Saturday, February 18, 2012

Top 10 From Israel

I came back to the states with a sinus infection. I'm thankful I didn't have it on the trip like the people who were kind enough to infect me. Clogged ears tends to get you inward-reflecting since about 50 percent of the outward world is heard. I've been thinking about what this trip has meant - what new things I've learned or old things I've remembered. In no particular order, here are some things I've thought:
  1. Orthdox Jews seem strange at first. They seem strange only because of our limited exposure to them as a people. We see black hats, long and curled sideburns, prayer tassels, and rhythmic prayers. The more I was around them, the more I saw in them humor, faith, love for family, and industry. It troubled me to think that the "strange" initial perception is the same thought that, left unchecked, gave rise to some of the worst human rights abuses in history. Orthodox Jews may seem strange at first, but so do you. And so do I.
  2. Take a pilgrimage. I've mentioned it several times in these postings, but this is huge. No one who went with us on that trip came back thinking, "That was nice." As if the trip was no big deal. We were all profoundly affected by being in the Holy Land. Faith in Jesus Christ is the central identity of the Christians. Make it a lifetime goal to spend time in the land where Jesus lived. Several have asked and I am putting list together of who is ready to go in the next 18 months. I'll lead the trip. Let me know.
  3. Make friends with a person of another country. I mean open-your-homes-and-share-your-dreams kind of friendship. It will broaden your world and improve your life. Joke: "What do you call a person who speaks three languages? Trilingual. What do you call a person who speaks two languages? Bilingual. What do you call a person who speaks one language? An American." Yeah. Not that funny when you think about how inwardly-focused we are. Get beyond yourself and make a new friend from another culture. Invite that person over for dinner or out for coffee. You will both be better for it.
  4. Friends are better than riches. When I returned from Israel, I spent two days with Pastor Cho and his family. We prayed for peace at the museum at Ground Zero in NYC. We ate together and laughed together. We decided to skip a visit to the Statue of Liberty and instead sat down at a table overlooking the Hudson River and talked. I was reminded again that most people, men especially, don't have others who really know them and they can claim as great friends. The Bible tells stories of friends like David and Jonathan, Barnabbas and Paul, and Ruth and Naomi. Invest time and energy into those friendships. They are life-giving.
  5. Prayer can change your life. Prayer is powerful and transformative. When we sat in silent prayer on the Sea of Galilee, prayed as a group at the Garden Tomb of Jesus, or when I experienced a Korean early morning prayer service with Pastor Cho's congregation, I was reminded again of the power of prayer. In prayer, we are in personal communication with God. The perfect combination of inner devotional practice would be Bible reading and prayer. Many do neither, and most lean toward one over the other. Pray. It can change your life.
  6. Pack light in life. We have too much stuff. Really. I had up to 50 lbs of luggage I could take on a 14-day trip. I brought 30 lbs and had more than enough. When we have too much "stuff" we have to manage that stuff. We have to think about it and take care of it. Why not simplify instead? Get rid of it. De-emphasizing material possessions allows us to concentrate on what really matters most in life - relationships. That is, the relationship with God and with others. Loving God and loving others was Jesus' answer to the greatest of all commandments. Pack light and focus on love.
  7. Being there physically matters. Where ever "there" is, actually being there matters. Social media like Facebook and Twitter will never replace physically being with a person. Phone calls will never replace a personal visit in terms of impact. Hearing about a person's home will never replace actually going to that home. Hearing about the Holy Land will never replace actually going there.
  8. Home really is where your heart is. I know that sounds like a Hallmark card, but it is true. Your town and your house are not your "home." Your home is where those you love most are. It so happens that my home is the same place as my house and town, because Cile is located here and it is where our daughters have a sense of home as well. In a broader sense, if home is where those we love most are, it means that ultimately heaven is our home. In the Bible, Paul echoes this in Philippians when he writes that "our citizenship is in heaven."
  9. People everywhere want to know that they matter. In the middle of haggling with the bedouin who accused me of making him poor with my negotiations, the man wanted to tell me about his children. This wasn't a sales technique to win my sympathy. In his eyes he communicated that his family was important to him. At a deeper level, he wanted to let me know that he mattered to someone in this world. It is a profound desire in all of us. We want to know that someone in this life cares about us, and that when we die we will be missed. In the constant noise around Jerusalem, the Pentecost-like buzz of the world languages spoken by pilgrims from everywhere, I found myself thinking, "Every person here matters to God... and therefore to me."
  10. Cover your head when having a holy moment. We covered our head before going to the Western Wall. It was a sign of respect and humility before God who was present. Maybe next time you experience the intense presence of God, you might cover your head as an intentional act of respect and humility before God. For the same reason, maybe you should cover your head when you read Scripture or pray. Maybe you should cover your head when a child is born and God seems more intensely present than ever, or when God heals you when healing was not expected. Covering the head could be the physical reminder for us we are dealing with a holy and awesome God. It could be a beautiful new practice for you that will deepen your experience of God.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Day 9 - Remembering the Deaths

Today was perhaps the hardest of the trip.

After visiting the birthplace of John the Baptist and then the Israeli Museum, Israel's version of the Smithsonian, we went to Yad Vashem. This is a museum in Jerusalem built to educate people on the circumstances and stories that led to the mass murder of six million human beings who happened to be Jewish. The museum literally and figuratively took you down into the horror of what the Jews experienced at the hands of the Third Reich doctrine during WWII. It was a living hell. We saw the rail cars, photos, interviews with survivors, and narratives putting the whole story together. In the end, the museum literally shifted uphill signifying that even in the worst moments, hope could not be dashed. The fact that there is even a nation called Israel tells the story of hope. I sat in the final room with a group of Jewish children visiting the museum and wept openly over the horror and hope. It took me a long walk and the brisk outdoors to end the tears.

This trip has remembered Christ's death and resurrection by visiting the sites. The surprising end was to remember the attempt to kill all Jews and, in a way, their subsequent resurrection as a people.

The afternoon was spent at the second location thought to be the site of Golgotha and the tomb of Jesus. We ended with the Lord's Supper at that site. After that it was another visit to the Old City, back to the hotel to finish packing, dinner and goodbyes to our guide. In a few minutes we leave for Tel Aviv.

Off to load luggage.


Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Day 8 - Into the Judaean Wilderness

Today we went to Masada, Qumran, and the Dead Sea. We left Jerusalem, crossed through the West Bank briefly, and then headed south toward the Dead Sea. On the way, we saw the city of Jericho, the first city of the Conquest as God led Joshua and the Israelites into the promised land. Our guide has noted several times that this promised land was flowing with milk, honey, AND, the Bible left this one out, rocks. Rocks, rocks, rocks. Everywhere rocks. Our host said when the customs agents at the airport see the rocks tourists bring back, they are thankful to have them gone from the land. Especially where we were today.

Masada is not a site from the Bible. It is simply an incredible story. Masada is a plateau overlooking the Dead Sea in the Judaean Wilderness (see photo on left). It goes from Dead Sea to a large plot of land to a 1,300 foot plateau. It is most famous for a group of zealots who withstood a siege by Roman soldiers for years. The same soldiers who destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem in the late first century next went after these zealots in Masada. We toured the place, saw their strategies for survival and defense, and listened as the guide told the story of the final night. Rome had breached the wall late in the day and retired for the night. Victory was certain. The next day, the people inside would all be either dead by the Roman sword or slaves of Rome. That night, the people of Masada made the decision that they would not give the Romans the satisfaction of either killing them or enslaving them. They burned all but the food (so they could prove it was not starvation that caused their defeat), picked 10 men who would go through the group and kill all but each other. One person was chosen to be the last one and that person would kill himself. When the Romans showed up the next morning, they found the people they had tried to capture for nearly four years all dead.

From Masada we went to Qumran. This is the main site of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls from 1947-1956. The scrolls were written by the Essene sect of Judaism, an apocalyptic group of extremists. They studied the Scriptures fervently and made many copies of them. We have many exact copies of the entire Old Testament written in the first and second century fully in tact. It is thought that certain writings of the Essenes refer to the one we know as John the Baptist. He was there for a while before beginning his ministry of "preparing the way" for the Messiah.

The scrolls were discovered by a bedouin throwing a rock down into a cave (shown above). When he heard the sound of pottery smashing he lowered himself into the cave and hit archeological pay dirt.

We spent the last bit of the day swimming in the Dead Sea. Oceans have about five percent salt in the water. The Dead Sea has about 33 percent salt. You really do float. The weather was warm enough to get in and so I did. I got in up to my knees, turned around, and sat down. I never went under water. You actually had to work to get under water.

Not only did I swim, but I also scooped up the mud from the sea floor and, along with all the other bathers, got what in an American spa was probably a $300 spa treatment. For free. The mud is filled with minerals good for the skin. Dermatologists send people with skin issues to the Dead Sea for treatment. I'm not very aware of these kinds of things. I just know when I walked out of the water I felt like a turkey that had been brined prior to cooking. I still feel salty even after a shower.

All in all, the tour guides "took it easy on us" since they walked us through and around Jerusalem for six hours yesterday. Masada was a great story to hear of bravery, ingenuity, and determination. It will preach. Qumran was the site of one of the most important biblical archeological finds in recent history. And the Dead Sea was just plain fun.

All of our minds are beginning to think about going home. We leave tomorrow night. In fact, my next post will likely be from New York City. Wheels are up from Tel Aviv on Thursday morning at 1 am here. Twelve hours later, we land at JFK. I will then spend a few days with Pastor Won Tae Cho and his family. I fly back to Tampa Saturday night.

My seat mate on the bus and I both agreed that we miss our families and congregations, but this has been the trip of a lifetime. We are so glad we came. I really don't know what impact this will make on me or the ministry God has given me, but I do know that I am more resolved than ever to honor God and help others do so as well.

It is time for dinner and we have a meeting after dinner.


Monday, February 13, 2012

Day 7 - The Way of Sorrows

Today I prayed at the Wailing Wall. I prayed next to an Orthodox Jew with dozens of others to my right and left. You can't quite see it from the photo, but I also had a written list of people in my left hand I promised I would pray for when I got to this point. Others I hadn't planned on praying for were lifted up to God as well. When I finished praying from the list, I slipped the prayer list into a crack in the wall.

It was a moving experience to pray there. This was a wall left from the Temple Jesus walked by while in Jerusalem. It is called the Western Wall because that is the wall that is closest to where the Holy of Holies would have been. The Holy of Holies is where God dwelt in the Temple and in Israel. So this was the spot closest to where God dwelt on earth in the Temple times. It is also called the Wailing Wall referring to the fact that the Jewish people would come to this place and weep over the destruction of the Temple.

Men and women do not pray together. There is a rope separating the sides. Many Jewish families will have the Bar Mitzvahs for their sons at the Wailing Wall when the sons turn 13 years old. I counted two families at the wall while we were there and others waiting to go in. It was not a quite place. There was a lot of singing and chanting and reciting out loud from the Torah. The total amount of wall where the men can pray is not that large. It is about the width of St. Andrews (the church I serve) sanctuary up front.

In the U.S., many are taught that when men walk into a building they are to remove their hats. At holy sites like the Western Wall, as a sign of respect to God, men are to cover their heads. Those who had ball caps or other head cover were fine, but those like me who did not wear a hat got a Kippah, or Yarmulke. This is the small skull cap worn during worship or, depending on your tradition, constantly. You can barely see the white one I was wearing in the photo above. It is a beautiful way to honor and respect the holiness and presence of God.

The rest of the day was spent following the final events that took place on the Thursday and Friday of the week Jesus died. I had already been into the tomb where Jesus was buried and resurrected three days later. Earlier we had already been the Church of the Ascension where Jesus ascended to heaven from the Mount of Olives. Today, was about the final hours, the final moments, and the death of Jesus.

We went to the place where he was tried and beaten. We walked to the place where Pontius Pilate held trial. We saw the place where Caiaphas the High Priest held trial. There we visited a dungeon that was likely the place where they kept him while deliberating. This was also the place Peter denied knowing Jesus three times. We walked a path that may well have been the "way of sorrows" he walked on the road to Golgotha where he was crucified. Today, Golgotha and the tomb are covered by the same church, the Church of the Sepulcher. As at the tomb yesterday, I was able to get onto my knees at the spot where Jesus was crucified and pray. All I could think to say in my silent prayer was, "Lord, out of love for you and with gratitude for your work of salvation right here on the cross, I will seek to live a life worthy of what you did for me."

Just scan over that last paragraph again. Think about the impact of those places we visited today Those events have literally changed the world. We have seen evidence of that in Jerusalem as we have heard literally dozens of languages spoken all around us and seen the "red, yellow, black, and white" who are precious in God's sight all around. They all are followers of this Jesus. It was such a large reality I have to confess that I was spiritually on overload. I described it at lunch as having reached "saturation." It is just too much to take in. Too real, too moving, too beautiful, too much to visually ingest, too important, and too much connection between stories and physical space. I was on Jerusalem overload. And that was not a terrible thing. It was like listening to your favorite song again and again. It is because it is so good and you don't want to stop, but your mind and soul can only take so much.

Tomorrow, we will go to the Dead Sea, Masada, and the site where the found one of the greatest archeological treasures in recent history: Qumran, the site of the Dead Sea Scrolls. They told us to bring a bathing suit to swim (float) in the Dead Sea. I'm not sure. Granny Fullerton might freeze to death. We'll see.

Off to dinner and to process the day with others.


Sunday, February 12, 2012

Day 6 - A Free Day in Jerusalem

Today was a day of rest. All 40 pastors on this trip split up into different groups to visit different English speaking churches. I went to a Lutheran church. The pastor was from Iowa. It was strange after hearing strong middle eastern accents at location after location to hear a guy from Iowa speak. The church was inside the walls of the Old City and this was my first time inside the gates. We went through the Jaffa Gate to get there. To be inside the Old City thrilled me more than anything.

After church a group of us got in line to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (pictured above). As with other places we have visited, this is a church built over a holy site. This particular site was the burial tomb of Jesus. I was at the burial site of Jesus. I knelt in the tomb and prayed... in the burial place of Jesus. The place he was laid after his crucifixion. The place where three days later he was raised from the dead and was alive again. I was at THAT site. Can I just say that words cannot express nor contain the sheer weight of such a moment? Really. Unbelievable.

It seemed a shame to move on to what was next. I went to the marketplace around the holy sites. I wanted to get somethings to bring home. I ended up haggling with a bedouin over some items I wanted. I played the haggling game well, I thought. Ignore the initial price, refuse to name your top dollar, and then walk away. As predicted, he came after me and kept saying, "Tell you how much you pay. Maximum dollars. Tell me!" I refused three or four times, walked away one more time, and offered him about 30 percent of what he quoted initially. He said, "I have to eat. You have to feed your family, I have to feed my family. Really, tell me your maximum price." I told him I was going to find something in my price range since he wasn't interested in my offer. Finally, after 20 minutes of it, he accepted it. At the end he said, "What do you do for a living? You a business man? Because you making me poor!" And I wondered how much lower I could have gone.

After that a few of us went up on the ramparts, the walkway around the walls the city. We walked for about a mile up and down the ramparts and then eventually made our way out of the Zion Gate and back to our hotel.

After dinner we had a presentation by an Arab Christian who is from Bethlehem which is now in the Palestinian-controlled West Bank. He gave us a personal, political, and theological perspective on this issues we read and hear about in Israel. In a word, it is complex. Arabs (those who speak Arabic and claim to be Arab) and Jews (those of biological descent and/or theological conviction to Judaism) each have arguments for what is best here. The basic question seems to be whether to have a "one state" (nation no longer Israel, but Palestine) or "two state" (separate state of Israel and Palestinians state is West Bank and Gaza Strip) solution. Other possibilities are out there, but they were variations of one of those choices it seemed. Land, politics, faith, and genealogy all converge on these issues. Believe it or not, we did not solve the Arab-Jewish conflict tonight. Maybe tomorrow night. It is complex.

Big day tomorrow as we finally get the guided tour of the Old City. We will be following the footsteps of Jesus to the cross, burial, and resurrection. Off to bed for now.


Food, Safety and Other Matters

Some have asked about either food, lodging, transportation, or safety in Israel.

The food here has been amazing and abundant. We've had breakfast and dinners in our hotels. Lunch has always been out while touring and always at places fully capable of handling not just our group of 43, but multiple groups our size simultaneously. Breakfasts, lunches, and dinners all feature fresh fruits and vegetables. There was an avocado salad at Nof Ginosar in Tiberias earlier that I went back the get two helpings. So good. It is easy with a full buffet including great desserts to overeat. I've given up on the breakfast buffet altogether and gone back to my granola bars. I've also pulled back on what I chose at lunch and dinner. If you are considering coming to Israel, just know that you will be well-fed. It is also refreshing for me to not have to worry about stomach issues with the water. It is no different than drinking the water in the U.S.

Lodging has been somewhere between a Holiday Inn Express and a Marriott. The food, service, and a few room amenities are like the Marriott, and in comfort and size the rooms are like a Holiday Inn Express. What is unique, of course, is the location of these hotels. One in Tel Aviv, one on the side of the Sea of Galilee, and here in walking distance from the Old City in Jerusalem.

One interesting note on Nof Ginosar, the hotel on the Sea of Galilee. It is a kibbutz. Our guide spent some time explaining the unique nature of the kibbutz. It is true socialism at work. No one owns anything, all income goes into a pool and is shared by the members of the kibbutz, all work is shared as is property. The kibbutz is entirely voluntary and seems to work effectively only here in Israel. Our experience of living in the kibbutz of the hotel Nof Ginosar was very positive.

Transportation in Israel has been no different than transportation in the U.S. The roads are well developed like ours and, unlike other countries I have visited, the rules of the road are followed. We have travelled by coach style bus. The bus is comfortable, the driver skilled, and the tour guide and others constantly speak to us over the loud speakers. They also pipe music over the loud speaker occasionally. When we first reached Jerusalem, they played the song, "The Holy City." It was a nice touch.

One important thing to say is that I have not felt unsafe here. I am aware of the fact that the neighboring countries have issues with the Jews and want to cause them harm. I am aware that not far from here Syria is having its own problems. I am aware that there have been bombs in public places in this country. However, I am also aware of the dangers of living in the U.S. It is risky to do anything in life. I have not seen any evidence of the tensions. The tour guides have been wise in where they take us, how they take us there, and when they take us. They give us the same kind of warnings we give each other about going into big cities like what neighborhood to watch out for and when to travel where.

Off to church... shalom

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Day 5 - To Hell and Back

In Jewish history, there was a valley known at the Valley of Hinnom and it was a terrible place. In the days leading up to the beginning of the era of kings for the Jewish people, this valley was used for idol worship and sacrifices. Pagan worshippers would sacrifice their children in the Valley of Hinnom. King Josiah ended these practices, but people still thought of the place as unclean. Animal carcasses and unburied criminals who had been executed were dumped there. The blood from the animal sacrifices at the Temple flowed into this valley. Fires were constantly burning there to prevent putrefaction from filling the air. Whatever didn't burn was constantly being eaten by worms.

The place is known by its Hebrew name of Gehenna. Eventually, any severe punishment was described as Gehenna.

Jesus used the word Gehenna several times. In Matthew 5, when talking against adultery, Jesus equates looking lustfully at a person with adultery. He then says that if your eye is the problem, gouge it out. And then these famous words, "It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into..." guess where? "Gehenna." Or later in Matthew 23 when he is taking the Pharisees to task over their pattern of begin outwardly correct, but inwardly corrupt, Jesus says to them, "You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to..." guess where? "Gehenna."

The other name for Gehenna you will find in your Bible is hell. Today we went to hell. We walked right through the middle of this valley on the south side of the Old City.

The imagery suddenly came to life for me. It made sense to me. Everyone in Jerusalem would have immediately gotten the imagery when Jesus used it. Gehenna was the dump. It was a place of no return, a place where things were eaten by worms, and a place where putrid fires burned constantly. It was not unlike the dump I saw years ago in a Honduran city dump. It didn't take much imagination to get Jesus' point. It was a symbol of dreadful judgments and utter destruction.

So we went all to hell today. That was fun.

It really was fascinating. And so was the rest of the day. We began the day at the location tradition teaches is where Jesus ascended into heaven. As a side note, I'm starting to get used to being able to speak and write about such things without thinking, "Did I just say that? Am I really in the place where everything I value most took place?Pinch me, pinch me, pinch me. I'm really here!" It was powerful to be able to touch the spot at the top of the Mount of Olives where the disciples were all gathered, and then...he was gone up to heaven (in the picture). I've gotten over the thought that "maybe it wasn't right here." You can't be cynical and do this trip. I'm going with it. I knelt down, touched it, and thanked God for the salvation Jesus brought me and this world. Even if it wasn't right there... it was very, very close. And that had me, once again, happy beyond measure.

We then went to the tomb where Jesus' mother Mary is said to be buried. And then to one of my favorite places of the day: Gethsemane. This is the garden where Jesus prayed just before his arrest and trials that led to his crucifixion. It was only a matter of hours before Jesus would be executed and he knew it. He wanted to pray to his Father and did... in Gethsemane. The place had such a mystical quality to it. I was especially happy we got to go to a private section and not the public section for all tourists. We had some time to be quiet and pray. I have a vivid imagination. I could imagine Jesus there praying and sweating blood while his closest friends slept. I could imagine the kiss of betrayal by Judas and the long walk across the Kidron Valley (which we walked on the very path he took at the bottom of the valley).

After a few more stops in the valleys outside of the Old City, we boarded the bus and headed for Bethlehem. It was a quick bus ride away from Jerusalem and I was not quite expecting what happened next. Our tour guide is a great guy named Ezra. He is an Israeli citizen. Bethlehem is in the Palestinian-controlled West Bank. Ezra got off the bus because he couldn't go into the West Bank. Another Palestinian tour guide got on and was with us the rest of the day. He was an Arab Christian.

We went to the fields where the shepherd's heard the announcement about the birth of Jesus (Luke 2). For some reason, I have always had in my mind a nice, green, flat field where the sheep grazed. No where close. It was rocky hill country. It was rough terrain. I wasn't expecting that. Nor was I expecting the terrain and look of Bethlehem in general. It was a mess. A fellow pilgrim and I were talking and we decided Bethlehem the city looked like the Bronx in New York City put out in the rocky hills of the New Mexico or Arizona. There was trash on the streets, graffiti on walls, and buildings that never quite look like they had finished building them.

Having said that, I did get a great appreciation for the terrain the shepherd's crossed AT NIGHT to hurry into town to see the birth. It was an effort on their part. I also appreciated seeing the caves for the animals, which was likely the very place Jesus was born.

We went to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Like other churches, the main attraction was below and the church above. We went to the spot in a cave where tradition has it that Jesus was born. I couldn't help myself. I knelt down, touched the place, and prayed with Magi offering gifts on my mind, "Lord, I love you and I offer myself completely to serve you the rest of my life." I rededicated my life to Christ at the place where Christ was born. It was a moving moment.

So today we began the day in hell and ended in Bethlehem. It was a great day, but now I'm tired. Tomorrow is an open day. I'll be thinking of you as I worship with the Jerusalem Lutherans in the morning.


Friday, February 10, 2012

Day 4 - Entering Jerusalem

There is only one "first time" entering the city of Jerusalem for a person. Today was my day. I was overwhelmed.

In ancient days, pilgrims to Jerusalem would travel in caravans. The trip Joseph and Mary took from Nazareth to Jerusalem would have taken about a month. The closer they got to the city, the more the excitement grew. Eventually, the plains turned into the hills beginning the ascent into Jerusalem. Whether you come from the north, south, east, or west, you always go "up" to Jerusalem because it is elevated. On the way, pilgrims would sing a collection of Psalms. You may have noticed that Psalms 120-134 have a notation at the beginning, "A song of ascents." That is for the pilgrimage; they are ascending to Jerusalem. Read through them, especially the later ones. These words express the excitement and pure joy of seeing Jerusalem. For many, like me today, seeing Jerusalem for the first time in their life, the excitement is immeasureable. My breath got shallow, eyes filled with tears, heart raced faster, and the smile could not leave my face.

We got off the bus with a panoramic view of the Old City before us (see photo above). The spot where we sat, if you can imagine this feeling, was the exact spot where Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem for his triumphal entry on the donkey. It was at Bethphage on the Mount of Olives and the view was breathtaking. With the view of Jerusalem shimmering before us, one of our group read Psalm 122. Imagine seeing what we were seeing, looking at the same place Jesus would have seen as he began his entry into Jerusalem, and hearing this song of ascents:

1 I rejoiced with those who said to me,
“Let us go to the house of the LORD.”
2 Our feet are standing
in your gates, Jerusalem.

3 Jerusalem is built like a city
that is closely compacted together.
4 That is where the tribes go up—
the tribes of the LORD—
to praise the name of the LORD
according to the statute given to Israel.
5 There stand the thrones for judgment,
the thrones of the house of David.

6 Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
“May those who love you be secure.
7 May there be peace within your walls
and security within your citadels.”
8 For the sake of my family and friends,
I will say, “Peace be within you.”
9 For the sake of the house of the LORD our God,
I will seek your prosperity.

Everyone of us had our hearts in our throats. The person reading the psalm read through tears. It is absolutely amazing. In one scene, I could see the garden of Gethsemane, the locations of the Temple, Jesus' trials, the crucifixion, and if I turned to the side, the traditional location of his ascension to heaven. The core of the Gospel stories was right there in living color! All of the stories of Holy Week came to life for me today. Jesus as a boy in the Temple came to life for me today. The Old Testament stories of Samuel, Kings, and Chronicles came to life for me today.

I'll say it for the second night in a row. Every Christian should do whatever is needed to make a pilgrimage to the Holy Land at least once in a lifetime. This is so amazing.

Not to neglect the early part of the day, we saw three sights in Galilee before heading to Jerusalem. We stopped first at a place not mentioned in the Bible, but most affirm it was influential in the life of Jesus growing up. It was the city of Zippori or, by its modern name, Sepphoris. It is directly across a small valley from Nazareth, about two miles away. It was a large Roman town in Jesus' day. Not only is it likely that Joseph would have worked on the many construction projects as a carpenter, but he would have also brought Jesus with him. Zippori also had a synagogue and was likely the place where Jesus learned the Torah.

Next, we went to Cana where Jesus performed his first miracle at a wedding there. Many of the shops there were named "First Miracle" or "Cana Wine." You could actually buy Cana (prounced like a can of Coke with the "a" like "uh") wine there even though Cana had no winery. I was a bit distracted by the churches built over the first century sites. I understand it. It was a common practice then and now to build memorial sanctuaries at holy places. Still, when you are a tourist and not a regular, you don't want the modern church building tour; just the actual sites. In the basement of the Church of the Wedding was a first century home thought to be the large home in town big enough to have weddings. In the excavation of the home, a wine vat was found. Interesting find for the place where Jesus did this particular miracle. We all checked out water bottles when we got back to the bus. Just in case. You never know.

The final stop before the two-hour ride to Jerusalem was Nazareth. Rainy, cold Nazareth. We actually visited three churches. The first had an interesting name: The Church of the Synagogue. It is the site where Jesus read from the Isaiah scroll in his hometown (Luke 4). The fact that he could do this showed he already had a trusted reputation among the rabbis. But then he was thrown out of town for his interpretation. Or, in the words of Luke, they were ready to throw him off a tall cliff (which we saw). The second stop was the Church of the Annunciation. This was the church built over Mary's childhood house. Tradition has that this was the house outside of which the angel announced that she was going to give birth to Jesus. The final stop was The Church of Joseph. As our guide said, "Poor Joseph. So little attention is paid to him." This was a church built over a first century carpenter shop thought to be his.

One thought I've had before. You know how we tour Williamsburg or St. Augustine or Plymouth and think it is old? Perspective time. Several hundred years verses thousands of years. Nothing in our country is old except the land itself. Here is where history was invented!

Finally, the impact of this place crashed upon my heart and soul today as we were told that the place we were looking at - Old Jerusalem - was no bigger than four football fields. Yet, every Muslim traces roots to here because this is where Mohammad went up to heaven to get the Koran. Of course, every Jew would be connected to Jerusalem as the great city of their faith. And every Christian sees the place where the great sacrifice of Christ for the sins of the world took place and salvation to eternal life was gained. Three major world religions. Four football fields of land. Psalm 122 may call for "peace within your walls and security within your citadels" for Jerusalem, but that is an aspiration and not a reality.

Not yet anyway.

One day we know we will see, in the words of Revelation 21:1-5...

1“A new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!”

Make it so, Lord. Make everything new. And begin inside of me. Amen.


Thursday, February 9, 2012

Day 3 - More Around Galilee

I am struck by how small the area where Jesus ministered is. Israel is about the size of the state of New Jersey and Jesus spent most of his time in Galilee up north. The path from Nazareth (in hills to north) to Capernaum (a seaside city) was 15 miles. Much of the healing and miracles were at the cities around the Sea of Galilee (that's me on the sea in the picture
), which is 8 x 16 miles of water In one day, today, we were able to see three of those "cities" of his day and several other sites from the north end of the sea to the south.

Like yesterday, the day had so much information that it is hard to report it without sounding like an article for Biblical Archeology magazine. Today, we went on a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee (aka, lake of Tiberias). We then took some time on the Mount of Beatitudes where Jesus gave the "Sermon on the Mount," the name given to the first public address by Jesus in Matthew 5-7. toured the three "unrepentant towns" of Matthew 11:20-24 (Chorazin, Bethsaida, and Capernaum). From there we ended the day at the Jordan River where many even today were being baptized or renewing their baptismal vows. It is thought to be the site where Jesus was baptized.

We began to suffer from archeological overload by late afternoon. There is only so much the brain can absorb before we start getting goofy. That led to a lot of laughter on the buses. You had to be there, but when one guy took on the persona of our tour guide and while we were driving through the city of Tiberias said with a straight face that archeologists had discovered a dinosaur they are calling Tiberias Rex, we couldn't stop laughing. Not that it was hilarious, but in the moment after all we had absorbed it was.

The ride on the Sea of Galilee was great. I could have stayed there all day. At one point on the water, I could look out to the north in the direction of Nazareth from which Jesus came, turn my head and see the Mount of Beatitudes not far from us, and then look down the coast slightly and see Capernaum where Jesus ministered. Again, the thoughts from yesterday of how this was so unbelievably amazing rushed in.

I think the highlight of the day for me was the Mount of Beatitudes. Large crowds from the region where I now type this were gathering to Jesus. They had heard of his power to heal and restore people. When the crowds became too much, he went up on a hillside next to the water and began to teach them. We read "the Beatitudes" (Matthew 5:1-12) while we were on the hillside. It formed a natural amphitheater. As our guide explained, "we've tested it... one person can speak and crowds of people can hear." After a brief chapel service, we were left on our own. I sat on the mount, pulled out my Bible and read the entire Sermon on the Mount, all three chapters (Matthew 5-7). All the while, I was looking out on the Sea of Galilee before me, Tiberias to the right, and Capernaum to the left. I was feeling it. It was intimacy with God.

The three "unrepentant towns" was fascinating. As Jesus predicted, none of the three lasted. We were walking through ruins. And yet the ruins had much to teach. Chorazon gave us a good look at life in a first century synagogue. Jesus would have had a good enough reputation that he was invited to read the scroll of Isaiah. He would also have carefully timed his visit to the town, because that particular reading would only be read on ONE DAY in the year. Bethsaida showed us life for a first century fishing family. We walked the original street of Bethsaida, the exact same path Jesus walked again and again. It made me a bit weak in the knees. Capernaum, showed us a huge synagogue where Jesus had been and taught.

A sense of place of biblical territory is becoming real for me. I see the interrelationships of locations. I saw this with modern places as well. In Bethsaida, we crossed over into the Golan Heights, which was under control of Syria until the Six Day War in 1967. Bethsaida itself became a military outpost for Syria. I have seen Galilee - the land, the mountains, the water, the people, the cities past and present.

Even as I continue to read for the Bible in 90 Days readings, I am not reading it the same. You know how when we read the Bible, we read it in black and white? It's not a place that most of us have been, so it is words on the pages and in our imagination. I am already finding that I am not reading in black and white anymore; I am reading "in color." I see these places. It is an amazing change in just 24 hours.

The Jordan River is one of those places I now read about in color. We passed by it earlier in the day to get into Bethsaida in the Golan Heights. We ended the day, at Yardenit, the spot where tradition teaches that Jesus was baptized. We were told not to expect the Mississippi River. It was more like a creek by our standards, but it was the Jordan and everyone of us knew we were on sacred ground. I managed to fill up to water bottles with water from the Jordan. If it makes it all the way back home, I'll use it for good purposes in ministry at home.

Already, I'm beginning to realize that regardless of our fears or financial condition, every Christian would benefit tremendously from traveling to the Holy Land at least once in their lifetime. I have the feeling I will challenge you to start saving, arranging your life, clearing your calendars, and overcoming your fears to make this trip. I feel myself being transformed in these few days already. More importantly, my love for the Lord and sense of connectedness with Christ has deepened greatly.

Tomorrow, we go to Cana and a few other sites in Galilee before taking the two-hour bus ride to Jerusalem. I'm excited about Jerusalem. I will be praying for you there.


Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Day 2 - Northern Territory

I just walked to the Sea of Galilee. Not on it. To it. I didn't see the scene in the picture on the left, although we will be on a similar boat in the morning and cross the Sea. I'll let you know if I see Jesus walking on the water. Tonight, my walk to the sea was after dinner and in the dark. My first view of
this famous body of water was under a full moon that glimmered off of the water while the lights from Tiberias twinkled on the hillside to my right. The moment was typical of the whole day. It was almost too much to take in.

Just to give you the big picture, we went to Joppa (now Jaffa and part of Tel Aviv on the coast) where Jonah boarded the ship to anywhere but Ninevah... and where Peter had a vision to reach the non-Jews (Gentiles) for Christ. From Joppa it was to Caesarea, where Peter began that work through conversion of Cornelias and later Paul would appeal to Caesar for a trial as a Roman citizen. Then it was to Mt. Carmel where Elijah had the showdown with 400 prophets of Baal. Afterward was Megiddo mentioned by Deborah in the book of Judges, where Solomon kept 450 horses, and, most famously, a place that overlooked the Megiddo valley, known from the book of Revelation by the much more dramatic name - Armageddon. We then went to the spot of one of my favorite stories, Mount Tabor, known as the mount of transfiguration. We then drove to the Nof Ginosar Hotel on the Sea of Galilee.

And this was a light day of famous sites.

It is impossible to begin to describe this, so perhaps it is best to give you a glimpse of my experience of being in the physically places I have studied, imagined, taught about, and preached on for years. Not to trivialize it, but to make it relevant to something that is part of our Florida culture, if you can imagine what a child must feel like to hear about Disney World, see pictures, watch videos, talk with friends about it, and then imagine what is going on inside the child the moment they walk up to the entrance of the Magic Kingdom. It is hard to take it in.

Everywhere we went was earth, plants, and water connected to eternal realities. All I could think was, "I can hardly take it in." This is where Jonah the prophet caught the boat!! I'm looking over the valley of Megiddo where the final battle will take place!! This is where Jesus appeared with the prophet Elijah and Moses and he was transfigured before the eyes of Peter, James, and John!! I'm standing in the very places. Even when it was not exactly known where an event took place - like whether the placed called the home of Simon the Tanner in Joppa we saw this morning really was THE spot - it didn't matter. We were in Joppa by the sea and we were close enough.

Two moments stood out in particular. When we were on the top of Megiddo, our guide pointed out a mountain across the Megiddo valley. He said, "If you look toward the right of that mountain, you will see the village of Nazareth." That's when it all clicked for me. That is Jesus' hometown. He grew up there. This is where my Lord spend his childhood. I was glad I was wearing sunglasses and our next step was to explore the depths of Megiddo. I was too emotional to do much more than walk.

The next moment was at the mount of transfiguration. It was a place all to itself in geography. Unlike other mountains, this was not part of a series or range of mountains or hills. It was flat and then there was Mount Tabor, the location traditionally understood as the spot of the story. By the way, the word "mountain" is more like "hill" to anyone from places other than Florida. It looked like a mountain to me. As I sat inside the church on that mountain (picture I took today below), all I could do was think about what took place 2,000 years ago. I remembered my own thoughts years ago about this moment. As he often did, Jesus wanted to speak with the Father. He took Peter, James, and John with him. On the mountain, mysteriously, two ancient figures appeared with Jesus - Moses and Elijah. Luke's Gospel is the only one that tells what they were doing. They were talking about Jesus' "departure" in Jerusalem. In my own words from years ago: "Jesus went up the mountain to pray; he came down the mountain to die." Again, I could hardly function at that point. I was on holy ground. I picked up a small rock at the entrance to the chapel to have as a constant reminder of Jesus, Peter, James, and John in this defining moment of what God did for us and our salvation.

Just before we got to the hotel, our guide told us, "By the way, we are about to pass the village of Magdala, where Mary was from." Then without missing a beat, he continued giving us instructions for dinner. I thought, "Wait, did you just show us the hometown of Mary Magdalene and then immediately begin talking about dinner? Like it was no big deal?" That is how it is here. EVERYWHERE is biblically relevant.

Just so you know, we are eating well. Breakfasts are filled with fresh, local
fruits and vegetables, meats and fish. I had olives, granola cereal with whole milk (I usually have skim - felt like chewing milk), and what I think was bread with dates. Lunch was salad, fish or beef, and fruit for dessert. Dinner was a full buffet with an amazing avocado salad, carved turkey with mediterranean relish, and a full dessert bar. All tasty. If this keeps up, the calories burned while hiking will not keep up with those consumed by eating. All of you who have been on a mission to fatten your pastor will be happy.

Also, it is winter in Israel. They told us to "pack as if traveling to Atlanta this time of year." I did that. It would have helped if they would have added "with 15 mph winds." If you know me well enough, you know I don't do cold well. Elder Bill Warden calls me Granny Fullerton. Granny was freezing today.

Last night was great. I slept like the dead. Sleeping horizontal was a nice change from sleeping in an airplane. The hotel room was nice, my roommate didn't snore, and I was refreshed by daybreak. I'm sure if I think too much about it I haven't had enough sleep, but... I'm in the Holy Land. All is well.

I have been thinking about the days I will spend in Jerusalem. I am going through the congregation and others I know and making a list of those I want to pray for while there. Know that you are on my mind.

Time for bed...

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Day 1 - Immersion

Today, I travelled from Tampa to New York City to Tel Aviv. Today was a day of preparation.

My friend, Pastor Won Tae Cho, who is now a pastor in New York City, picked me up from the JFK airport and we had a fabulous Korean meal. I will stay with him when I return from Israel.

Then it was the long trek through security, check-in, more security, and then waiting for the flight. What was noticeable immediately was the number of Orthodox Jews who would be on this flight. All with black hats and full regalia. I shaved my sideburns before leaving Tampa; these men curled theirs. I'll guess half of the flight was Orthodox Jewish men and their families. The other half were people like us, Holy Land pilgrims.

Beyond the physical, I noticed the cultural differences. The men stood together. Close together. They talked a bit louder. Not rude, not angry; just louder. They laughed with their families and friends and were friendly to all around. I also noticed that there was a difference on El Al airlines verses, say, Delta Airlines. When a Delta flight attendant says, "Sit down," you sit down. When multiple voices on the loud speaker and one in person said, "Sit down," they kept on rummaging through their suitcase or whatever was they were doing. I wasn't sure we would get everyone to their seats for landing.

One cool event during the flight began at first light outside, which was five hours into our flight that left at midnight. The Jewish men put on their ceremonial attire (see photo above) for morning prayers. The two men I sat next to couldn't speak English so the one behind me who did explained they wanted to get to praying as quickly as possible because they would all pray but not all at once. It took nearly the remaining five hours of the flight for all to pray. We landed at 5:30 pm local time, in the dark. They were in a hurry because these were prayers to be said in the daytime.

Their praying was with prayer shawls, prayer books, chanting, facing a wall, and rocking back and forth. It was impressive to be on an airplane full of people in prayer. I felt like I was immersed into what this experience is going to be about for us. In America, many people say, "I'm not very religious. In Israel, particularly with travelers to Israel, they would say, "I'm very much into God!"

We made it to Tel Aviv, got our bags, loaded the charter bus, and went to the hotel for dinner. The hotel is two blocks away from the Mediterranean Sea so a group of us went to see it. Not wanting to miss any of this experience, I took off my shoes and, for the first time in my life, put my feet in the Mediterranean Sea. I'd like to say that it was deeply spiritual, but it was windy and cold outside and the water was waaayyyy below the 85 degrees required for me to really enjoy going in the water.

I'm tired and we're up early tomorrow. Thank you for your prayers... keep them coming!

The essential fact is I am safely in the land where Jesus walked... oh, the joy.