It’s been nearly a week since i, along with the gang of intrepid pilgrims, left the Holy Land to return to our homes in America. In fact, if I recall correctly, after resting a bit, I rolled out of bed at 10:30 on a Wednesday night, showered and packed, and we headed to the Tel Aviv airport. our flight left sometime around 4:50 Am, and we landed in Amsterdam about 9:30.

The flight from Amsterdam was around 10 hours, and while not an unpleasant flight, it did have it’s issues. First, the controls to my TV screen would not work; when I finally managed to select a movie to watch, it did not give me what I wanted, and I ended up watching “Bad Teacher” instead. Not what I would have chosen, obviously, but I turned my brain off and watched it.

The real kicker was the obscene and offensive guy (from Wiggins, MS) who sat across the aisle from me, drank somewhere in the neighborhood of 9-12 beers on the flight, made multiple inappropriate comments about flight attendants, wanted everyone on the plane to hear him belch (I think they did), and was unquestionably the epitome of the ugly American. I asked a flight attendant to slip one of my ambiens in his beer, but she refused.

But after a solid 24 hours of travel, we were back home, and let me tell you, there is nothing like your own bed, your own pillow, and your own shower, after you have been away from home for 2 weeks. Most of my fellow travellers have allowed that their sleep cycles are still a bit messed up (“they say” that it takes a day for every hour of time difference, so I should be normal tonight or tomorrow); many of us came back with respiratory bugs, and mine is slowly easing off and going away.

What got me was preaching twice on Sunday about 60 hours after getting off the plane, and having two families dealing with deaths ask for me to help them through the process and lead the services. And speak at IRONMEN. All while I was feeling like death on a cracker, myself.

But God is good. I’ve gotten through most of the demands that were dropped in my lap, I’m feeling better physically, and I slept until the alarm woke me up today. There’s light at the end of the tunnel.

What I hope, however, is to discover that the light is actually the Light of the world, Jesus the Christ. I do not wish to lose sight of the fact that I have been in that part of the world where the Savior was born, impacted people’s lives, and died for my sins (and the sins of the world)–but also rose to offer the promise of everlasting life.

No one–no other religious leader–ever made the claims that Jesus made, nor said or did the things that He said and did. My life is eternally changed because of Him, and the memories of this trip will linger with me forever, I think.

Still, I like my own bed and pillow. It’s good to be home.

  Despite the fact that “duty calls,” and that there are loved ones back home who we miss and long to see, it is with a good deal of sadness that we face the fact that today (Wednesday) will be our last day in the Holy Land. Our farewell dinner last night at the American Colony Hotel-founded by the man who wrote the hymn, “It is Well With my Soul”)-was a gracious affair, where we enjoyed a wonderful meal, but were also able to talk about what this trip has meant to so many of us.

  One of the phrases that has “stuck” is that while “we came to see the dead stones, we leave remembering the living stones as well.” While the holy sites mean so much to us, our eyes have been opened to the poverty that many live in here, not to mention the difficult and complicated situation posed by the Israel-Palestine struggle. It has been interesting that while we have been here, the prisoner exchange between those two powers has begun to take place.

  Yesterday we spent a great deal of time on our feet, walking from site to site in and around the Old City. We  saw the site of the Last Supper (which was also where the disciples received the Holy Spirit on Pentecost), David’s Tomb, and the powerful Church of St Peter in Gallicantu. This is a church that is built over the location of Caiaphas’ home, where it is believed that Jesus was held overnight after His arrest in Gethsemane. The “pit” in which he would have been kept remains intact today, and while in it, we read Psalm 88.

  We then visited the Garden Tomb, the other site that has been identified as the possible site of crucifixion and resurrection. While this site does not have the archaeological or scholarly support of the Church of the Holy Sepulchure, it has a better “feel” and remains a sentimental favorite.

  Today we will visit a few more sites, then have some free time for folks to do what they like. We leave late tonight for what promises to be a long, but grateful, journey home!

  Sunday found us in-of all places-a Presbyterian Church in Bethlehem! This was the congregation that the group on the last Peachtree trip discovered, and we enjoyed worship with them, complete with headsets that allowed live translation of the sermon. Even here, the congregation uses AV screens to encourage uplifted singing. It seems that the move to screens is everywhere!

  The Church also has a special ministry with special needs children, and there were several present in worship; even more encouraging was the large number of children in the church! There remains hope for a Christian presense in this land.

  Sunday afternoon after lunch we made a dash into Jerusalem to visit the Israeli Museum, where we saw a scale model of Jerusalem in about 40 AD, and visited a display from Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls.

  Monday morning we had a stimulating visit at Bethlehem Bible College before leaving to return to Jerusalem. The feast of Succoth (or Tabernacles, or Booths) is still going on, making the crowds swell, and traffic a horrific nightmare. Imagine Atlanta gridlock on steroids! Still, we made it into the city, and walked from the Church marking the site where Jesus wept over Jerusalem, down the “Palm Sunday” road, to the Garden of Gethsemane and the Church of All Nations in that marvelous site. Then it was back to the Gloria Hotel, from which many of us made another trip to the Church of the Holy Sepulchure, where we were pressed by crowds and rushed a week ago. This time we were able to see the various spots in the Church, and enter the tomb.

  Our farewell dinner is tonight, but not until we vis t many more sites! More to come!

Grieving the loss, we left Galilee yesterday. Not that we did not want to see other sites and other places, but the beauty and tranquility of Bethlehem was not to be surpassed in our experience.
We headed south, stopping at a place where many pilgrims enter the Jordan River to be baptized. Since we do not believe that a second (or more) baptism is necessary, we simply enjoyed the spot, and then moved on, following the valley of the Jordan River, until we moved away due to terrain. For much of our journey, we paralleled the border with neighboring Jordan.
We stopped along the way to see the Mount of Temptation, a site where some believe Jesus dealt with his temptations following his baptism (though it was likely not here); and then in Jericho to see an old (200, not 2000 year old) sycamore tree, like the one referenced in the story of Zacchaeus in Luke’s gospel (19.1-10) We also visited a nice shop with ceramics and glass.
Then we went to Qumran, on the coast of the Dead Sea, where 2000 years ago a separatist sect of Essene men worked to preserve the Scriptures. A shepherd accidentally discovered the scrolls in a cave in 1947, and to date, scrolls have been found in 11 caves, the work substantiating the authenticity of our Bible.
After lunch, about 14 of us took a dip in the Dead Sea! The water is so concentrated with saline that you can literally not sink in it. We laughed and had a good time slipping and sliding on the mud floor, which we also slathered all over our bodies, as the mud is filled with salts and minerals that are good for your skin.
We arrived in Bethlehem, and after more shopping, settled in to our hotel.
Today we visited Shepherd’s Field, where traditions say that the shepherds who first heard the news of the birth of Jesus likely kept their flocks. There is a large field between Bethlehem and Jerusalem (which are only 8.5 km apart), and caves where it is likely that the shepherds “kept watch over their flocks by night.” We learned much about shepherds, their way of life, and talked about the 23rd Psalm, and John 10.
From there we went to the Church of the Nativity, which tradition, scholarship, and archaeology support as the actual birthplace of Jesus. We visited the grotto (cave) where the Lord of Life was born, and saw the spot where the manger was so long ago. We stood outside that church, and the one next to it (the Church of St Catherine) and talked about the meaning of these places for us today.
We also met with two modern churches (Lutheran and Catholic) that are engaged in great ministry here in Bethlehem (which is in Palestine and bordered by a wall with checkpoints through which one must pass for access.)
Tomorrow we will worship in a Presbyterian Church in Bethlehem, and visit other sites in Jerusalem.

More time in the Holy Land

October 13, 2011

From Jerusalem, we travelled north to Galilee yesterday, covering a lot of territory. We flew like the wind to make it to Caesarea Philippi in the far northern part of Israel, near the borders of Lebanon and Syria. We made it after about a three hour drive, and visitesd the site of Banias.
Banias is significant because it is the location of a former pagan temple to the Roman god Pan; several pagan temples were built here, and it is believed that roughly halfway through his ministry, with the need to get away for some time and perspective-after some mixed reviews of his ministry-Jesus came with the disciples. Taking them to this pagan shrine, he asked them who people thought he was. They answered that some thought he was John the Baptist, others Elijah or another prophet.
“But what about you? Who do YOU say I am?”
Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the livig God.”
We reflected on that question, and how we answer it today. A good question for us each, every day!
We also visited Tabgha, the traditional site of the miracle of the loaves and fishes (then went to lunch and ate “St Peter’s fish” {tilapia}) before visiting the Primacy of Peter, where we believe Jesus appeared to the disciples aafter his resurrection (read the account in John 21). This last site turned out to be a favorite of the group, in large part due to it’s quiet traanquility, as well as the opportunity to reflect on another question of Jesus: “Do you love me?”
We settled in at the Guest House on the Mount of Beatitudes, exhaused but fulfilled.
Today (Thursday, 10/13/11) we visited the remains of the fishing village of Capernaum, viewing the ruins of the synagogue and the church above the remains of the home of Peter (read Mark 1)-just about 30 yards apart!
We visited the Mar Elias school in Ibillin, one of Peachtree Presbyterian’s ministry partners, where about 3500 students receive excellent education-Christians, Muslims, and Jews combined!
We travelled to Nazareth to see the sites where Mary would have drawn water from the local spring, and where the Church of the Anunciation is built over the cave where it is believed that Mary lived. In one of these locations, we believe the angel Gabriel told Mary that she would bear the Son of God!
It is incredible to view these sites. Tonight we sat and thatled about all that we have seen, and heard, and felt, and what it means to us. We then shared Communion overlooking the Sea of Galilee, with a full moon as our backdrop. Truly, God is here, and God is good!

Back to Jerusalem

October 11, 2011

After almost 24 hours of travelling (OK, if you add in the time riding MARTA and making it hrough Passport control in Tel Aviv and the bus ride to Jerusalem, it was well more than 24 hours), we made it to Jerusalem. “We” being the 20 people who are pilgrims from or with Peachtree Presbyterian Church. We arrived VERY early in the morning of Suunday, 10/9, and wisely slept in.
After lunch, we met our guide, Sam, and travelled by bus to near St Stephen’s gate, and entered the old city of Jerusalem. We walked down narrow, cobblestoned streets to reach the area where the Church of St Anne is (St Anne is the traditional mother of Mary, the mother of Jesus. We found the Pool of Bethesda right next to the church, and looked down through the ruins to see the place where Jesys healed the lame man (the story is in the 5th chapter of John’s gospel.)
From there we waked several hundred yards to the Church of Condemnation, where Pilate allegedly condemned Jesus, and the Church of Flagellation, where tradition says that the soldiers punished Jesus. From there, we walked the Via Dolorosa, the “Way of Sorrows,” the path that Jesus is said to have walked carrying the Cross. Through cobblestoned streets, JAMMED with people, lined with shops and barkers trying to sell us everything from stuffed camels to belly dancer’s outfits, we made it to the Church of the Holy Sepulchure. This Church, built on (one of) the traditional site of the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection of Jesus, must have had well over 1000 people in it. It was impossible to see anything through the crowds, and with our fatigue, as well as feeling sensory overload (sounds and incense), we made our way out and to our hotel (the Hotel Gloria, in the Old City.)
Monday we were much more fresh, and visited the Western Wall. This is the remaining portion of the outer wall of the Temple (built by Herod and where Jews worshiped in the time of Jesus) that is all that remains, the rest having been destroyed by Rome in 70 AD. A sacred site to Jews, we watched as people came to pray, investing themselves body and soul in their spiritual endeavors. Jews pray not only with their mind and heart, but bob and weave, including their entire body in prayer. It was a moving sight.
I watched as an old woman made her way up from praying at the Wall; bent nearly double, using a walker, I was reminded of the Sabbath that Jesus was in the Synagogue and saw a woman with a similar infirmaty, and healed her. We then watched as she stopped to give coins to a beggar, while we all walked past. I was humbled. From there, we walked around the Dome of the Rock, a Muslim site where the Temple once stood, and it is believed that Abraham once went to sacrifice Isaac.
We visited with two human rights organizations, one Israeli and one Palestinian, and heard how they seek to bring peace to the conflict.
In between, we also went to the Mount of Olives, and saw the places where tradition says that Jesus taught the disciples the Lord’s Prayer (Pater Noster), and the Dome of the Ascension, one of the sites where tradition says that Jesus ascended to heaven.
Today we spent the day with Nora Kort, A Palestinain who leads a ministry under the umbrella of the Greek Orthodox Church, and we fanned out to observe her work and to serve with them, in a medical clinic, a social work office, and an embroidery co-op (I was in the lab, but did not get to stick anyone!)
Tomorrow (Wednesday) we will travel to Galilee, and visit many sites there, from the location of the miracle of the loaves and fish, to the Mount of Beatitudes, and others. Stay tuned for updates!

Wow. Time not only flies, it sometimes flies at mach speed when there is a trip on the horizon.

In a little over 2 days (2 days plus a few hours), I’ll leave along with 20 other people for a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. It will take us close to 21 hours to get there from Atlanta, and when final bus rides, etc are added in, it will probably be a solid 24 hours of travel. But it is a trip that is worth it.

I visited the Holy Land–Jerusalem, Galilee, Bethlehem, and places in between–a couple of years ago with a group of Pastors. That was an eye-opening trip, when I saw for the first time the places I have read about my entire life, and taught and preached about for half of my life. What I discovered, much to my chagrin, was that I’ve gotten it all wrong, in many respects. The geography is SO compact, that I was stunned. I came back from the trip with a renewed faith, a new appreciation for the human side of Jesus, a new take on the apostle Peter, not to mention a fledgling understanding of the plight of Palestinians as they struggle to hold onto, to claim, and to try to reclaim land that is being taken away from them.

One of the things that astounded me is the percentage of Christians in the Holy Land; it is around 2% of the population. More and more Christians are leaving and going to other countries, to the extent that churches there are not able to open for worship on Sundays–its just not worth it.

So this time, instead of being a participant, a pilgrim, myself, I go to lead the trip, to help othgers to reconnect with their faith, to learn about Jesus and His disciples, as well as to walk where Jesus walked, and to gain a new appreciation for the Christian faith.

I hope to use this blog to keep folks updated about our travels, and my discoveries. Stay tuned.