Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Home Again!

Yesterday we completed our Holy Land trip. It was a day starting with a 1:30AM wakeup call in Jerusalem and ending in Rochester at 9:45 PM. With the time zone changes that's over 28 hours. We had a chance to say goodbyes to new friends made from Israel to Michigan to Minnesota.

Here are comments from some of us:

My comments? The same lesson I taught for years: the Sea of Galilee, sweet water, vibrant, alive, teeming with talapia (St Peter's fish), swimmers, boats, and jet-skiis. The Dead Sea, briney, caustic, inimical, barren, hostile. The difference? One receives and gives, the other receives and does not give. Just so is it with us and God's sweet love in Christ: loved lavishly, we in turn can love lavishly. That way we stay sweet and fresh, like the lovely Sea of Galilee. But if we are takers (receivers) only, and do not freely share God's love in Christ, we too become barren, caustic, inimical, hostile, selfish (spiritually dead).

Larry and I were so pleased that we could travel with this group of long time friends and a few new friends. The friendships old and new are so important to us. However, the spiritual fellowship of this group of faithful followers of Christ made our experience even more precious. Yes, I felt a little pressure since I wanted this to be a perfect tour for all of the participants. (And, it was a very good tour.) Yet I found that the spiritual aspect was the significant part for me. It strengthened my faith in Jesus Christ as I once again visited where He lived and died. I felt the powerful meaning of His sacrifice for my sins and I praise God for the plan of salvation. We heard the Israelite history, old and new. In an area where there has been so much conflict, we heard a second side of the story when we visited a home in Bethlehem. I felt so much love in that Palestinian home. And it was so enlightening! As a result of our tour, may we all bring understanding and a little bit of peace to our world. I want to thank our three pastors for their leadership. To me singing the hymns led by Pastor Meiers was a real highlight!
Joanne Larsen

We join the rest in saying that one must be on Pilgrimage to understand and appreciate all we saw, heard, and felt. We agreed that it was our Number One trip, in the areas of study, appreciation of our Christian Heritage, and bonding with the peoples of the area, not to mention the blooming of the desert. Israel shows that the multicultural groups can live in peace. This should be a lesson for all of us here in the USA. Thanks to all on the trip for the cohesivness of the group. A joy that will always be with us.
Gene and Marilyn Treder

This was a wonderful experience - especially the Sea of Galilee. Thank you for allowing a Methodist to be a part of your group - it was a learning experience I enjoyed.
Beverly Ladin

What a time we had together! Seeing the land and places that we've read about and studied in the Bible has really helped me understand the message in context and to appreciate the challenges Christ, the disciples and early Christians faced as they spread the good news. For me this was a trip that sets the standards for all others ... beautiful scenery, interesting/historical places, spiritual renewal/growth, political enlightenment, well organized and enjoyable tour companions. I came away with much more than I started with.
Niel Wiegand

Our trip to the Holy Land - Israel - was a powerful, wonderful and exhausting time. However, I am so pleased that my family encouraged me to go... We have been asked to name the most impressive stops of the trip. For me, the supposed site of the Baptism of our Lord in the Jordan River by John the Baptist. But another as well, the Communion Service at the site of the Garden Tomb. Then, not one of our group could forget our awesome opportunity to walk through the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Jerusalem.
Pastor Jim Mattson

Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Upper Room and the Holocaust Museum

Today was a day filled with emotion. It was our last day of touring and we spent the morning celebrating holy communion with Lutherans literally from the 4 corners of the world at the ELCA Church of the Redeemer. In the afternoon we spent several hours at the Holocaust Museum seeing the evidence of the most horrific things human beings can do to one another.
We ended our day of touring in the tunnels under the western wall.

In the evening we had a wonderful dinner at the Olive Press Restaurant with our guide and the whole group. We had a traditional Israeli/Greek meal with lots of vegetables and fruits, lamb, talapia (St. Peter's fish) or chicken and a delicious chocolate souffle and tea.

The most moving part of the day for many of us was seeing the upper room where Jesus shared his last supper with his disciples and then sharing Sunday service and holy communion at the Church of the Redeemer. They just happened to have 20 members of the Oklahoma Men's Chorus that was touring in the area, sing the musical selections for the morning. It's a 200 member chorus and orchestra and they split up to cover several Sunday services before their concert later that afternoon. The acoustics in the stone church were absolutely incredible and when our voices were joined with theirs, it gave a beautiful sound to the music for the morning. The pastor there was originally from St. Paul and he said he really appreciated the Minnesota voices. They always do introductions at the end of their service before the blessing and along with our group visiting that day was a group from Canada, a woman from Gaza whose husband was from Kameroon, a woman from Kansas, a pastor from Bavaria, Germany, a group from Lake Tahoe, CA and Hollywood, CA.

Pastor Holman's sermon was on Jesus' words of "Peace be with you." It was so moving in this land of ongoing conflict and tension to hear him preach on the only peace that really matters. When we shared the peace with each other during the service, it's meaning was much more significant to all of us than before.

We actually heard some hopeful news at the end of the day during our supper together. It sounds like the Israelis are going to ease restrictions on Palestinians going back and forth across the border between Bethlehem and Jerusalem. It sounds like it may have come from some of the efforts of Christians in Bethlehem as well as our ELCA Bishops who were there in January. How wonderful that would be for them.

We shopped for awhile in the market place at the north end of the city wall and brought back lots of great gifts for family and friends. We may have trouble getting our suitcases packed when we leave tonight.

Going to the Holocaust Museum this afternoon was kind of overwhelming for many of us. Some had been there before or to the one in Washington D.C., but for those who hadn't it was hard to get through it all. Our guide, Doron, encouraged us to just do as much as we felt we could and then to try to process it later. We saw the Garden of the Righteous Gentiles to commemorate the people who had actually saved thousands of Jews during the war. What was so eye opening was the number of countries and churches who did nothing to stop what was happening - even to innocent children - or to even open their borders to Jewish immigrants after the war - that included the Pope at the time and our own country. We also saw the Hall of Remembrance with all the names of people who died in the death camps and the Children's Memorial where names of children who died were continuously read. Doron told us that his mother's family from Greece lost most of its members to the Holocaust. It's really amazing that there are some people who still deny that the Holocaust ever happened. It was so well documented. Most of the pictures of the ghettos and death camps and forced marches and trains were actually taken by the Germans who kept detailed records of what they did.

There were lots of soldiers there and at the Western Wall where we went next. They're all getting ready to celebrate their Independence Day with many commemorations and ceremonies. Before the western wall, we actually went to the Israel Museum where a model of the old city of Jerusalem is displayed along with some of the Dead Sea scrolls. The scroll of the book of Isaiah is displayed in one continuous scroll posted on a round wall in the center of the building under a water controlled dome. There were fascinating details and artifacts from the Essenes, the sect that discovered and kept the scrolls for many years.

Our last stop for the whole trip was back to the Western Wall. This time we got to take pictures and to touch the wall. Women and men still had to go to different sections of it. We then went underground to walk the tunnel that runs the length of the wall. It was built in the 1500s as a street along the area that is now the western wall of the temple mount. In the 1800s when archeologists discovered the tunnel that includes a cistern and a reservoir along it, there was concern that people were trying to excavate into the temple mount and the Muslim temple. When they dug an exit out of the tunnel in 1991, so there was better access to it, there were actually riots between several groups.

There's no more touring to do. All that's left is to pack and prepare for the long plane ride home. We'll leave the hotel at 2:30 am this morning to catch a 6:00 am flight out of Tel Aviv. It's been an amazing experience - this pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Our guide, Doron, told us at dinner tonight that coming on a pilgrimage to Israel doesn't make you become a better Christian, but good Christians certainly make a better pilgrimage. It's not often that you get a PhD in Political Science for a tour guide. Doron got his PhD from the Kennedy School of Political Science at Harvard. He's actually coming to the States to teach seminars at LSU for a month. We hope to see him again some time in May in Minnesota.

So for now it's Shalom to the wonderful countries of Israel and Jordan and all the fascinating people we've met. And it's "see you soon" to all our family and friends. We won't be posting again from the Holy Land.

God's blessings to all.


Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Vio Doloroso and Bethlehem

Today was a day of experiencing many cultures, many of the world's religions and many mixed emotions. We began the morning at the Temple Mount on the Jewish Sabbath. We were not able to go into the Muslim mosque with the golden dome because it was closed. Our guide, Doran told us that he can never promise that a group will see the mosque, because it's often closed to the public. We did go to the Western Wall - the Wailing Wall and saw all the Israelis praying there. They have many different styles of dress. It's based on which rabbi they follow as to how they dress. The most conservative is the Hasidic Jews who wear the round flat brimmed hats with the curls at the side of their ears. The women and children and the men are in separate areas. We got to go down to the wall and see all the people praying. They rock back and forth as they pray so they will be able to focus better and not be distracted by the many people going by. They all had Torah's and were praying from them. The women had prayer shawls over their heads. We really felt like tourists walking up to the wall because everyone was dressed in their best clothes for church. The men had to put on yarmulkes.

An interesting side note about prayer shawls - the two lines of the Israeli flag on either side of the star of David are to signify a prayer shawl - to indicate the spiritual side of their life.

Next we walked under the temple mount to get to the Via Dolorosa and walk the stations of the cross. Some of us tried to remember the beautiful duet Mark and Lisa did for our musical as we walked along the real Via Dolorosa.

Walking under the temple mount took us through the markets on a very narrow cobblestone street. What an amazing mixture of cultures and sights, sounds and smells that was. The Via Dolorosa was also along the market place. Our guide told us that during Jesus' time, the road was much wider and it was filled with people as Jesus was carrying his cross up to Calvary. We stopped at each staion of the cross and it was just like that - people all over and merchants trying to sell us things all the time. It made it hard to focus on what we were learning about. for most of the people there, nothing much important was happening - almost like it must have seemed to the masses of people, during Jesus' walk up to Calvary - some people were watching Jesus, others were making fun of him and throwing fruit on him or even ignoring him.

By the time we got to the 9th station, we were at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher which is another location that archeologists believe might hold Jesus' tomb. Eight different denominations have built chapels in that church to commemorate the last part of Jesus' life. We stood in line for almost an hour to see that tomb. During each day, each of the 8 denominations is allowed time for a short service before they go into see the tomb. While we waited, we were able to see 2 of those ceremonies - one by Greek Orthodox and one by Coptic priests. It was fascinating to watch the mix of cultures there.

We heard the story of the origin of why people "knock on wood" today. Ask us when we get back. I don't have much time left now to explain the story. We also heard about how the Byzantine Christians took pieces of the rock that was rolled away from the tomb and sent it out to many of their churches because they felt their people would never be able to come to see it for themselves. So today, many churches in Turkey have pieces of rock in their crosses that comes from the stone that was rolled away from Jesus' tomb.

The last half of our day was spent in Bethlehem at many unplanned and very eye opening stops. We actually had lunch in the home of a Palestinian Christian named Michael who was related to Fuad Mansour, a Palestinian from Rochester who pretty much started our outdoor soccer program. Larry had arranged this lunch as well as a tour of the Shepherds' Field and the Church of the Nativity. We heard all about life in Bethlehem as a Palestinian Christian and the many difficulities they go through. In the '50s the Christians were 90% of the population of Bethlehem and now they are only 25% of the population.

Michael and his family were gracious hosts and fed all 25 of us a delicious lunch of chicken and rice and salad and yogurt which is a very traditional lunch. We had good strong coffee and a final course. They have 6 children and in an amazing coincidence, two of Michael's sons will be going to Green Lake Bible Camp as camp counselors for this summer. That's the same camp where Pastor Meiers' son Chris will be a counselor! He took down their names and they plan to make connections in Rochester sometime during the summer.

One of Michael's sons took us to the Shepherds' Field and then to the Church of the Nativity. We saw a funeral and a wedding being conducted while we were touring the church that has a Greek Orthodox, Armenian and Catholic Section. As a special side trip, Michael's son took us to see the ELCA church in Bethlehem. It was a long walk up to see a beautiful church that is offering hope in the midst of hopelessness to Palestinian Christians all around the West Bank.

Our last stop on this long and emotion filled day was to the Olivewood factory where we saw the making of the Bethelhem Olivewood that we actually sold at Hosanna just before Christmas. It's a main part of their financial support and all of us bought quite a bit of it to bring back. It was fascinating to see the process first hand.

We definitely saw the other side of the story today. We were happy to get back across the border to Jerusalem. There is definitely tension going both ways.

Tomorrow we go to church in the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in Jerusalem and then we'll be going to the Holocaust Museum- for the other side of the story again. It will be another emotional and exciting day. We'll even have time to shop at the big market place near the temple mount.

Then it's a short night as we start our 24 hour trip back to Rochester beginning at 2:30 am on Monday morning. This has not been a trip for the faint of heart both physically and spiritually.

Hopefully we'll have time tomorrow night to do a final post before we leave. If not, we'll have lots of pictures and stories to share when we come home.

Blessings to all. We look forward to getting home and seeing you all soon.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Jerusalem - David's Royal City

Today we were back on the bus by 8:00 am to spend the day touring Jerusalem through stories in the Bible going from Jesus' time back to David's time and then back to Jesus again.

First Doron, our guide, gave us a little political history about who controlled Jerusalem at various times between 1948 until 1967 when the Israelis finally took it over from the Jordanians. We also found out that April 29 is the Isreali Independence Day and the 28th is their Memorial Day.

Doron then described the layout of the city from the viewpoint of the Mt. of Olives where we began the day. The old city of Jerusalem is surrounded by a wall and is all visible from that height. It was amazing as he pointed out one landmark after the other - the Temple Mount with its mosque with an $8,000,000 golden dome, The Church of the Holy Seplechre, the Lion, Golden and Damascus gates, the Church of the Redeemer, the Church of Mary Magdalene with golden domes also, the Qidron Valley and the Field of Blood with the Greek Orthodox church at the bottom of it, and the Cemetary where graves are built on top of each other. He described the Jewish custom of visiting the tombs 3 days after the burial of a person to retrieve the bones and place them in an aschuary where they would become ashes to ashes, dust to dust.

Our first tour for the day was the Garden of Gethsemane and the church built around the rock where Jesus agonized over the decision he had to make about letting himself be captured and crucified. It was built by an Italian named Barluzzi and is called the Church of All Nations. It was moving to be able to touch that rock and picture what Jesus must have gone through. Our guide said that Gethsemane was actually more important than Calvary because that's where Jesus made the final decision to follow his Father's will. Calvary is just the physical crucifixion or the fulfilling of that decision.

An interesting parallel about the site is that it is very near where Abraham went to sacrifice his son Isaac, and instead of being afraid, Isaac actually got up on the altar willingly, knowing that God would provide the sacrificial lamb.

Another interesting side note about the name Gethsemane - it actuallly means Olive press. The olive trees become hollow after 80 years and we were seeing 3,000 year old trees. The seeds would fall on the branches and new branches would be grafted out instead of grafted in to keep the tree growing.

Next we went to the Garden Tomb discovered by and Englishman named Gordon. It's actually called Gordon's Calvary. It includes Calvary, which is actually on the top of a quarry and on the other side of the quarry is what they believe is tomb where Jesus was laid. The other site is on the Via Dolorosa which we'll see tomorrow. A unique story they told that's not in the Bible was about the time that Peter went into the tomb after the women came to tell Peter and John that the tomb was empty. Supposedly, along with the burial cloths, Peter found Jesus' headband folded up on the stone behind the burial site. It was Jesus' custom, as a carpenter, to fold his headband and place it on top of a finished piece of furniture to signify that the job was finished and ready for the buyer to inspect and decide if he wanted it. If it passed the buyer's inspection, the buyer would put the money to pay for it on top of the headband. If Jesus put his headband on the stone behind the burial site, that meant to Peter that Jesus' promise of salvation through his death and resurrection had been fulfilled.

After seeing the tomb, we held a short service using the Holden Evening Prayer psalmody, hearing a homily from Pastor Mattson and sharing communion - Jesus' Last Supper - together. What a moving experience that was! We'll never experience communion in the same way again.

We spend the next two hours touring David's Royal City. There have been ongoing archeological digs in the area and some major finds as recent as the last 3 years ago. That's when the original water system that King Hezekiah dug around a major spring under the city and then David expanded, was discovered. There were ceramic stones and pots found with the names of people living at the time, many of whom where names from Biblical times. It must be an amazing place for archeologists to work. We took a long walk down many stone steps to see this water system being excavated and restored. Our guide is an expert in Biblical history and Jewish history and the stories and people really come alive as we listen to his excitement and see the places he's describing.

Our last stop for the day after a short lunch at a kibbutz near Bethlehem, was Caiphas' house, where Jesus spent the last night of his life. We walked on the steps where Jesus must have walked after the last supper and when he was being led to his trial. We saw where Peter denied Jesus and actually heard the roosters crowing in the area. We went into a beautiful church called the church of Peter and the Rooster Call. It had incredible stained glass pictures of Jesus and the disciples.

Another story we were told is about the Jewish tradition of the "last night hope". Before someone was sentenced - either to prison or to death - every piece of evidence was looked at again and every person possible who could speak for the prisoner was contacted to see if one piece of evidence could be found that would declare the person not guilty. That's why the fact that Peter denied Jesus 3 times, just when Jesus needed him most was so striking. There was no one to speak for Jesus and no piece of evidence to find him not guilty. So he spent his last night in the prison under Caiphas' house.

That's all for tonight.

Blessings, Barb

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Petra to Jerselum

It is early morning Friday, April 24. Yesterday was another big day as we traveled/toured from Petra to Jeruselum.

We got on the road at 8AM heading south towards Aqaba, Jordan's only seaport. The road was across weathered/eroded/hilly desert. To our west were mountains seperating Jordan from Israel. Aqaba was a busy city gearing up for the weekend. Weekend visitors were starting to crowd the streets. Because of our schedule we just had a quick drive through the city before heading for the border crossing into Israel. An hour later we were through the border/luggage checks and back "home" with Doron, our guide.

We headed north stopping at a resort area on the Dead Sea for lunch an a swim. The Dead Sea is so mineral leaden that it is practically impossible to sink. You float on top of the water with no effort. In fact we found it hard to get our feet under us to stand up in the shallow water. The bottom was covered with mable shaped/sized pieces of hard salt crystal...not nice on the bare feet.

Our next stop was Masada where 950 Jewish zealots held up from the Roman attack in 74AD. This is a several acre plateu surounded by shear cliffs. Developed as a fortress and winter palace for King Herod, it had water and food for several years. The only paths up were easily defended. In the end, as the Romans completed the attack ramp, the 950 men, women and children committed suicide rather than become slaves to the Romans. The site has become a symbol for today's Jewish nation. They will not let Masada fall again.

After Masada it was an hour drive and we were overlooking Jeruselum. Doran and Howard did a devotion as we approached. What at impact the city has! So much is here to learn and see. Today we begin our three day visit.

Side comment about our meals: Most of our hotel meals (breakfast and supper) are served buffet style. The waiters are excellent at removing plates as you finish so that you have room at your place for the next course. The food has been good and lots of it. Breakfast (other than Saturday/Sabbath morning) includes eggs cooked to order, fruits, breads, sausages, potates, ect. Suppers is available in four courses, salad, soup, main course and desert. While we are getting in plenty of walking as we tour during the day, the first time on the scale back in Rochester may be a shock.


Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Petra - One of the Seven Wonders

Today we hiked in and out of Petra, a deep valley within walking distance of our hotel that is lined with the burial monuments and temples. Most of the most spectualar monuments are craved into the sandstone walls of the valley. This was the setting for part of one of the Indiana Jones movies-The Temple of Doom.

It was a 2 and one half mile hike down to the main part of the burial tombs. We passed through a narrow opening in the high sandstone walls. It was quite dramatic and the colors of the walls in reds, browns,orangesand even some blues and greens was so pretty. One could pay to have a donkey or donkey cart take passengers up or down so all these animals added to the atmosphere. Two of our members took this option on the return as it had gotten so hot.

The hub of activity seemed to center around the Treasury which is the most famous carving in Petra. Camel rides were available in this area. Merlyn was the first take a ride and Connie, Ginny, Beth, and Barb followed. It was fun!

Petra is a burial site for the Nabatean culture, an ancient civilization which started in the 3rd century BC. It continued on through the Greek, Roman, and Byzantine eras until a major earthquake in 363 C.E. In 1812 a Swiss archaeologist saw it and made it more well known in the West. Comparing paintings done in 1812 and the current conditions show how the weather has continued to take its toll on the carvings.

Some bits of information we learned from our guide. . . In Eastern cultures silence denotes wisdom so the statues of the gods were carved into the facades they had no mouths since they were considered infinitely wise. In later times some of the burial tombs were used as places of worship. Christian churches would face east, synagogues would face west, and mosques would face Mecca which in Jordan is south.

There were vendors set up along the way selling souvenirs of all kinds including jewelry, postcards, sand art, and rocks. Many children were the sellers. When anyone purchased we tried to bargain to get a better price. Pastor Bill got the price of some necklaces reduced and when the little girl said she would use the money to buy a Bible he agreed.

We stayed together as a group through the tour and after lunch we made our way back on our own in small groups. One of our group, Joanie, went to the Royal tombs up many steps while her husband waited below. Groups of school girls were intrigued that Joanie would be touring around without her husband. While she was on her own she was proposed to by a young Jordanian man to be his third wife.

Everyone made it back to the hotel by mid afternoon and everyone was very glad for a shower or swim in the hotel pool. We had another delicious buffet dinner and we will be leaving Jordan for the Dead Sea tomorrow.


Tuesday, April 21, 2009

From Israel into Jordan

It is early Wednesday morning here in Petra. Today we will be touring the ancient ruins of Petra, a major stop for the caravans traveling to/from the east.

Yesterday/Tuesday we:

Saw the ruins of Bet-Sheam, a large Roman Decapolis/city destroyed and abandoned after an earthquake in the 8th century. The Romans built this city on a grand scale to attract Romans to stay in the area. While much was tumbled pillers and blocks, much has been "reassembled". The size was really impressive. We entered through their theater and then walked around the city. One reason our guide wanted to show us the site was so that we could get a feel for what Jerusalem was like at the time of Jesus.

From here is headed further south along the Israel side of the Jordan, the land becoming drier as we went.

Crossed into the West Bank, a portion of Israel reserved for the Palestinians. The crossing was marked by a armed solder, guardhouse and a fence. Beyond it the Israeli settlements are surrounded by trees and barbed wire topped fences.

Visited a traditional site of Jesus's baptism in the Jordan. Our guide must have some contacts left over from his time in the military. This location was heavily damaged by war and is still being renovated. As we drove in solders were working to clear mines in the fields along the road. Still we had access and seating at the Jordan where Pastor Mattson gave a homily and we sang hymns. This location is only 2 miles from the Dead See, 30 miles from Jerusalem and 1200 feet below sea level. 10 yards away from us/across the Jordan a group from the Greek Orthodox church (in Jordan) was wrapping up a baptism.

Saw were the Dead sea scrolls were found. This area on the shores of the Dead Sea was originally inhabited by a Jewish group trying to escape the distractions of Jerusalem. Dry and hot with eroded hills and cliffs I can see how the scrolls went undiscovered for almost 2000 years. Scrolls are still being found in the area.

Crossed the border into Jordan. While the actual customs inspection was fairly low key we went through at least five gated checkpoints and several miles of desert dotted with guard towers. The drive immediately changed from the European feel of Israel to the middle east. A few miles shifted us by a continent.

Stopped at Mt Nebo, where Moses saw into the promised land but could not enter. The towers of Jeruselum 30-40 miles away are sometimes visible from here. Unfortunately the air was hazy. We could make out the Dead Sea if we tried hard.

Rode for three more hours to get to our hotel here in Petra. Most of the land we rode through was a mix of desert with a little farming where water was available. Every small town had at least one mosque and tower for calling to worship. Many community buildings were marked by a large portrait of the King Addulah II.

We arrived here around 8:30. After a quick inspection of our luggage we could check in. It was after dark but the restruant buffet was still open.