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.