Monday, April 15, 2013

Another Manic Monday

Today in Israel was our "day off" or optional tour day. Still, about 30 people chose to go to Masada and the Dead Sea. We were total tourists today, which is a special day since it was the Memorial Day where the country remembered fallen soldiers since its independence and present. See the half-mass flag on Masada above the Dead Sea. So Masada was a palatial refuge for Herod, whom I am learning was everywhere. It is a ginormous plateau in the middle of nowhere aka the Judean Desert. It dates back to at least AD 74. We took a tram up and down. The thing that amazes me at all these ruins was the engineering and construction involved so many years ago. At Masada, there were detailed bath houses, water cisterns and and churches. The mosaics are amazing too.

After our hike at Masada, it was off to float in the Dead Sea--set in the lowest dry land on Earth. It is so filled with minerals and it is so dense that people can set down and float--and since I'm writing this you know I didn't drown! It was a cool experience, and after floating we gave ourselves mud baths, and with all the good stuff in the mud, it was just like a spa treatment!

Those were our scheduled stops of the day. Next stop, roadside camel rides! I was the first in our group to mount up---just a little taller than a horse! I freaked out when he stood up and kneeled down. The ride was fun, but those beasts are stinky!

On our way back to Jersalem, we made an another unscheduled to climb a point that overlooks the Valley of the Shadow of Death (Psalm 23), and it was beautiful!

One thing that I'm still amazed by are the small communes along the road called bedwins. Families live in tiny shacks with their livestock. I tried to get some roadside shots.

Tomorrow is our final day, and we will fly home Tuesday night, get home Wednesday, so it might be a day or two before I finish telling my story.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Beginning and the End--A weekend in the Holy Land

I have to catch up a little bit, as I was too exhausted to write on Saturday, which was a wonderful day. We started our day with a trip to Bethlehem, where we all know Jesus Christ was born unto Mary & Joseph in a manger. For those who don't know, Bethlehem is part of the West Bank, Palestinian ruled. There is a huge wall around the city that is inhibited by Muslims and Christians, called the separation wall. As we were approaching border patrol, Rula, our guide said, "It would be better to build bridges of peace."

Our first stop in Bethlehem was the Church of the Nativity, a 4th century church, where Greek Orthodox, Armenians and Orthodox worship. Underneath the altar, is the cave it is believed that Jesus was born in, marked by a 14-point silver star. The 14 points on the star represent the 14 generations from Adam and Eve to Jesus. There is also the stone manger, where it is believed He was wrapped in swaddling clothing. After we stood in line with other pilgrims (aka tourists), more than 2 hours we were in the cave. What a mighty feeling; I don't think I'll think of the Christmas story ever the same again. I also learned that various faiths celebrate Christmas and Easter on different dates. Those of us in Western churches celebrate Christmas December 25, while the Eastern Churches use the Julian Calendar and celebrate January 7, and the Aremians celebrate January 18. Right next to the church is the Roman Catholic Church, Saint Catherine's. We went into this simple and beautiful church and sang "Joy to the World" to listen to the beautiful acoustics.

Next stop, the Shepherd's Field, where the Angel of The Lord proclaimed the Good News about Christ's birth. The field is just a little way East of Bethlehem, and many churches have been built there. These two stops plus a store for shopping were our stops in Bethlehem.

After we returned to Jerusalem from Bethlehem, we made two more stops--the Upper Room and the Church of Saint Peter in Gallicantu. Most are familiar with the Upper Room as the place of the Last Supper. However, two other events of significance happened here--Pentecost and Jesus appeared here to show his disciples his wounds from being hung on the cross.

The Church of Saint Peter was beautiful (ok, all the churches are), and commentates the three denials of Jesus by the apostle Peter. Ther is a dungeon here where Jesus was held captive for one night before going before Pontupius Pilate.

Perhaps one of the best parts of the trip, was not on the itinerary. After dinner, about 11 of us, including Pastors Mitch, Todd and John, made the trek to the Old City of Jerusalem, which has 8 gates. It is amazing to me that the city is so old and contained by these walls. People live there, sell their good there, and worship there. We made a nighttime journey to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is used by multiple denominations, including Armenians, Coptics, Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, and others. It was amazing to go out when the crowds weren't there. We went to the top of Calvary, where a group was praying, and we touched the slab where they laid Jesus after the took him from the cross, and prepped him for burial, and we prayed in the Tomb of Jesus. Now this is interesting because, I, along with most Protestants have learned about the Garden Tomb just a short way outside of Jerusalem. However, others believe he was buried in the tomb I prayed in Saturday night. People can choose their beliefs, but we all know He has risen! And we won't find him in any tomb!

Along that note, while we were in the church, Mitch ran into this little Aremian man who also believes Jesus was buried in a cave in the Armenian prayer room, so he took us in there a few at a time and did this ritual where he chanted, took our candles and extinguished them on the cave wall, and dipped them in oil and put the oily end of our candle on our heads (a blessing of sorts). I didn't feel any extraordinary presence there, but like I said, to each their own, and it was kind of cool to experience the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the evening when it is less crowded.

And crowded it was on Sunday morning! Holy batman! We started our Sunday morning at the Pool of Bethseda, Bet Hesda meaning the "House of Mercy." If you recall, this was a series of pools where Jesus performed miracles. I prayed and had my Sunday morning quiet time there. Then our entire group sang "Amazing Grace" inside the Church of St. Anne, who is the mother of Mary, grandmother of Jesus. It was beautiful and other groups sang there as well.

Next we went to the Antonio Fortress, the start of the Via Dolorosa, which includes 14 stations. The Via Dolorosa or way of the cross is the path Jesus took from the Antonio Fortress, where they put the crown of thorns on His head, after he appeared before Pontius Pilate. We followed the entire trail to Calvary and the Tomb, which I described above. It was very moving to think we were walking the same trail as Jesus had walked. And it was moving to see other pilgrims actually carrying wooden crosses and stopping to pray at each station.

When we got to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, it was of course Sunday, so many groups were worshipping and we couldn't get many places, let alone fight the crowd of tourists. The Armenians were worshipping in and around the tomb, and it was very ceremonial, and I took video on my phone.

After a tasty lunch of falafel, we had two more sites to visit--the Western Wall and the Teaching Steps. Tomorrow is "memorial day" In Israel and the following day is Independence Day, so much of the Western Wall, was secured for a celebration tonight. Security everywhere was high, and we had to wait for our guide Rula to convince the police to let our bus come pick us up as every road was barricaded.

What an incredible journey. I will post pictures in a separate blog since this is so long! Thanks for reading my friends!

Friday, April 12, 2013

The Journey to Jersalem

Wow! Everyday in Israel just gets more and more special. Today is Friday, April 12, and we checked out of our hotel in Tiberias and headed to Jerusalem, where we will be until we fly out Tuesday. We made several cool stops today, and saw a lot. Forgive me if I don't write so much today, as I'm still exhausted and overwhelmed by everything I've seen the past few days.

We traveled along the Jordan River between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea to Qunram, just about 10 miles south of Jericho. This isolated mountainous dessert area was perfect for the isolationist sect of the Essence to live. These men spent their days worshipping,cleansing and writing...this is believed to be the site where the Dead Sea Scrolls were copied. The Essence hid them in jar clays in caves. In 1947, a young shepherd boy discovered the Scrolls in one of 11 caves. They included the Old Testament, minus the book of Esther, and included all 66 chapters of Isaiah. The topography was amazing. Many think John the Baptist once lived in their dwellings. Oh,and about the shepherds--they still exist today, tending their sheep and goats with a donkey and a dog. I tried to take some pictures, but they weren't so great from the moving bus.

Our next stop was the city of Jericho, which is believed to be the oldest inhabited city. We had a buffet lunch,did some shopping (uh oh) and tasted the bananas and the pomegranate juice that is fresh-squeezed. We also stopped by the Sycamore tree that Zacchaeus climbed. You remember that don't you...Zacchaeus was a wee little man, and a wee little man was he. He climbed up in the sycamore tree for The Lord he wanted to see. And as The Lord passed his way, he looked up in that tree and said, "Zacchaeus you come down. For I'm coming to your house today." Now that the song is stuck in your head, enjoy!

A street vendor gave me a tiny little banana and it seemed more sweet than most. We had a buffet lunch, and I'm really getting good at eating things I never would at home like couscous vegetables rantoule and other exotic foods. I really craving a diet mtn dew, skimmed and cold milk, steak and bacon. There is no pork over here, and no meat for breakfast and no dairy for the other meals where they serve meat. However, they do have diet coke and ice cream bars at nearly every stop!

Jericho is in one of the Palestine occupied part of Israel. There were definite fences and armed guards at the border checks. Seems so surreal to me.

Our final stop today was in Jerusalem, where we'll be staying the rest our trip. Our hotel is much nicer, the food is better, and Internet is accessible in room, and more reasonably priced! Ha!

We started out at the Mount of Olives, the highest point in the city, and where Jesus would come each year to pray during Passover. Just below the Mount is a Jewish cemetery we visited. Rocks are placed on the graves by loved ones because rocks remain forever, and flowers die off.

We continued the Palm Sunday trail down the Mount and stopped at a beautiful little church (sorry I can't remember name and was so hot, didn't write), that overlooked the old city. From there we went to the Garden of Gethsemane, and that was so moving. It was awesome to think that Jesus prayed in this very garden of olive trees and roses. Right beside the Garden was the church of all Nations. It was sooooo pretty, and built over the rock Jesus is believed to have pray on. Pastor Mitch led a great devotion and we sang one of my favorite songs, "In the Garden."

It has been an interesting and educational journey this far. I miss the familiar, but am learning about not being able to buy a postcard on Friday night because the shop owners are observing the sabbath until sundown on Saturday. I'm learning not to stare so much. And I'm learning that I'm proud to be a Christian.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

A Life Changing Day in Galilee

Today was amazing! We toured around the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus performed 85% of his public works. Today was an emotional day, in so many ways, and I'm so glad to share my pilgrimage with you.

Our day started with a boat ride across the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus walked on water and calmed the storm, just to name a few. It was a cool, overcast morning, but the sun did shine eventually. We had a great prayer and lesson by Pastor Cindy (from Savannah), and scripture reading and a testimonial from Vjay, one of the ladies from India. We sang several songs together. I cried. The entire experience was so emotional for me.

Where we docked, we visited our first Kibbett or small commune. There was an ancient boat there, that two brothers found during a drought. It was very well preserved.

Our next stop was one I was really looking forward to--the Mount of Beatitudes. This sets high above the Sea, and is where Jesus delivered his sermon in the Mount. It had a beautiful church and awesome gardens. And lots of tourists.

Next we made a quick stop at Tabgha,where Jesus performed the miracle of multiplication, and turned 5 loaves and two fish into enough food to feed 5,000 and still had some left.

I really enjoyed our next stop--the Chapel of Primacy, which was right along Galilee. This is where Jesus prepared the "last breakfast" for his disciples before ascending to Heaven, and he asked Peter three time, "Do you love me?"

Capernaum was our final stop before lunch--yes, it was a marathon! Capernaum was where Jesus made his home during his ministerial years. We saw Peter's house as well as a synagogue that dates to the 4th Century A.D.

Lunch was served and looking right back at me! We had Saint Peters Fish, which they believe are the fish that he caught, and they cook the tilapia with its head and tail still attached! It was actually good.

And after lunch, was another highlight of the trip. We ended our day at the Jordan River, where I chose to renew my baptism by immersion. We changed into our swimsuits and a provided robe, waded into the River, with the fish, and were immersed. This was extra special for me since Pstor Mitch immersed me. Mitch was our associate pastor, and I went through membership classes with him at Ashland before he moved to the church in Indepence.

It was a glorious day for me and the 40 other people on our trip. We are laughing together, learning together and worshipping together. Know this is my one trip here and I'm taking every opportunity available to me. Will I ride a camel tomorrow? Only tme will tell! Stay tuned for the next installment, coming from Jerusalem!

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Pilgrimage Begins

Well, I survived the 10+ hour flight from Philly to Tel Aviv. Lucked out with a window seat so I could get somewhat comfy with my travel pillow and new pink blanket (thanks Lara!). They fed us our choice of pasta or chicken as soon as we took off, and then a breakfast just prior to landing.

Our E.O. ( Educational Opportunity) people were waiting for us at baggage, and all bags arrived, and of course my suitcase lost its handle en route (at least it arrived).

What I wasn't expecting was the 2 hour bus ride to Tiberias, our home base for the next few days complete with Israeli rush hour and summer road construction. The land is rich in agriculture. The have already harvested wheat in many areas and have acre after acre of fields, orchards and green houses.

The above was written under pure exhaustion...we just finished day 1 of our tour of the Holy Land, and all I can say is WOW! And every stop just keeps getting better and better!

First let me say we are staying the first few days in Tiberias, right next to the Sea Galillee. Our pilgrimage began this morning at Caesarea, along the Mediterranean Sea, which is the most beautiful shade of blue. King Herod the Great developed this area into a magnificent harbor. Pontius Pilate used Caesarea as his headquarters, and the Apostle Paul was tried and imprisoned here for 2 years.

Our next stop was my most favorite thus far, and the most scenic --Tel Megiddo, found in the book of Revelation. This place is also known as Armegeddon,the site for a future battle between the forces of good and evil. The word "Tel" means city, and there are layers of cites built here dating back to 3500 B.C. Wow!! And the cities are literally built on top of one another. We saw the ruins of this archeological site, including a grain bin, stables for Solomon's 450 horses, including original feed troughs. Did you know the word "manger" means "to feed" and the manger Jesus was born in, is likely limestone like the one shown here, and not wooden, like it is represented in many Nativity scenes.

The views from atop Tel Megiddo were fabulous! It overlooks such rich agricultural fields in the valley. Like my one new friend Noma said, "reminds you of Kansas, doesn't it?"

The final stop for today was in the city of Nazareth. There we experienced the places of the Annunciation, where the angel Gabriel visited Mary to tell her she would give birth to a son. Our first stop was at the church of the Annunciation, a beautiful Catholic Church built over what was believed to be Mary's home. The church is so pretty, both inside and out.

The top inscription: An angel appeared to The Virgin Mary
Bottom: the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

Nazareth means flower, and many of the light fixtures were flowers of some type. Even the domed ceiling is believed to be an upside down flower, with the roots going up to Heaven. Our second stop was at the Springs, where it was believed Gabriel appeared to Mary initially, but she was afraid, and ran home from gathering water. We didn't get to go into the church built over the springs due to a funeral, but it was beautiful.

The top three industries in Israel are
1) tourism
2) agriculture
3) diamond cutting

I'm about to experience number three as our evening adventure (optional) is touring a diamond cutting factory!

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Going, Going,Gone

Well, my bag is packed and I'm ready to fly the friendly skies. If you know me, you know that travel is nothing out of the ordinary for me. But the trip I'm about to take will be al new. You see, nextTuesday I'll be landing in Israel for a little vaca.

Yes, Israel.

I'd never really considered it as far as international travel goes. I'd always thought of exploring Australia or Africa. However, last year about this time I saw some information on the church bulletin board, and one of the couples at church encouraged me to look into. So I signed up. Made the payments. And now the time has come to head out.

It hasn't been easy preparing for this trip. Studying up on what I'll see. Preparing for May & June work events, and even packing for the WNAF show in Reno that I leave for the day after I get home. But I'm so excited to visit the Holy Land and see firsthand where so much history has occurred.

I'm going to try to update this site while over there, and post pictures to Facebook as I can. I hope you'll join me on this journey!