Holy Land Wanderings

Saturday

Our day began with the usual wake-up call at 6 except for I barely needed it. While I have enjoyed two good nights of rest, last night was not one of them. I do not travel well when it comes to sleep. It may have been a case of delayed jet lag, excitemment about the coming day, missing my family or general concerns with ensuring a smooth tour for the group, but it was certainly a long sleepless night.

After breakfast we loaded the bus and departed Galilee for good, heading south with Jerusalem as our ultimate destination. Our guide, Nadar, is outstanding. He is a Syrian Orthodox and full of good humor and important knowledge. Should I return to Israel for another church tour I would like to retain his services for another time. His favorite line as we depart the bus for each site is: “Chop, chop; shake a leg; let’s get going!”

Our drive was about 2 1/2 hours which was largely below sea level as we journied down the Jordan Valley. The geography changed dramatically from vibrant green hills and rich vegetation to stark, arid land. The wilderness, or desert as it can be translated in the Bible is a rough and rugged environment. Yet it was out of this same wilderness that Moses was called, Israel was led and fed and John the Baptist preached. The desert was where Jesus was tempted and so is a place of holy happenings and wanderings.

We made one pit stop at an interesting roadside convenience store/toursit attraction. Along with bathroom breaks, others took advantage of new and exotic snacks and one in our group decided to take a camel ride around the parking lot.

We entered Bethlehem and our first stop was a shopping stop, since many in the group where itching to keep the economy rolling. Prior to today we have been moving from one site to another with lectures in between. Lunch of falafels followed our exhausted shoppers, which was somewhat unnerving because Jeff Badke insisted on wearing his newly purchased Palestinian headress throughout the meal! I sat at an appropriate distance and acted as if I never laid eyes on him.

After lunch we toured the Basilica of the Nativity and looked upon the traditional spot of Jesus’ birth. Amidst the cacaphony of fellow pilgrims, aggressive pedlers and various religious groups chanting, singing and praying, it is not too hard to imagine the chaos of Bethlehem when Mary and Joseph searched for a place for Jesus’s birth. On our way to the hotel we stopped by the Shepherd’s field and looked over one of Bethlehem’s many rugged hillsides. There was an old cave that was once used by shepherds but now serves as a modest chapel. At Kathy Martin’s suggestion we held an impromptu worship service where we sung hymns, read scripture and reflected on God’s gift to the world through the Son Jesus.

Our hotel in Jerusalem – The Plaza Jerusalem – is superb. We wearily hauled our luggage to our rooms and enjoyed a meal together. Several of us then took a 15 minute walk down to the Old City to sneak a peek at what awaits us in the day ahead. Along the way Milton Martin leaned to me and said, “That is John McCain,” and sure enough, it was Senator John McCain and his entourage. Imagine that – running into McCain half way around the world! Several had their pictures made with him and should I get my computer issues worked out I will post some soon.

It is hard to describe how stunning and beautiful and moving this city is, especially when first arriving as we did this morning. It is a holy place to three major world religions, and for good reason.

Now it is time for me to log off and put this full day behind me and pray for a better night’s rest.

Peace be with you,

Sunday

Thankfully I had a great night’s rest and so I was more than ready for the wake up call at 6am to begin another great day for our Holy Land wanderings. Outside our hotel windows we share lovely views of the city including glowing sunrises. Each day we have enjoyed weather in the 70s and bright sunshine. We could not have ordered better weather. On a different note I have a voracious appetite when it comes to Middle Eastern dishes, so I have delighted in all the fresh olives, hummus, dates, and pita bread – and that is just for breakfast! The Jerusalem Plaza has not disappointed.

We boarded our bus driven by our capable driver Gilley who has taken loving care getting us from one place to another while driving through narrow streets and harrowing curves. Following a prayer where we remembered First Baptist that would soon be in worship, we began our touring by visiting the Mount of Ascension, located just outside of the Pater Noster Church. In the early days of Christianity, followers of Jesus would conclude worship and walk out to this mount, looking to the sky and remember the ascension of Jesus.

Before leaving the Mount we posed for a group picture in front of the hill of the Eastern Wall with the Dome of the Rock and much of the Old City in the background. This was our first group shot since we left Atlanta last week. It has been such a personal blessing for me not only experience this great land again but to do so with dear members and friends of our church. The best thing we will take back with us will be our memories.

A short bus ride later we entered the Church of Agony, or the Church of All Nations, which has had a presence in the Gethsemane gardens since 390 AD. The current church was built in 1919 which incorporated striking architecture, shimmering mosaics, and alabaster glass, recalling the night sky. The olive trees in the garden boasts one that is 1500 years old. In this grove we found a lovely spot for our Sunday morning worship. Keith led us in singing hymns, I read from Matthew 26, Keith and Carla sang a beautiful duet, “In the Garden” and following my brief remarks Harold Smith closed us with a prayer. It was a most moving time as we reflected beneath the silvery-green olive trees.

We spent our lunch break at – surprise, surprise – a place that has an extensive shop. Much of the store’s merchandise included antiquities. I fear that some of our member’s discretionary income that may have gone to our Chapel fund has been spent in stores in the Holy Land!

After falafels and salad we visited the City of David and viewed ruins dating back to the 12th century BC, during the era of King David. A quick walk up the hill and we were met by the poweful visage of the Western Wall, the only structure remaining from Herod’s Temple that stood during the days of Jesus. Out of tradition prayers are written on slips of paper and then inserted in the tiny cracks and seams of the stone blocks. As I was praying at the wall there were three African boys no more than ten or eleven praying out loud. Each day nations all over the world are represented alongside this wall. It is the wall that Jesus passed many times on the way to worship at a Temple where he reminded all that this was a house of prayer for all nations. This visit was a highlight for many in our group.

We concluded our afternoon by visiting the Shrine of the Book museum, built to house the collection of the Dead Sea Scrolls, found near Masada. Outside the museum is a remarkable model of Jerusalem as it looked when Jesus walked the earth. It is a helpful tool in visualizing the Biblical city and the entire group was greatly impressed.

In between our visits we are generally inundated with peddlers pushing cheap souveniers ranging from bookmarks to olive branches (try bringing plants back into the United States and see how far you get). I am pleased to announce that today I bought my first item just for me – a panoramic photograph of Jerusalem for one dollar. Yes, I know it was pricey but the vender looked as though he could use the business.

Thanks for wandering these holy places with us by reading. Peace be with you,