Holy Land Journal #10: There and Back Again

In February, I joined over one hundred United Methodists from Georgia who visited the Holy Land. I am sharing my reflections about the pilgrimage in a series of journal entries.

After touring Jerusalem on the final day of our Holy Land tour, we returned to the Olive Tree Hotel. The group enjoyed a buffet supper before the bus ride to the airport. We arrived at the Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv about 7:30 p.m. local time.

The Israelis take security seriously. As the Bus Captain, I represented the forty-plus people on our vehicle. The Head of Security asked me a series of questions about the individual members. By the end of the intense interrogation, I felt mildly guilty about some unknown offense.

After the prescreening interviews, we presented our credentials at passport control. Then the line led to another security checkpoint where inspectors checked suitcases and documents again.

On the far side of security, duty free stores gave travelers a final chance to spend their remaining New Israeli Shekels. I bought two water bottles for the twelve hour flight. Then I discovered a final security check at the plane prohibited taking liquids onboard.

I traded seats with a group member who preferred a window seat on the Boeing 777. I sat in the middle section on the starboard aisle. In a plane filled to capacity, the middle seat next to me remained unoccupied. God is good ALL the time!

After reaching cruising altitude, the flight attendants served a late supper. For variety’s sake, I tried the crepe entrée. I chose . . . poorly! I spent the flight watching movies, reading books, taking catnaps, and pacing the aisles.

Twelve hours later we landed at Newark Liberty International Airport for the connecting flight to Atlanta. Our church bus took us back to Lawrenceville—THANKS Jeff and Otilio!

I later did the math—it took twenty-four hours to travel from the hotel in Jerusalem to my home in Grayson. I arrived midafternoon in Georgia; however, my body remained on Israeli time seven hours ahead of Eastern Daylight Savings Time.

Since arriving home three months ago, people have repeatedly asked about my favorite part of the trip. How does one summarize such an amazing journey to the Holy Land in a thirty second elevator speech or a 140 character tweet?

Holy Land Pilgrims Map 2My memories include: baking in the Dead Sea sun . . . climbing the Herodium’s steep slope . . . bowing beneath the Church of Nativity’s low entrance . . . gazing over Bethlehem’s shepherds’ fields . . . boating on the Sea of Galilee . . . praying at the Mount of Beatitudes . . . walking to the high place in Dan . . . eating falafel on Mount Hermon’s slopes . . . descending into the cool grotto of Jacob’s well . . . ascending the hills into Jerusalem . . . walking the Via Dolorosa . . . praying at the Western Wall . . . witnessing Christ’s empty tomb.

The wise on life’s journey discover an important truth. The trip and the destination are certainly important; but it’s those you travel with who make the most difference. Long after the memories of the trip’s itinerary fade, I will still recall the brothers and sisters in Christ who blessed me with their presence.

Since our return, many have expressed an interest in visiting the Holy Land. When the time is right in your life, I strongly encourage you to consider making the journey.

Talk with those who have been—it’s more than a excursion or vacation. Traveling to the Holy Land is a pilgrimage that will radically transform your life and your understanding of the Bible forever.


Holy Land Journal #9: Jerusalem

In February, I joined over one hundred United Methodists from Georgia who visited the Holy Land. I am sharing my reflections about the pilgrimage in a series of journal entries.

We spent the final day of our Holy Land Tour in Jerusalem. The bus dropped us atop the Mount of Olives with a panoramic view of the city. After a group photo with the Dome of the Rock in the background, we followed the traditional route of Jesus’ triumphal entry on Palm Sunday.

Tombs line the slopes where the Jewish faithful have been buried for 3,000 years. According to a religious legend based on Zechariah 14:4, the resurrection of the dead will begin on the Mount of Olives when the Messiah comes.

The site of the Garden of Gethsemane rests at the foot of the hillside. We walked through a grove of ancient olive trees before entering the cathedral. The Church of All Nations rests on the foundations of two earlier churches from the 4th and 12th centuries. The Roman Catholic church covers a rock where Jesus’ prayed “Thy will be done” the night before his death.

Entering the Old City of Jerusalem, we visited the Pool of Bethesda where Jesus healed an invalid on the Sabbath. Then we walked the Via Dolorosa and paused at plagues designating the Stations of the Cross.

The Church of the Holy Sepulcher (or Sepulchre) marks the traditional location of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. Although the claim cannot be supported with historical certainly, Christians have worshiped at this sacred site since the fourth century.

Altar marking Golgotha

Altar marking Golgotha

Past the entrance we climbed a stairway on the left that ascended to the site of Golgotha. Under an elaborate altar, pilgrims knelt and touched the rock where the crucifixion took place. The Chapel of Adam is located beneath the altar. Legend claims the blood of Jesus seeped through the rock and covered the skeletal remains of First Man.

A large rotunda left of the entrance houses the traditional site of Jesus’ tomb. I stood in a line winding around the sepulcher. The anteroom contained the “Angel’s Stone” which is purportedly a piece of the stone that sealed Christ’s tomb. A priest stood inside, directing three people at a time to enter the second chamber of the tomb itself.

The low entrance forced us to bow while entering the site of Jesus’ burial. An altar marked the place where Joseph of Arimathea placed the body. We knelt in silent reverence on holy ground.

Later in the afternoon we visited a second site claiming to be the possible place of the cross and empty tomb. Golgotha (Calvary in Latin) literally means “the place of the skull.” A British general and amateur archaeologist named Gordon found a rock formation outside Jerusalem’s walls that resembled a skull. He then unearthed a tomb nearby bearing a striking resemblance to the Gospel’s descriptions of Jesus’ burial place.

The Garden Tomb

The Garden Tomb

The Garden Tomb certainly gave us a sense of what the tomb might have looked like. Our British host talked about the various claims supporting the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and Gordon’s Calvary. Finally, he paused and said in true English fashion: “However, ultimately it doesn’t matter which site is authentic. The important thing to remember, you see, is THE TOMB IS EMPTY!”

The Crucifixion and the Resurrection bisect history. History swings on the hinges of the cross and empty tomb. On the far side of Easter, nothing remains the same.

The Easter angel’s words continue to ring down through the centuries and in our ears: “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here—he is risen!”

God has conquered sin and death. Jesus Christ is the firstborn of the resurrection, and he invites us to receive life, abundant life, and everlasting life. Easter people need not fear the grave because we serve the Lord of Life.

The important thing to remember, you see, is THE TOMB IS EMPTY!

Holy Land Journal #8: On the Road to Jerusalem

In February, I joined over one hundred United Methodists from Georgia who visited the Holy Land. I am sharing my reflections about the pilgrimage in a series of journal entries.

On Sunday, the tour group departed Tiberias and headed south. We originally planned to stop in Cana where Jesus performed his first miracle of transforming water into wine at a wedding. However, the church’s Sunday morning worship services prevented us from stopping.

So we continued south to Nazareth, the boyhood town of Jesus. We visited the Basilica of the Annunciation which is a magnificent building consecrated in 1969. Built atop first century ruins and a Crusader church, the traditional site commemorates the place where Gabriel spoke to a young peasant girl named Mary.

Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth

Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth

In the courtyard, artistic depictions of Mary from various countries are displayed. Her face and dress are shaped by each ethnic group. Depending upon the artist’s nationality, Mary appears to be Chinese, Japanese, Korean, European, South American, Australian, Russian, and more.

Afterwards, we walked to the Synagogue Church. The Crusaders built the church in the 12th century on the traditional site of the 1st century synagogue. Bishop Watson led us in a simple service, and perhaps we worshipped where Jesus learned the Scriptures as a boy.

After lunch, we rode through the region of Samaria to Nablus. Due to Palestinian unrest in the area, tour groups have only recently returned to the region. Everyone we encountered in the area treated us with hospitality. However, a few villagers pelted two of the three buses with rocks as we drove through the congested town.

In the Old Testament, the Jews called the town Shechem. Abraham and Sarah passed through the area. Later Joshua gathered Israel in Shechem and demanded: “Decide this day whom you shall follow . . . as for me and my house, we will follow the Lord!”

Jacob’s Well is located in downtown Nablus. A beautiful Eastern Orthodox church covers the site. Stairs lead to a grotto beneath the sanctuary. An ancient well over 100 feet deep still provides potable water. Some of the braver members of the group sipped the cool well water out of a common cup.

According to John 4, Jesus encountered a Samaritan woman at this well. After requesting a drink of water, Jesus said: If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.

Late in the day we made our way south towards Jerusalem. “Songs of Ascent” to the City of David form a whole class of Psalms in the Psalter. I imagined seeing Jerusalem in the distance and singing with ancient pilgrims: I was glad when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of the Lord!”

We checked into the prestigious Olive Tree Hotel on Saint George Street in Jerusalem. A fellow minister familiar with the area gathered a small group of us as evening fell. We walked a few blocks to the Old City and entered through the Damascus Gate. We made our way through the ancient streets, passing vendors packing up their wares for the night.

After passing through an Israeli security checkpoint, we entered a wide plaza in front of the Western Wall. The site is the only remaining wall of the Temple which the Romans destroyed in 70 AD. Sometimes known as the Wailing Wall, Jews stand in front of the wall day and night reciting their prayers to God.

The Western Wall with Jerusalem in the background

The Western Wall with Jerusalem in the background

Facing the wall, women worship on the right and men on the left with a barrier in-between. After the men put yarmulkes on our heads, we approached the Western Wall. I placed my hands on the ancient stones, praying for my family and church.

Traditionally, worshippers write their prayers on paper and stuff the slips into the cracks of the wall. I pushed a card into a deep recess where it joined the prayers of countless others before me.

We returned to the hotel as a light mist began to fall in the night. After a sumptuous buffet, I collapsed into bed, anticipating our final day in the Holy Land as we toured Jerusalem.

An ancient toast/prayer at the Jewish Passover meal declares: “Next year in Jerusalem!” This year God blessed me with the ability to fulfill this heartfelt hope.

Holy Land Journal #7: Caesarea Philippi

In February, I joined over one hundred United Methodists from Georgia who visited the Holy Land. I am sharing my reflections about the pilgrimage in a series of journal entries.

After spending the night in Tiberius, we drove north of the Galilean Sea into the Upper Jordan Valley. We stopped briefly at the Old Testament site of Hazor—a strategic, fortified city located in the southern Hula Valley. King Solomon expanded the town to protect the region.

A large well descends over 130 feet to reach the water table. Unfortunately, most of us didn’t have time to make the descent . . . of course, this would have also required an ascent, so the shortage of time might be counted as blessing rather than curse.

The tour continued to Dan which marked the traditional northern point of Israel. In the Old Testament, Israel’s boundaries stretched from “Dan to Beersheba.” A handful of us walked up the hillside to the “high place” which archaeologists unearthed.

Following King Solomon’s death, Israel divided into two kingdoms. King Jeroboam feared the northern kingdom citizens would want to worship in Jerusalem, so he crafted two golden calves for the people to worship—one in Bethel and the other in Dan on the high place where we stood. Sigh—God’s people constantly struggle with the whole idol thing.

In a juxtaposition of ancient and modern, military trenches and a bunker on the northern end of the site overlooked Lebanon. After returning to the bus, we discovered that two Israeli soldiers were killed nearby just the week before.

We continued north to Caesarea Philippi located at the foot of Mount Hermon. The town rested beside a headwater of the Jordan River. The founders named the town Panias after the Greek god, Pan.

Caesarea Philippi

Caesarea Philippi

Pan, who inspired such words as “panic” and “pandemonium,” possessed goat legs with a human body and horned head. His temple sat in the mouth of a large cave from which the spring flowed. People claimed the deep cave served as an entrance to the underworld or Hades.

Herod the Great later ruled the region during the time of Jesus’ birth, and he renamed the city Caesarea in honor of his patron, Augustus. Herod’s son, Philipp, then egotistically added the Philippi to the name.

Matthew 16:13-20 states Jesus used the backdrop of Caesarea Philippi to ask his disciples, “Who do people say that I am?” The disciples rattled off all the rumors circulating about Jesus’ identity. Then the Lord asked, ‘But what about you? Who do you say that I am?”

In the pregnant silence that followed, Simon Peter declared: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Jesus blessed Simon. Then perhaps gesturing to the temple dedicated to Pan, Christ said: “The gates of Hades will not overcome the church.”

Looking at the site as someone reread the Gospel account, the familiar passage suddenly gained fresh and relevant meaning. Every culture promotes gods and idols that demand worship. Against such a pantheistic setting, however, Jesus claimed the title of THE Son of God.

After Caesarea Philippi, we continued northeast up the foothills of Mount Hermon. We arrived in a Druze village clinging to the hillside for a late lunch. A large Coca-Cola sign hung outside the restaurant—Walt Disney was right: it really IS a small world.

falafelOut of the limited lunch options, I tried the falafel. The Middle Eastern dish consists of ground chickpeas rounded into a small ball and then deep-fried. For Southerners, imagine the size and appearance of hush puppies. The woman behind the counter shoved a half-dozen of the golf-ball sized spheres into pita bread.

I will confess that yours truly might not qualify as a world class gourmet. I took a big bite and chewed . . . and chewed . . . and chewed some more. I’m glad I tried falafel because this means I won’t have to eat it again in the future.

Closing thought for this journal entry: Thank God for peanut butter crackers!

Holy Land Journal #6: The Sea of Galilee

In February, I joined over one hundred United Methodists from Georgia who visited the Holy Land. I am sharing my reflections about the pilgrimage in a series of journal entries.

Our tour group stayed two nights in Galilee at the Caesar Hotel in Tiberius. We arrived on Friday evening as the Jewish Sabbath began. Children ran wild through the lobby while their extended families lined up for the Sabbath meal.

The hotel kept a side door propped open so that devout Jews could keep the Sabbath by avoiding work. Some members of our group accidentally discovered the “Shabbat Elevator” which stopped at every floor, eliminating the need to push buttons.

Sea of Galilee 2The hotel overlooked the “Sea” of Galilee which is actually a large lake fed by the Jordan River. It measures 13 miles long and a maximum of 8 miles wide. In Hebrew, the lake is called “Kinneret” which means “harp.” Most believe the name describes the shape of the lake, although the more poetic claim it reflects the melodic sound of the wind and waves.

We ate lunch at Kibbutz Ein Gev on the eastern shore of the Galilean Sea. The restaurant specializes in “Saint Peter’s Fish” which is a whole tilapia served complete with head. The squeamish can order a fillet that doesn’t stare back while being consumed!

After lunch, we took a boat ride on Kinneret. In the middle of the lake, the captain cut the engines, and we listened to the wind blowing off the Golan Heights. The waves gently lapped against the sides as the boat rocked like a cradle.

The tranquil scene made it difficult to believe that violent storms can quickly arise on the water. Cool winds from the Mediterranean blow down the narrow passes and collide with the humid air over the lake. Bobbing on the water, I recalled a story set on the Sea of Galilee in the fourth chapter of Mark.

Jesus had spent the day beside the lake, preaching and teaching. As evening fell, he told his disciples, “Let us go to the other side.” So the fishermen in the group launched a small fleet of boats. Exhausted by the day’s activities, Christ fell asleep in the back.

While Jesus slept, the skies suddenly darkened as the demonic wind began to howl. When the storm struck, the high waves threatened to swamp the boats. Even the experienced fishermen onboard were terrified. Meanwhile, Jesus slept peacefully in the back, rocked by the waves like a baby in his mother’s arms.

In a panic, the disciples looked for Jesus. Where was the Master at this moment of peril? If this was a modern movie, the hero would have been at the prow of the boat, leading his friends and facing the elements.

In Mark’s story, however, Jesus continued to sleep in the stern of the boat, blissfully unaware of the disciples’ terror. They rudely shook him awake with the cry: “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”

There may not be a more brutally honest question in the pages of Scripture. There are dark, dismal moments in our lives when we all echo the disciples’ cry: “Lord, don’t you care?”

Jesus awoke to the cries of his fearful friends. He rose to his feet and rubbed the sleep from his eyes. Stretching into wakefulness, he rebuked the wind like an unruly child. Then he said to the waves: “Peace! Be still!” And the winds died and the waves calmed. Sudden peace and quiet fell upon the waters.

The Gospels repeatedly reveal Jesus Christ’s miraculous power. He exorcized demons and healed diseases. He cured leprosy, opened the eyes of the blind, and commanded the lame to walk. He called Lazarus from the grave. He fed the 5,000 with a few loaves and fishes. He walked on water. And the “Master of the Seas” calmed the stormy waters.

Our Lord hears our pain and doubt when we cry, “Lord, don’t you care?” And there are grace-filled moments when our eyes see the glory of the Lord revealed. He raises his hand, and the winds die. He speaks, and the waves are calmed. We discover that the Lord does indeed care for us more dearly than a mother for her newborn infant and a father for his frightened toddler.

Miracles occur. The storms cease. The Son of God sustains us so that we see the sun rise out of the darkness onto a bright new day.

On the Sea of Galilee, the Holy Spirit graced me with a God-given moment to remember the story . . . and to believe anew.

Holy Land Journal #5: Capernaum

In February, I joined over one hundred United Methodists from Georgia who visited the Holy Land. I am sharing my reflections about the pilgrimage in a series of journal entries.

During our tour of Galilee in northern Israel, we visited the ancient city of Capernaum. The New Testament town figured prominently in Jesus’ public ministry. The ruins of the city remain today on the northern shores of the Sea of Galilee.

I took a “Walk through the Bible” course years ago,  and the instructor taught us the geographical mnemonic: “Capernaum caps the Galilean Sea.” Now you’ll never forget its location!

Capernaum served as a base of operations for Jesus’ ministry in Galilee. After John the Baptist’s death, Matthew 4:12 states: “Leaving Nazareth, Jesus went and lived in Capernaum.” On the nearby shores of the Sea of Galilee, Jesus called Peter, Andrew, James, and John to follow him.

The Gospels describe Jesus visiting the home of Simon and Andrew in Capernaum. Jesus healed Simon’s mother-in-law of a fever, and then she served them a meal. (Insert your favorite mother-in-law joke HERE.) This marked Jesus first recorded healing miracle in the second Gospel.

Some archaeologists believe they have located the site of Simon Peter’s home in Capernaum. They unearthed the ruins of a simple home that was later transformed into a public building—perhaps a church. In the fifth century, the Byzantines built an octagonal church on top of the spot.

Church over Peter's Home in Capernaum

Church over Peter’s Home in Capernaum

Today a modern Catholic church sits suspended above the archaeological site. In the center, a glass bottom allows worshippers to see the traditional location of Simon Peter’s home. I’m not an architectural expert, but the contemporary, octagon-sided church resembles an alien spaceship perched atop the ancient ruins.

Jesus also taught in the Capernaum synagogue. According to Luke’s Gospel, a Roman centurion actually built the Jewish place of worship. Here Jesus exorcised a demon, healed a paralytic lowered through the roof by his friends, and proclaimed the coming kingdom of God.

Synagogue in Capernaum

Synagogue in Capernaum

Over the past two centuries, archaeologists have unearthed one of the world’s oldest synagogues in Capernaum. The relatively intact structure appears to have been built in the 4th or 5th century—centuries after Jesus’ life. However, the preserved structure gives visitors a sense of how the original structure might have appeared.

Under the foundation of the building, scholars have found another foundation made of basalt. Some think this formed the floor of the synagogue that Jesus frequented. Certainly a high probability exists that the two synagogues occupied the same site.

During our tour, a fellow pastor began asking tour members, “When did the light come on for you? What has been the most significant moment of the trip?” People responded with a variety of answers.

The history major in me certainly found Capernaum intellectually interesting. Based on the stone outlines, I could envision a small, thriving village on the shores of the Galilean Sea. I found the “proof” of the authenticity of Simon Peter’s home less than convincing, but Christians have worshipped there for centuries. The place possesses a holiness all its own based on countless saints gathering at this site.

Our associate pastor, Andrew Erwin, experienced Capernaum in a much different way. God’s light blazed for him in that city of ruins. The ancient synagogue spoke to the depths of his soul, forming a “thin place” between heaven and earth. Andrew recognized that he stood on holy ground, imagining Jesus preaching, teaching, and healing in this very place. The opportunity to literally walk where Jesus had walked filled him with wonder and awe.

When Andrew shared this spiritual moment with me later, tears filled his eyes. I envied his experience. I found myself asking, “How did I miss that?” In the midst of a hurried, harried day of touring, I didn’t slow down enough to truly reflect on the moment.

In his ministry, Jesus repeatedly told the crowds: “For those who have eyes to see, let them see. For those who have ears to hear, let them hear.” Ironically, one of the places Jesus spoke these words was on the lakeside adjacent to Capernaum.

You don’t have to travel to the Holy Land to experience the presence of the Lord. However, you can also miss the Holy Spirit’s touch wherever you might be. God moments abound for those with attentive minds and sensitive spirits.

Andrew had eyes to see in Capernaum while I turned a blind eye to the moment. So I pray for the Spirit’s nudge—maybe even a shove—to get my attention the next time.

For those with eyes to . . . well, you know.

Holy Land Journal #4: Jericho and the Mount of Temptation

 In February, I joined over one hundred United Methodists from Georgia who visited the Holy Land. I am sharing my reflections about the pilgrimage in a series of journal entries.

The local Board of Tourism bills Jericho as “the oldest continually occupied city in the world.” Evidence indicates people have lived in the area for 11,000 years since 9,000 B.C. By comparison, Christopher Columbus “discovered” the Americas a little over 500 years ago.

Jericho also qualifies as the lowest city in the world, located in the Jordan River valley 850 feet BELOW sea level. (Jesus began “The Parable of the Good Samaritan” by describing a traveler going DOWN from Jerusalem to Jericho.) Since prehistoric times, water from numerous springs along with the proximity of the Jordan River made this a natural oasis for human habitation. It also served as a gateway into the land of Canaan.

Successive civilizations in the ancient city eventually formed a “tel” or “tell.” A tel is a large, dirt mound formed by generations of human occupation. Due to favorable locations based on water and roads, societies tend to build atop previous towns. The artificial hilltops typically feature sloped sides with flattened tops.

According to historians, twenty plus cultures have occupied Old Testament Jericho over the millennia. Trenches dug by archaeologists reveal the strati of previous civilizations. The cross-section looks like a geographical layer cake.

Jericho figured prominently in the Old and New Testament. After crossing the Jordan River into the Promised Land, Joshua “fit the battle of Jericho” at this site. The Israelites circled the city seven days before the walls collapsed.

Later the prophet Elisha purified the town’s water supply with salt. The free-flowing spring still spouts water into the air at the bottom of the tel.

Jesus also visited the New Testament site of Jericho which was located west of the modern city. On the outskirts of town, a blind man cried out to Jesus and regained his sight. Jesus and the disciples continued into town where the Lord encountered Zacchaeus perched in a sycamore-fig tree.

Just beyond the city a north-south mountain range divides central Israel. The Mount of Temptation towers over Jericho to the northwest. In the Middle Ages, the Crusaders identified this site as the “high mountain” where Satan tempted Jesus with all the world’s kingdoms. Later the Greek Orthodox Church built a monastery there. Today cable cars go halfway up the mountain to a restaurant and shops.

Tourism reigns in the Holy Land with the ability to transform any Bible story into a shopping opportunity. During lunchtime in Jericho, we visited the Temptation Tourist Center, ate at the Temptation Restaurant, and then visited the Temptation Gift Shop. Seriously, I couldn’t make this stuff up.

Jericho Temptation Tourist Center

The experience made me recall the punchline of an old preacher’s joke. One day a minister overheard a church member praying out loud: “Lord, lead me not into temptation—I can find it quite well on my own!”

Moral of the Story: Wherever we go, temptation always beckons because we carry ourselves with us.

After lunch, our bus driver and guide took us to a nearby plaza where a camel lounged in the shade. For $5 a person, the owner offered us the opportunity to ride the camel around the parking lot and pose for a photo op.

I rode a camel thirty-five years ago, and I never forgot the odiferous experience. I learned early in life that some things just don’t have to be done twice!

Camels enjoy a well-earned reputation as ornery, cantankerous creatures. They spit, hiss, and bite—and that’s just on the front end! However, plenty of volunteers climbed on the ungulate and took it for a spin.

The best part of the experience? The camel rides occurred on WEDNESDAY. So we all stood around shouting, “Hey, Mike, Mike, Mike? Guess what day it is? It’s HUMP DAY!”

That’s FUNNY, I don’t care who you are!

Andrew E on a Camel

Andrew E on a Camel

Holy Land Journal #3: Qaser El Yahud

In February, I joined over one hundred United Methodists from Georgia who visited the Holy Land. I am sharing my reflections about the pilgrimage in a series of journal entries.

Qaser El Yahud marks the traditional site of Jesus’ baptism at the Jordan River. (Remember: “Traditional” in tourism code means a place which cannot be identified with academic certainty but pilgrims have visited for generations.) According to conventional belief, this is the same site where the Israelites crossed into the Promised Land and Elijah ascended into heaven.

Due to regional conflict, the site only recently reopened to the public in 2010. A soldier waved our bus through a checkpoint guarding the way to the river. High fences flanked the road with signs warning of landmines beyond the wire.

The Jordan River

The Jordan River

Wide marble stairs descended to the bank of the Jordan River—although river might be too grandiose of a term for the 20 yard wide stream. The muddy, murky, meandering water flowed through reeds and rushes on the shoreline.

The Jordan River serves as a national boundary. On the far side of the waterway, two Jordanian soldiers with slung automatic rifles observed us with disinterest. One guide with a blend of levity and gravity warned tourists that swimming to the other shore might prove hazardous.

Many Christian pilgrims like to be baptized again in the Jordan. However, United Methodists do not practice rebaptism. If God is the primary actor in the waters of baptism, then the sacrament need not be repeated. We can and do break human promises, but the Lord remains true to the divine covenant.

Bishop Mike Watson led the group in a Baptismal Reaffirmation Service. The worship service gave participants an opportunity to remember our baptism and reaffirm our baptismal vows.

In his introduction, the bishop warned that the Jordan was “a living river.” I appreciated this carefully crafted euphemism. In other words, detritus, effluents, and bacteria contaminated the unfiltered water. Some members of the group filled bottles with river water. The guides warned them to boil the liquid after returning to the United States.

In the flannel board, Sunday School pictures of my childhood, a clean, blue Jordan River flowed under a desert sun. John the Baptist (complete with camelhair coat, leather belt, and unkempt hair) poured water over the smiling face of Jesus. Hmmm, I don’t recall the teachers mentioning that the water might cause infections in any open sores or wounds.

However, the muck and mud of the River Jordan reminded me that we serve an incarnate God. The Lord loved us so much that he invaded our world, coming as a human being into our fallen world. Where else would he be baptized than in “a living river” with sinners on every side?

As we recalled the story of Jesus’ baptism, I also remembered the story before the story. John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” When his cousin appeared on the river banks, John protested that Jesus should baptize him.

However, Jesus submitted to John’s baptism—the sinless Son of God received “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” In Christ’s baptism, we witness a microcosm  of the Incarnation. Emmanuel—God with us in the muck and mire of human existence. God became who we are—at his birth, baptism, and death—at Bethlehem, the Jordan River, and Golgotha.

God became who we are . . . so that we might become who God is.

At the culmination of the service, the bishop dipped a large frond into the river and then flung water across the congregation. As the drops rained on our heads, Bishop Watson declared: “Remember your baptism, and be thankful!”

Remember your baptism . . .

I remembered the stories my parents told about the Reverend L. B. Jones, Junior holding me as an infant in his arms. The water splashed upon my startled face as he recited the ancient words: “William Randolph, I baptize you in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Then my parents and the congregation at Capitol View Methodist Church in downtown Atlanta promised to raise me in the faith.

I am who I am today because of what happened to me that winter Sunday morning in 1958. The waters of baptism claimed me as one of God’s own. Over the years, various churches and fellow Christians have fulfilled the vow to set an example for my life.

Remember your baptism . . .

As the bishop’s words echoed in my ears, I remembered my baptism . . . I remembered Jesus’ baptism . . . and I gave thanks.  Amen.

Holy Land Journal #2: Church of the Nativity

In February, I joined over one hundred United Methodists from Georgia who visited the Holy Land. I am sharing my reflections about the pilgrimage in a series of journal entries.

We spent the first three nights of the Holy Land tour at the Angel Hotel in Bethlehem. The family-run establishment featured modest rooms with delicious buffets and Middle Eastern hospitality—even modern amenities like free WIFI!

The name of the hotel is emblematic of the entire town. Figures of celestial beings, stars, and shepherds fill this small city a few miles south of Jerusalem.

Over the past years, the Christian population has declined rapidly in the majority Muslim town. I awoke the first morning at 4:00 a.m. to an Arabic call to prayer from a minaret apparently located right outside the window. However, money trumps religion in a town that thrives on Christian tourism.

Since returning from Israel, people have repeatedly asked about my most and least favorite places on the trip. A number of nominations contend for the “Most Popular” category. However, I can readily identify my “Least Favorite” finalist: the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem.

The Church of the Nativity is the traditional site of Jesus’ birth. (“Traditional” in tourism code means a site which cannot be identified with academic certainty but pilgrims have visited for generations.)  When Emperor Constantine of Rome became a Christian in the fourth century, his mother, Helena, visited the Holy Land. She commissioned a number of basilicas (churches) built over sacred sites, including the Church of the Nativity.

We visited the church our second day in country. “O little town of Bethlehem” is not so little anymore. The population of 25,000 entertains over 2 million tourists annually.

The tour bus stopped at a multistory parking garage, and we walked past a Kentucky Fried Chicken into the crowded streets. Souvenir hawkers and roadside beggars accosted the group while the smell of fried falafel and sharp spices filled the air.

Commerce reigns supreme at Manger Square where merchants prey on religious pilgrims. Tourists can purchase postcards, scarves, crosses, manger scenes, angels, camels, and more. Forests of carved olive wood figures fill the stores’ shelves. If a herald angel appeared today, no one would hear the natal message above the din of engines, horns, and voices.

Congregants must duck to enter the basilica’s doorway. Years ago church officials lowered the entrance so people could not ride horses, camels, and donkeys into the building! The trivia tickled my sense of humor; however, it also felt appropriate to humbly bow while entering the ancient sanctuary.

Contractors are currently renovating the interior of the building, and banded wood protected the pillars and plywood sheets covered the floors. Dictated by an ancient agreement, the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Armenian Apostolic churches oversee different parts of the facility.

Impressions: the Church of the Nativity precariously balanced sacred and secular, grandeur and gaudy, touching and tacky. Crimson glass-blown balls hung from the ceilings and cloying incense perfumed the air. In an odd anachronism, energy-saving, curly florescent bulbs provided modern light from the ancient fixtures.

14 point star marking site of Jesus' birth

14 point star marking site of Jesus’ birth

Forget the Christmas card, manger scene settings complete with barn and stable—Jesus’ birth more likely occurred in a cave. At the side of the sanctuary, a stairwell descended to a small grotto guarded by a priest. A fourteen point silver star beneath an altar marked the traditional site of Jesus’ birth. Pilgrims knelt before the star, some asking for the priest’s blessing.

We walked back up the steps and visited the Roman Catholic chapel next door. Saint Jerome spent thirty years in a nearby cave translating the Scriptures into contemporary Latin which was later called the Vulgate (“Vulgate” shares the same root word as “vulgar” which means “commonly used.”)

Of course, a ubiquitous gift shop guarded the exit for any tourist needing a memento of the visit. Then we made our way down the crowded sidewalks to board the bus.

The whole experience underwhelmed me—to be fair, in part because the modern setting could not compare to my mental images of that first silent night. The ornate setting of the nativity also felt like a visual oxymoron—the humble manger scene of Jesus’ birth overlaid with glitter, glimmer, and gilding.

Earlier in the day, however, we visited the Shepherd’s Fields—a more pastoral site south of town. A peaceful garden overlooked green slopes leading up to Bethlehem. In the foreground, a shepherd watched over his flocks much like his ancestors did millennia ago. The simple scene reflected the Biblical story of Jesus’ birth much more than the bustling business of Bethlehem.

For those with ears to hear, the angelic message still echoes over the plains: Good news . . . great joy . . . all people . . . born to us today . . . a Savior . . . Christ . . . the Lord.

Like the shepherds, may we say to one another: Let us go see this thing which the Lord has done.

Holy Land Journal #1: There and Back Again

Holy Land Pilgrims Map 2In February, a group of over one hundred United Methodists from North Georgia visited the Holy Land. The group included twenty-four people associated with First United Methodist Church of Lawrenceville. I am sharing my reflections about the pilgrimage in a series of blog entries.

The trip actually began over a year before. Bishop Mike Watson, episcopal leader of the North Georgia Conference of the United Methodist Church, regularly leads tour groups to the Holy Land. We promoted the 2015 trip at church, and many indicated an interest. Ultimately, three of the clergy along with twenty-one other church members, family, and friends made the pilgrimage.

Our journey to Israel included a two-leg flight from Atlanta to Newark to Tel Aviv. Due to inclement weather in the northeast, United Airlines cancelled our flight out of Atlanta thirty-six hours prior to departure. Herculean efforts by the tour company managed to book our group on two different flights. We all arrived at Newark Liberty International Airport in time for the connecting flight.

The airline required each passenger to undergo a second security screening at the gate. Flights in and out of Israel apparently garner extra attention. Better safe than sorry, I suppose.

The plane finally pushed away from the gate a little before midnight . . . or at least tried to do so. The arctic temperatures had frozen the slush around the wheels, effectively cementing the landing gear to the runway.

The ground crew summoned a “super tug” which bounced the airplane up and down. Then it pushed the Boeing777 out of the terminal . . . and pulled it back in again. The process repeated several times like a group of people trying to push a stuck car out of the snow.

The wheels finally gained traction, and the pilot taxied to a nearby stand. High pressure pumps deiced the plane, spraying it with a hot, glycol-based liquid. While the technicians treated the fuselage, the runway beneath the airplane refroze. The pilot slipped and slid on the icy tarmac before finally gaining purchase.

By the time the airplane taxied to the airstrip, most of the passengers were entertaining serious, second thoughts about the entire endeavor. However, the pilot redlined the throttles and released the brakes. Strong winds pushed the plane sideways as it hurtled down the runway. Since you’re reading this blog, we made it off the ground safely.

United Airlines has replaced the economy 2x5x2 seating arrangement with a more comfortable 3x3x3 plan. However, I still found myself wedged in the middle seat on the starboard side. (International travelers prefer to say “starboard” and “port” rather than “right” and “left”!)

After a midnight supper no one wanted but everyone ate, the lights dimmed, and we settled in for the 10-plus hour flight. I’ve never been able to sleep sitting up, and I envy those who can travel comatose. I completed a crossword puzzle, read a book, watched four movies, and tracked our progress across the Atlantic.

Israel is seven hours ahead of Eastern Standard Time. After the delays, we finally arrived at Ben Gurion Airport about 6:00 p.m. local time but only 11:00 a.m. body time. The airline aggravated the jet lag by serving us breakfast an hour prior to landing.

We stumbled zombie-like off the airplane and trudged through passport control. The bedraggled group gathered at luggage claim, waiting for stragglers. A tour group representative herded us to waiting buses which took us on a ninety minute trip to Bethlehem. After check-in, I collapsed into the bed.

This inauspicious start became the prelude to a life-changing pilgrimage. Although I visited Israel during seminary, the intervening years have blurred the memories. These eight days in the Holy Land transformed my life and ministry.

During the Seder meal at Passover, a traditional, Jewish toast declares: “Next year in Jerusalem!” This year we were blessed to fulfill this heartfelt prayer, and I look forward to sharing the experience with you.