalm 122 and prayed for the peace of Jerusalem.  We descended to the place where Jesus paused in his triumphant entry to pray and weep over Jerusalem.  Our devotion encouraged us to consider our own journeys and what Christ was calling us to do as he says, "Follow me."

We proceeded down to the bottom of the Mount to the Garden of Gethsemane.  We paused before the ancient olive trees in the garden and imagined where Jesus may have knelt and prayed for the cup to pass and for God's will to be done. Our devotion challenged us in our own prayer lives and how we might trust God for the strength and guidance we need. 

Then it was on to the Old City of Jerusalem where we visited what some call the Wailing Wall, but what the people of Israel call simply The Wall. Perhaps the holiest of all Jewish sites. Each took their turn before the 2000 year old stones and prayed.  From there we toured the foundations of the original first century Temple through the Western Wall tunnel and saw cut stones 50 million tons big. King Herod knew how to build!!!

As the rain began that was our cue for lunch.  But  on our way we looked behind us to see a rainbow rising in the sky, arching over the Temple Mount reminding us again that God never gives up on us. 

We spread ourselves around the Jewish Quarter for some sandwiches. After lunch and on our way to the bus we saw another rainbow higher in the sky -- as if to say, "Don't forget!"  We loaded up and traveled to the Israel Museum and viewed the Shrine of the Book which contains exhibits of the Qumran Dead Sea Scrolls. Original fragments are on display.

We ended the day with a sobering visit to Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Memorial and Museum.  The exhibits are nearly overwhelming with the suffering of so many at the hands of the Nazi's.  Man's inhumanity to man.  The final exhibit was the Children's Memorial, a darkened room with endless points of light.  Each point a reflection from one light.  I couldn't help think of God pointing Abraham to the star filled  sky and assuring him of the countless descendants he would someday have. 1.5 million children of the Holocaust - all points of light and sons and daughters of Abraham. 

Wet and tired we made our way back to the hotel with the abiding sense that the only light that can dispel the darkness is the light of Christ.  And our only hope - the God who made his promise to us in the rainbow. 


Saturday, November 10, 2012

Israel: Day 5
A beautiful day greeted us again this morning at the Dead Sea.  We experienced a little of Israeli Sabbath last night and today with Shabbat elevators (no pushing buttons), and limited food services due to Sabbath restrictions.  We managed fine and were on our way at 8am to Masada.  We took a cable car up the mountain and spent a good portion of time learning about King Herod the Great and his penchant for palaces and security.  We pondered the story of the Jewish Zealots who retreated to this fortress in the face of the 66 A.D. Roman invasion.  The Romans laid siege to the the fortress for three years and finally built a ramp to ascend the heights and ram the walls.  All their effort, however, was met with the remains of the mass suicide of the Zealots who preferred death over captivity.

From Masada we journeyed north a few miles to En Gedi -  the lovely oasis in the midst of the Judean wilderness.  We were met with the bad news that a rock slide had closed the park to entry.  Preparing to return to the bus, we nevertheless stopped to listen to a wonderful devotion on Psalm 23. Immediately at the conclusion of the devotion they announced the reopening of the park!

Most of us hiked back into the cleft of the mountains to see the remarkable springs and waterfalls.  We paused and listened to the story of David sparing Saul in En Gedi and wondered to whom each of us owed mercy.

From En Gedi we journeyed north and west, leaving behind the wilderness and making our way to the big city.  With a swing through Jerusalem we passed through the Wall that separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem (West Bank from Israel).  We stopped and had lunch at a sandwich shop and then proceeded to a large gift store to satisfy the shopping addiction of many. 

With shopping bags stuffed into our seats, we proceeded to the Church of the Nativity.  Andre explained  the three Christian traditions that maintain claims on the church - Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian Orthodox.  We ended up visiting the cave where Jesus was born beneath the Roman Catholic Chapel.

From the Church of the Nativity and Manger Square we took a short ride to the Shepherd's Fields outside Bethlehem and explored some caves where likely the Bethlehem shepherds kept watch over their flocks by night.  We heard a lovely devotion from two of our group about the witness and worship of the shepherds.

We got to our hotel in Jerusalem after nightfall.  A busy and fulfilling day, to be sure!

Tomorrow: the Mount of Olives, the Garden of Gethsemane and the Old City. 


Friday, November 9, 2012

Israel: Day 4
We saw a shower of rain outside the window of our dining hall this morning.  It's badly needed for the region.  However, by the time we got to the bus the skies cleared and we were on our way south to the Dead Sea with many stops along the way.

Our first stop was at the Crusader Fort Belvoir.  Belvoir means "good view", and we were not disappointed. The view over the Jordan Valley was breathtaking.  The ruins of this incredible structure revealed a seemingly impenetrable fortress complete with a moat and a double walled interior.  We couldn't imagine any enemy with a chance of being able to storm such ramparts.

From Belvoir we proceeded down the Jordan Valley to the ancient city of Jericho.  We toured the excavation sight of the Canaanite city that Joshua and the Israelites conquered as they entered the Promised Land.  Remnants of the crumbled walls made the Biblical story come alive.  We also recalled how Jesus broke down the walls surrounding a man named Zacchaeus and reclaimed him as a son of Abraham.

Just a few mile east is the site of Jesus' baptism in the Jordan River.  We listened to one of our own share a devotional reading there and then we reaffirmed our baptism by reciting together the Apostles' Creed and wading in the waters of the Jordan.  An unforgettable moment.

Then it was off to lunch and some shopping for Dead Sea products.

Andre, our guide, took us on a most informative tour of Qumran - the site of the Dead Sea Scrolls discovery.  Over 900 scrolls were found here in 1947.  They date back to the time of Jesus and confirm the accuracy of many of our Old Testament texts. 

Then we drove further south to our hotel along the shores of the Dead Sea.  Most quickly checked into their rooms and made their way to swim, er float, in the buoyant salty waters.  Others enjoyed the pool and spa.  We gathered for a delicious dinner in the dining hall and celebrated with thanksgiving and laughter what a great trip we've enjoyed so far.

Tomorrow we are on our way to Masada, En Gedi, Bethlehem and Jerusalem!!!


Thursday, November 8, 2012

Israel: Day 3
Another beautiful morning greeted us today.  After a hearty breakfast we made our way to the top of the Arbel Cliff overlooking the Gennesaret Valley and the northern shore of the Sea of Galilee.  We took in a spectacular view of the region where Jesus performed most of his ministry.  From there we traveled north to the ancient ruins of the Canaanite city of Hazor.  This was one of the towns the Israelites conquered in their effort to occupy the Promised Land. 

From Hazor we made our way toward the Lebanese border to Tel Dan - a beautiful nature preserve.  Most of us made the hike through the luscious woods along the raging headwaters of the Jordan River.  At the end of the trail we came upon the remains of the altar and high place (Shechem) of the northern tribes of Israel instituted and constructed by the renegade King Jeroboam. 

From there it was on to lunch at a roadside cafe.

The afternoon brought a visit to Caesarea Philippi where Jesus took inventory of the disciples with his question, "Who do you say that I am?". It gave Peter the opportunity to answer with the first profession of faith of the disciples, "You are the Messiah, the Son of the Living God."

On our way back toward the shores of Galilee we traveled along the Golan Heights, the region captured by Israel from Syria during the 1967 War.  We stopped for some pictures of the border, the U.N. Station and the general region where, just last week, Syrian tanks happened into.

Then it was to the edge of the Sea of Galilee where we visited the Church of the Loaves and Fishes wherein is found beautiful mosaic floors including the famous basket of four loaves and two fish (the undepicted fifth loaf is said to be the bread of life, the Body of Christ that is consecrated on the altar above).

We completed our day at St. Peter's Primacy - right on the shore of the Sea.  We read that great story from John 21 and remembered together Jesus asking Peter, "Do you love me more than these?"  Supposing Jesus' question was an attempt to call Peter away from the old life of fishing to the new life of tending Christ's sheep,  we each took time alone to wonder what new life Christ was calling us to. 

From those quiet moments it was back to the active city of Tiberias and dinner.  Hard to believe one day can top another, but they keep seeming to! 


Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Israel: Day 2
We are back to our home at the Gai Beach Hotel in Tiberias after a very full day of pilgrimage.  We began in Nazareth with a visit to the beautiful Church of the Annunciation.  We toured the grotto upon which the church is built, which tradition names as the site where Mary received the announcement from the Angel Gabriel that she would bear the Son of God.

From Nazareth we went a short distance to the ancient city of Sepphoris, a Roman city in the time of Jesus that one can imagine that he and his father visited for the purposes of their carpentry trade.

We enjoyed lunch in the town of Magda (from which Mary Magdalene came). Many tried the Galilee fish - Tilapia.  From lunch we sailed upon the Sea of Galilee and pondered the story of Jesus calming the storm on the sea.  Upon our return we ascended the Mount of Beatitudes and reflected upon Jesus' teachings amidst the beautiful grounds there. 

We ended the day with a visit to the ancient town of Capernaum which Jesus used as the home base of his ministry.  The walls of the disciple Peter's house remain there, as well as the foundation of the synagogue where Jesus taught and healed.  We read from Mark 1 and imagined the story coming alive. 

An amazing day full of close encounters with the living and powerful God!

Tomorrow we travel north to Caesarea Philippi and the Golan Heights.

Blessings and Shalom.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Israel: Day 1
We completed the first great day of  our pilgrimage through the Holy Land.  After safely arriving from our overnight transatlantic flight, we slept on the shores of the Mediterranean in Tel Aviv.  A lovely hotel and great food!

Today we stopped at the beautiful seaport of Joppa, south of Tel Aviv.  We meditated upon the story of Peter's vision of the sheet and animals that prompted him to begin spreading the good news to the Gentiles, and the story of Jonah and his effort to flee God's call by boarding a ship at Joppa. 
We then journeyed to Caesarea Maritime and saw the ruins of the great Roman city built by Herod the Great.  This is also where Peter shared the gospel with the Gentile Cornelius.

After lunch we ascended Mount Carmel and reflected upon the story of Elijah and his contest with  the prophets of Baal.  Lastly, we toured the amazing ruins of Tel Meggido and considered the 25 layers of civilization that have dwelt there over the last 7000 years.

Now we take our dinner and rest alongside the Sea of Galilee and prepare to walk the steps of Jesus tomorrow.

Pray for us!