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Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Dead Sea (is Awesome!)

Who knew that the Dead Sea was a beautiful area? I did not. I don't know what I expected. I guess for it to be more desolate than it is. It is actually a very beautiful area, at least the beach area where we went, and an incredible place.
But a bit before we arrived at dead sea destination, we stopped at Wadi Qelt. This is a gorgeous desert valley where St. George's Monastery lurks in the hillside. You can't see the monastery at first and then after a few steps, wow, it comes into view! Along with these spectacular views, the Judaean Desert is breathtaking through this stretch of land. Many photographs later, our group was back in the bus, heading for the dead sea. Our destination was Kalia Beach, a gorgeous place to enjoy the wonders of this mineral laden salty sea. After a bit of lunch, we ventured toward the beach.

I have to admit, it was thrilling to experience this salty, floating water! You simply sit back in the water and allow your feet to pop up and then, it's like being on an inflated raft! The water temperature was lovely on this hot day and it was actually very relaxing!
We wanted to take advantage of the free mud treatment that was available so we had a blast mudding up! After a bit of drying off in the sunshine, we were ready to plunge back into the salty water and get washed off. We were all quite amazed by how soft and silky our skin was feeling as the mud came off!
After getting cleaned up, we decided that we needed to visit The Lowest Bar in the World! At 418 meters below sea level, I think it lives it up to its name. What a delightful time of relaxing with friends, in this gorgeous spot, after enjoying such a unique and fun experience in the dead sea.
Afterwards, we visited the shops that sell the qualities found in the mud and dead sea in cosmetic form for more money than it took to bathe! I was recommending a salt wash followed by shea butter that I'd sampled and people were pretty excited about it. So much so that many made purchases and the shop girl gave me a free bottle of foot cream!
It was truly a beautiful, fun, invigorating, relaxing experience. I'm very thankful about half our group decided to take the time to do a day trip here together. It was a very memorable experience indeed.

Saturday, May 2, 2015

Jerusalem

Yesterday was a high octane day! We started with an early departure from our hotel on the West Bank and headed for the Mount of Olives. It was a gorgeous morning and the day ahead was filled with anticipation.
The Mount of Olives is a beautiful place not only for the garden atmosphere but also for the spectacular views it gives of Jerusalem. It was great to get a sense of the topography and helped to envision the final week of Christ's life in a real way. From the Mount of Olives, we walked the Palm Sunday road down to the Garden of Gethsemane. Gethsemane today is a very beautiful place, a true garden. I was glad for this. Of course, there is a church built on the sight that commemorates the agony Christ felt on the night before his death. There is a rock encased in the church that is supposedly the rock that Jesus prayed upon while asking God to remove the cup of suffering from him. This piece of art was more moving to me. I did enjoy being near the garden of Gethsemane even though little about it seemed to resemble what it would've looked like in Jesus' day.
From there we headed to the Garden Tomb, one of the places where some think Christ was crucified, buried and resurrected. Some of the evidence for this spot include this skull-like rock near this place. But the guide was quick to point out that while there is no way to prove that the spot of the garden tomb is historically accurate, he was also quick to point out that the exact position of Christ's death and resurrection is secondary to the reality that it did indeed take place in this region and changed the course of human history forever. We enjoyed taking a look at the grave and again, matching some visual images with the biblical narrative.

We finished the day with a walk through the old city. The marketplace is a warren of vendors with twists and turns for miles around. I look forward to having more time to explore this area.

We are now nestled into our hotel just outside of the old city. My fitbit tells me that I walked over 6 miles today so it's no wonder that we are very tired. But I will always remember the steps that I took as I followed some of Christ's journey to the cross.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Bethlehem and Jerusalem

The last two days have been spent in Bethlehem and Jerusalem. It's a bit hard to ingest the reality of being here. Some of that is due to the reality that modernity has overtaken the significant places of the Christian faith and some of it is simply due to just trying to wrap one's mind around the reality of walking in this holy place. Our first stop was Manger Square, the traditional place believed to be where Jesus was born. Of course, it resembles in no way at all the idyllic nativity scenes that we decorate our homes with at Christmas. The Church of the Nativity is built over the cave-like place where Christ would've been born. You are ushered into a line and moved along rapidly, scarcely having time to consider the incarnation that unfolded here over 2,000 years ago. And yet, we stood in the line, cameras ready, happy to experience this modern day acknowledgment that a place exists that is dedicated to the birth of Christ.

 From there we went to Shepherds' Cave and Fields. While still surrounded by modern elements, the close proximity to the hills of Bethlehem along with the gorgeous gardens and grounds that surrounded us, the experience of the shepherds was much more believable to me. Archeological digs have revealed caves where sheep would've been tended to. Now that I live in the desert, the dark night sky where the stars shine so brightly allows me to picture with greater clarity the fear the shepherds' must've felt when the multitude showed up to lead them to the cave where the Messiah had been born. The caves that were at this site seemed so much more authentic so I was able to at least imagine what Christ's birthplace might've actually looked like.
The church that is now a part of Shepherds' field is beautiful and thoughtfully designed. The dome is intended to reflect the sentiment of the night the savior was born: Glory to God in the highest. The views of the surrounding hillsides contributed to a sense of vastness. And I loved the statue that paid homage to the lowly shepherd...society's most unappreciated members.
After a night of sleep that I badly needed, I was ready for yet another day filled with dazzling experiences.
We spent the morning hearing about a reconciliation ministry run by Palestinian Christians. I will dedicate another blog to all that we encountered through this remarkable man and ministry. It set a great tone for visiting the wall that separates Israel from Palestine, a great symbol of oppression and discrimination. From there we arrived high atop Jerusalem, getting a fantastic panoramic view of this significant city. From a distance, we saw the Garden of Gethsemane and the Mount of Olives which we will visit tomorrow. We got a sense of the roads Jesus walked and learned about the days where he was put on trial and beaten while awaiting his crucifixion. The house of the high priest Caiphas was a very moving experience. Magnificent artwork along with a very tasteful and beautiful church dominate the site. Well beneath the ground we stood in a pit that might very well have been the pit where Jesus was beaten and held on his last night of life. We read Psalm 88 and sang Were You There When They Crucified My Lord. Very meaningful to pause and ponder the pain and agony that Christ endured on the way to the cross. We shared a special time of devotion in an outdoor garden, looking out at Jerusalem. Christ's death has meant the ultimate tearing down of walls that divide people and yet, in this very place where his death took place, a wall is being built to keep people apart. The Israel/Palestine narrative is a sad one indeed and while difficult to hold onto hope, the places of Christ's ministry, death and resurrection that permeate the walls gives us reason to continue to hope.

We are now back at our hotel in Bethlehem, in the West Bank. We moved fairly freely through the checkpoints several times today. Only once did soldiers get on and simply walk through our bus. The weather is beautiful, the mood is light and good, and yet, here we are, in the midst of an area where much violence, misunderstanding, and oppression of other humans takes place all the time. I suppose at times, I understand more fully why Jesus stood over Jerusalem and wept for his people. May the reconciling power of Christ's ministry continue to find a way to influence the conflict that seems so insurmountable at times.


Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Cana and Nazareth

Today was another meaningful day of coming close to the footprints of Jesus. Our first stop was Cana, the location of Christ's first miracle, the turning of water into wine at the wedding in Cana. We visited a church that had been built upon the so-called spot where this event took place. Of course, there's no way of pinpointing the exact spot, but just being in Cana, knowing that Jesus had indeed been here, was pretty special. Archeological digs have unearthed large pots which would've been used for water and wine. While the place looks virtually nothing like it would've when Jesus was attending weddings, it was neat to see the unearthed pottery and imagine life in this little town. Of course, local merchants have capitalized on the biblical narrative and you see Cana Wedding Wine shops all over the little village. One shop was offering a taste of the wine of Cana and the bottles were labeled with touristy clich├ęs. 
I guess everyone's gotta make a buck (or a shekel) somehow!

From Cana we journeyed on down the road to Nazareth, where Jesus grew up with Joseph and Mary. The city is very modern and quite large but the church of the Annunciation dominates the tourist trade. In this little square, digs have uncovered what they believe to be the site of where the Angel Gabriel visited the young Mary to announce that she will indeed bear the Savior, Jesus Christ. The place is a little cave, a common dwelling in those times. The cave itself is interesting, spruced up a bit with modern religious elements but generally speaking, it was still a nice experience to walk in that place and ponder what life must've been like for Mary when the angel visited her. I was pleased with the church itself. The sanctuary was lovely and the walls are dotted with artwork that many countries have donated to the church with a cultural depiction of Mary and the baby Jesus. It was neat to see some ethnic features in each of the pieces. I did not like the one from the U.S. Mary looks angry or evil and the baby Jesus isn't really even present. But the statue outside of the sanctuary depicting the annunciation was really beautiful. Such is art.

In addition to the church of the Annunciation, another spot nearby commemorates Joseph and his little carpentry shop. Again, these points are symbolic rather than exact but these sites do give you a great idea of what life was like when Jesus was running around Nazareth as a young boy. To think that archeologists have uncovered these ancient ruins and thus can give us clues as to what life in Nazareth was like when Jesus was growing up is a real feat unto itself.

In the shadow of both the church of the annunciation and Joseph's chapel, we stopped to share in a time of devotion. The leaders emphasized the ordinary nature of Mary's life and even of Christ's as he grew up in this neighborhood. The point being that Mary made herself available and said yes to her calling, even in the midst of her very ordinary circumstances. That we should be willing to do the same was the calling. It was great.
After lunch some of us ventured into the town of Tiberius. Located on the sea of Galilee, modern day Tiberius was much like any seaside town. Fun to imagine the comings and goings of the folks who lived in the biblical era. I will have a good mental picture to draw upon when I encounter Tiberius in my scripture reading in the future.

It was a very hot day. Some thermometers were measuring 100°F. The air conditioner on the bus broke on the way back to the hotel so it was a real roaster of an afternoon. We cooled off with a dip in the sea of Galilee as the sun began its decent. It was refreshing and clean. Hard to believe that at one point in time, both Jesus and Peter swam in this same body of water. A thrill to experience indeed.

Our evening ended with a bonfire on the beach and some structured sharing time followed by warm conversations around the fire. What a peaceful, joyful, beautiful night it was, on the shores of the Sea of the Galilee.

Tomorrow, we're off to Bethlehem!