Free day!

Today was our free day in Jerusalem- a day to do whatever we pleased.

I went into the Old City to explore and shop with friends. And we had so very much fun. The day began in the Arab Suk (market) after entering the Old City through the Jaffa gate. We helped one of our friends get some T-shirt’s, and I found one or two (ahem…six!! But they aren’t all for me!) scarves. Then we meandered to the Jewish Quarter and finally made a stop at Vic’s Armenian pottery shop.

We decided to head to The Rockefeller Museum – a hearty walk, to say the least. Only to discover once we arrived that it is no longer open on Fridays. Whoops!

So we headed off to Ben Yehuda street, to enjoy the shopping and sites there. Somewhere along the way, the beautiful sunny day turned to rain (I will never be able to convince the pilgrims that came on this tour that Israel rarely gets rain! It’s rained every day!), and we were starting to get hungry and soaked. After mailing use of the clean (but TINY) bathrooms at a Kosher McDonald’s, we decided we needed to find a place to sit down to lunch.

One of our group asked some locals at a juice stand and we were directed to a little mom-and-pop place around the corner. They were apologizing as they gave us directions because it wasn’t very fancy. They didn’t need to apologize.

We found the place, and before they could finish pulling a couple of tables together for us, there were warm pitas arriving. Then we were given menus. When we asked what was good, we were told the mousaka. Two of our group ordered that, two ordered schnitzel, and I ordered meatballs and fries. I don’t think we were waiting a minute and a half before our entrees arrived. As they arrived, the heavens opened and the rain began to pour in earnest. We agreed that this was soooo the right place to be.

The food just kept coming and it was warm, and so tasty! And when we paid the bill, it was around $10 a plate. I took pics of the restaurant so I can find my way there again in the future!

After lunch, we had magnum ice cream bars (or some of us did) and then we continued to wander for a while. Finally, we stopped in at the King David Hotel and enjoyed their beautiful lobby that includes a strip on the floor where they have the signatures of famous people (Hollywood celebs, famous musicians, well known political leaders, royalty…) who have stayed there over the years.

It was an absolutely fantastic day – especially with all the conversations, story sharing and laughter as we walked and explored.

I am reminded of these words from Romans:

Just as our bodies have many parts and each part has a special function, so it is with Christ’s body. We are many parts of one body, and we all belong to each other. Romans‬ ‭12:4-5‬ ‭NLT‬‬

This is the power of the church. A week ago, so many in our group didn’t know each other. Of the five people I spent most of today with, only one of them did I know before this trip. And we hadn’t done more than say “hi” at General Assembly or other church functions for a number of years. And yet, as we walked and talked and shared, we were members of one body – bearing each other’s burdens and sharing each other’s joys; laughing and being silly together.

What joy there is in being part of the world-wide family of the church.

Amen.

From the Arab Suk, the Jewish Quarter and the Armenian Quarter:

Our astoundingly great lunch and a Magnum Bar selfie:

From the King David Hotel:

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Pressing on…

Today we began at the Western Wall – we went to hear why the wall is so important to the Jewish religion and to add our own prayers to those of the people gathered there. Then we got a tour of the Western Wall tunnels, and got to learn how the temple was built. Next we went to the public garden at Gethsemane and into the Church of All Nations. Our guide was kind enough to book us into the private garden at Gethsemane where we gathered to hear Duncan preach and Jeff pray. Next we saw the grotto of Gethsemane. We then took the bus out of the city to enjoy GenesisLand with Camel riding and lunch in Abraham’s tent. We returned to the city to sing in the church of St. Anne (check out the videos below, though they barely do the acoustics justice!), and visited the Pools of Bethesda, where Jesus healed the crippled man. We ended the day by walking the Via Dolorosa, seeing the Stations of the Cross and ending in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher which is built over Golgotha and the Empty Tomb.

I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. Philippians‬ ‭3:14‬ ‭NRSV‬‬

The final day of the tour is always a bit strange. We are exhausted – emotionally, physically, spiritually. But there is so much to see and so much to do and this may be the only time some of us are ever here…

So we press on.

I think the highlight of today, at least for me, was listening to Duncan preach in the private garden at Gethsemane. He shared this quote from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe: [if she had truly understood the Deep Magic] “The witch would have known that when a willing victim who had committed no treachery was killed in a traitor’s stead, the Table would crack and Death itself would start working backwards.”

This is why we are here – because a willing victim, who had committed no sin, did indeed sacrifice himself. For you, for me, for anyone who would call on his name and ask forgiveness. And on the third day, the veil in the temple tore in two and death itself worked backwards, as Jesus was ALIVE! And because he lives, we shall live also.

I don’t know how to convey to anyone who hasn’t been here what a crazy mix of emotions happens on a day like today. From the quiet reflection of Gethsemane to the somewhat silly fun of GenesisLand to the alien discomfort of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. We have been up and down and everywhere in between.

We have encountered the scriptures in a way that has brought them to life right before our eyes, and we have been strangely disappointed and left wondering by places that didn’t connect with us, or with the scriptures that happened there.

I’ve had conversations with several in our group who were disappointed by Bethlehem (‘we wanted it to be a green field with a few sheep in it! But it was this noisy city and this church that was far too ornate for Presbyterian eyes!’) and who similarly struggled with the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

We spoke over dinner how sometimes the very things that we build to honour there Holy place where Jesus was, end up creating a barrier to our faith. I’m going to be chewing on that thought for a while, because I believe there is a sermon in there about how our good intentions sometimes get in the way.

I have always been glad to bring a group of pilgrims to the Holy Land. This time is no different. And I hope to bring more in the future, God being my helper.

Amen.

From the Western Wall:

From the Tunnels under the Western Wall: (only pictures of Fuzzy Owain, my traveling buddy!):

From Gethsemane:

From GenesisLand:

Singing in the Church of St. Anne:

Reading at the Pools of Bethesda:

From the Via Dolorosa:

From the Church of the Holy Sepulcher:

“Right here” moments…

Today we began on the Mount of Olives with a view of the city, then we walked the Palm Sunday route. We went to the Temple steps and laid our hands upon the paces where Jesus walked. We visited the Upper Room and walked to the church of St. Peter in Gallicantu (we saw the gravesite of Oskar Schindler on the way) and saw the stairs from Jesus’ day that are there. We explored the City of David and the Pool of Siloam, where Jesus healed the blind man. We visited the scale model of the City as it would have been in Jesus’ day and walked through the Shrine of the Book to see the Scroll of Isaiah and other Dead Sea scrolls. We ended the day with a visit to Yad Vashem – the Holocaust museum.

“Each day Jesus was teaching at the temple, and each evening he went out to spend the night on the hill called the Mount of Olives, and all the people came early in the morning to hear him at the temple.” Luke‬ ‭21:37-38‬ ‭NIV‬‬

One of the things we talk about on a trip like this are “right here!” moments. They are the moments when we are standing in the places where Jesus stood, where we can read the scriptures and say, “that happened right here!”

They are moments that take our breath away, that make our hearts quicken, that bring tears to our eyes. They are different for every pilgrim, you never know when an ordinary moment is going to become a “right here!” moment.

For me, the Temple Steps is the ultimate “right here!” moment. You can argue about where Jesus actually was at the other sites, but you cannot argue about the Temple Steps. If Jesus existed, and if he went to the Temple (both things that even non-Christians find easy to accept), then he ascended into the temple by walking up the Temple Steps.

Three times I have laid my hands on those steps and taken pictures – twice with my parents, and now, once with some wonderful pilgrims from Graceview Presbyterian Church (where I have the privilege of being the pastor).

Each time it has been a powerful moment. Each time I have felt my faith strengthened. Each time I have thanked God for his goodness and for the blessing of being in the place where Jesus was.

Amen.

From the amount of Olives:

From the Palm Sunday Route:

From the Temple Steps:

From the Pool of Siloam:

From the Scale Model:

From the Upper Room:

Nothing can separate us…

Today we explored Masada and heard the story of the Zealots’ last stand there, we went to Wadi Qelt which overlooks the biblical road from Jericho to Jerusalem (the setting of the parable of the Good Samaritan), we ascended to Jersusalem and wandered the ruins of Herodium, then we ended the day with a visit to Bethlehem to the Church of the Nativity, built on the place where Jesus was born.

“For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans‬ ‭8:38-39‬ ‭NIV‬‬

Today was a roller coaster. We started off with a visit to Masada – always an amazing and inspiring experience. The story of the last stand of the Zealots is a story of a people who refused to be conquered. A people who would freely choose death at their own hands rather than be enslaved to Rome. It is a sad story, but it is so incredibly central to the identity of the Jewish people of Israel.

Our time at Masada included incredible views and the sense of ancient history coming to life and impacting modern people – something I’ve experienced each time I’ve been in Israel. (Jewish boys and girls have their bar and bat mitzvah’s on Masada, and soldiers in the army do an overnight there when beginning their service.)

At Wadi Qelt we saw amazing views again, as we looked from Jericho to Jerusalem and considered the desert wilderness in between. The story of the Good Samaritan comes to life in a new way when one can see the road Jesus was speaking about!

At Herodium, we saw the ruins of Herod’s mausoleum. Our guide, Aharon told us the amazing (true) story of Ehud Netzer – responsible for much of the excavation of Masada and Herodium – who lost his life in an accident at Herodium which saw him falling into the tomb of Herod head first. We also learned that one of the things recovered from the ruins of Herodium was a signet ring that held Pontius Pilate’s name. This is the second piece of archeology that witnesses to Pilate’s existence and his office of influence during Christ’s life (and death).

From there we headed to Bethlehem and experienced some disappointment at the Church is the Nativity. With its recent restoration, the site has become overrun with pilgrim groups. It was difficult to move around inside, there was a fair amount of chaos, and unfortunately we were not able to get down to the grotto of the manger.

One of our leaders, the Rev. Dr. Jeff Loach, who has been providing excellent spiritual guidance commentary for us at the end of each day, made the point that the positive side to that disappointment is that this church is the most ancient still-active Christian Church in the world. Someone had died, so a funeral must be held and the family must be ministered to in their grief. And if it inconvenienced some tourists (even spiritually-minded pilgrims), well – so be it.

God is, after all, close to the broken-hearted, as the Psalms tell us. Whether our hearts break in grief for a loved-one who has died or in disappointment when we see our hopes dashed, either way – God is close to us. Nothing can separate us from His love in Jesus.

Amen.

(Ok, so it has taken me almost 25 minutes to upload about 8 pics. I’m gonna give up for now and try again later!)

From Masada:

From Wadi Qelt:

From Herodium:

From Bethlehem:

The bones of the slaughtered innocents – children killed by Herod as he tried to kill the baby born to be King of the Jews:

Mysterious ways…

Today we visited Qaser Al Yahud – the site where Joshua lead the people across the Jordan to the promised land, the place where Elijah was taken up to heaven in a chariot of fire, and the place where Jesus was baptized by John – we toured the site of Qumran – where the Essenes lived in Jesus’ day, and where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in caves in the hills – and floated in the Dead Sea.

“Oh, how great are God’s riches and wisdom and knowledge! How impossible it is for us to understand his decisions and his ways!” ‭‭Romans‬ ‭11:33‬ ‭NLT‬‬

One of the fascinating things about leading a tour like this, is you never know what will most excite, inspire and move the people you are leading.

The first time my Father travelled the Holy Land with me, he was brought to tears by two things we saw just through the windows of the bus (the site of Kursi, where our current tour held worship yesterday, and the site of Mount Precipice, which our current tour got to explore). He still can’t talk about them without becoming emotional. Who knew that something we just drove past, would have such a profound effect on him?

Every time I bring people here, I’m amazed by the things that they find profound and moving. You always know, as a leader, that people of faith are going to be deeply affected by their experience in this land, but you never know which site or which experience will be the one to get to them.

My group of Graceview congregants have been gushing about the Dead Sea scrolls all day. They’ve found today the most exciting day of the tour (they were also really blown away by the Baptismal Site and by the Dead Sea, as well).

What Paul is saying to the church in Rome in the verse above is that none of us knows how God is going to grab hold of someone’s heart. To borrow a phrase from U2 – He moves in mysterious ways!

This is why, as the church, we have to make room for each other. We have to make room for the fact that your experience of God may not be the same as mine, but that God loves us both, dearly.

The hymn that you love (for example) might grate on my nerves, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t sing it. In fact, what that means is that I have the opportunity to practice the kind of radically-other-centered love that Jesus embodied by setting aside my irritation with it so that you are able to enter deeply into worship in your way.

May we all find that kind of generosity toward each other, because then we will be worshiping Jesus!

From Qaser Al Yahud:

From Qumran:

From the Dead Sea:

Transformation….

Today we began with a worship service at Kursi (where Jesus cast the demons out of the man and they went into a pack of pigs who ran into the sea and drowned) – thanks to the Rev. Duncan Cameron for an excellent sermon!; we travelled to Tel Hazor to learn about this site mentioned in the Old Testament and hear the story of Israel’s 6 Day War; we went on to Tel Dan to see a 5,000 year old arch, dating to the time of Abraham which caused all the architectural textbooks to be rewritten (before its discovery 25 years ago, everyone thought that the Romans invented the arch thousands of years later); we stood at Caesarea Philippi and heard how Peter confessed Jesus as the Son of the Living God; we scaled the Golan Heights to eat a glorious lunch at a Druze restaurant while watching the clouds blow across the snow on Mount Hermon; we continued on the Golan Heights to hear the story of the Yom Kippur war (including how our guide, Aharon, was a 19 yr old on the front lines of that war); and we ended the day at Olea Essence learning about Olive Oil and the beauty products they make from the waste created through the olive pressing process.

For me, the highlight of today came early as we sat on benches at Kursi. Though I had been aware of this site on all my other tours, I had only ever seen it through the windows of the bus. Every other time we hadn’t been able to stop and explore the site (there wasn’t time and we had other priorities). But this time we got off the bus, gathered as a large group and spent time in prayer and worship.

The story goes like this:

They went across the lake to the region of the Gerasenes. When Jesus got out of the boat, a man with an impure spirit came from the tombs to meet him. This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him anymore, not even with a chain. For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him. Night and day among the tombs and in the hills he would cry out and cut himself with stones.When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and fell on his knees in front of him. He shouted at the top of his voice, “What do you want with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God? In God’s name don’t torture me!”

For Jesus had said to him, “Come out of this man, you impure spirit!” Then Jesus asked him, “What is your name?”

“My name is Legion,” he replied, “for we are many.” And he begged Jesus again and again not to send them out of the area.

A large herd of pigs was feeding on the nearby hillside. The demons begged Jesus, “Send us among the pigs; allow us to go into them.” He gave them permission, and the impure spirits came out and went into the pigs. The herd, about two thousand in number, rushed down the steep bank into the lake and were drowned.

Those tending the pigs ran off and reported this in the town and countryside, and the people went out to see what had happened.

When they came to Jesus, they saw the man who had been possessed by the legion of demons, sitting there, dressed and in his right mind; and they were afraid. Those who had seen it told the people what had happened to the demon-possessed man—and told about the pigs as well. Then the people began to plead with Jesus to leave their region.

As Jesus was getting into the boat, the man who had been demon-possessed begged to go with him. Jesus did not let him, but said, “Go home to your own people and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed. Mark‬ ‭5:1-20‬ ‭NIV‬‬

Duncan pointed out to us that this miracle had happened where we now sat. And that what had once been a place of death was now a place of worship.

Such is the transformative power of Jesus.

I don’t have a lot of words tonight, but I do want to invite you to pray that Jesus would make the dead places in you – in your heart, in your soul, in your mind or in your life – into places of worship. Amen.

(And I also want to invite you to watch the video below my friend – my sister in Christ – Diana as she talks to our group about what happened at Caesarea Philippi and why it matters. Her passion and joy is absolutely undeniable. May you be blessed by her, just as I am!)

From Kursi:

From Hazor:

From Dan:

From Caesarea Philippi:

When it doesn’t look like a blessing, but turns out to be one anyway…

Today, we visited the museum of the ancient boat (a Jesus-era boat which may have been one that Jesus and the disciples sailed in, or may have belonged to victims of the battle of Migdal, or may have simply belonged to an unknown fisherman), scaled the heights of Mount Arbel, visited the Mount of the Beatitudes (where Jesus gave the sermon on the mount), visited the Church of the Multiplication (where Jesus fed the 5,000), sailed on a rough and rainy Sea of Galilee, ate lunch at Ein-Gev, visited the Primacy of Peter and ended our day at Capernaum (the town which Jesus used as a base from which he traveled in his years of public ministry).

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn
for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those
who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
for they will be called the children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted
because of righteousness,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you
when people insult you, persecute you
and falsely say all kinds of evil against you
because of me.” Matthew‬ ‭5:3-11‬ ‭NIV‬‬

Jesus spoke these words on the very ground where we stood today. Dallas Willard teaches that we misunderstand these words. We think Jesus is making a list of things we need to become in order to receive blessing from God.

By that’s not it at all.

Jesus is speaking to a society that believed that one could SEE who was blessed among them. If a person was ill or poor or otherwise afflicted, clearly they were not blessed. Clearly, God was punishing them for their sin. Clearly, they were bad people.

Or so the people of that day thought.

Jesus is teaching that blessing doesn’t depend upon your circumstances. Or your wealth. Or your health.

Blessing comes only from God who gives it out generously to the rich and the poor, to the sick and the healthy, to those who are having and easy go of it, and to those who are struggling through a very difficult time.

Psalm 34 tells us that God is close to the broken-hearted. And that’s what Jesus is saying – do not assume that God has abandoned those who are having a rough time. In fact, God draws close to them because if His steadfast and tender compassion for all people.

On paper, today looked like a mess. It was raining so hard in the morning that we had to rearrange our schedule for the day. (Having an excellent guide like Aharon, who keeps a cool head and deftly switches the order of sites so that the weather has every chance to clear, helps!)

When we set out for the top of Mount Arbel, we walked with our umbrellas up and our heads down. When we got to the top, most of the scenery was covered in cloud. We could have shrugged our shoulders and turned around and left.

But we would have missed some of the most beautiful and dynamic views of the Galilee basin that I have ever seen.

It didn’t look like a blessing when we set out. But in God’s timing, it became a blessing we couldn’t have known to ask for. We watched clouds roll in and out of the basin. We watched hills dappled in brilliant sunshine between broken clouds. We talked about how it was like being in the highlands of Scotland or Ireland.

And then we sailed on the Sea of Galilee while the winds whipped and the rains lashed. And I promise you – there is NOTHING like reading the calming of the storm out loud on the Sea of Galilee when it’s actually storming.

We were soaked and we were cold and were thrilled to the very depths of our souls. Our pilgrims were laughing and singing and dancing. It didn’t look like a blessing when we set out, but it became so very clear that it was one as we continued.

Because that is the generous nature of God the Father, Son and Spirit.

Amen.

From Mount Arbel:

From the Mount of the Beatitudes:

Sailing on the Sea of Galilee:

From the Primacy of Peter:

From Capernaum:

Blessed and overwhelmed…

“Come, let us tell of the Lord’s greatness; let us exalt his name together.” ‭‭Psalms‬ ‭34:3‬

This morning we woke to the sound of rain on the Sea of Galilee. Though I didn’t exactly want to be awake at 3am, the sound of rain in this desert land is a blessing. Our guide, Aharon, spoke to us about the fact that it is headline news each morning in Israel, how many millimeters the Sea of Galilee rose or fell. Water isn’t just a blessing in this land – it is an obsession. I am reminded how the things that I take for granted are desperately important to others.

Such were my thoughts on the bus this morning as we headed into our day. I didn’t know all that the day would hold, all the ways we would be blessed.

Today we stood on the precipice outside Nazareth where the townspeople wanted to throw Jesus off the cliff, we toured the living museum of Nazareth Village, we walked through Sepphoris/Zippori where Joseph would have found work as a builder and we ended the day touring Magdala – the ancient ruins of Mary Magdalene’s town.

For me, the goosebumps happened at Magdala. The site is a significant archeological find. It is the ruins of a town from Jesus’ day, and in that town is a synagogue. It is significant because the town was deserted in the first century, and then covered by a mudslide. So the synagogue has not been touched since Jesus’ day. Most synagogues that date back to that era have been expanders, renovated, rebuilt and changed over the centuries. We know that Jesus was teaching in the synagogues of Galilee, so this is a place where Jesus was.

The ruins are remarkable. But equally remarkable is the worship center that has been built to honour the women who were part of Jesus’ ministry. In this circular building we find a number of pillars with names of some of the famous women from Jesus’ public ministry: Mary Magdalen, Joanna, Salome, Peter’s mother-in-law, and then there is a pillar the the multitude of women – all those whose names we do not know. That is moving enough, that these nameless women would be given this honour. But even better – there is a pillar with no name on it. This pillar stands as a monument to the women of today.

Our guide asked us, “who taught you to pray?” And someone answered, “mother.” Our guide said, “yes, my mother taught me to pray, too. My faith exists because of my mother. How countless are the other mothers teaching people to pray? This pillar exists for all the women – not just moms – who are helping and leading and guilting and building the church today.”

I poked the Rev. Dr. Mona Scrivens and whispered to her, “that’s your pillar!” She whispered back to me, “it’s yours, too.”

What a blessing to be doing this thing called ministry with the excellent women and men on this tour. What a blessing to know that people who don’t know me, or my name, or my story, have chosen to honour me in a land on the other side of the world. That people offer prayer and thanksgiving for me – just because I’m one of those women helping to lead and build the church. God’s generosity simply overwhelms me.

The precipice outside Nazareth:

Nazareth Village:

Magdala:

First entry (and a half)…

Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path. Psalm‬ ‭119:105‬ ‭NIV‬

Our journey began with delays and confusion. I’m not the only one who missed whatever announcements there were for our flight until the “final boarding call” and a rushed trek down the bridge to our airplane.

Nonetheless we all made it. And then…we waited and waited. And waited.

With all the weather we’d had in Toronto over the past 36 hrs, Pearson was moving slow.

Eventually, after more delays and de-icing, we made it to our runway. The airplane began to gain speed. And all too soon we were limiting off the tarmac, the g-force pushing us backwards into our seats.

One and a half movies later we are somewhere over the Atlantic. Greenland to our north, Ireland to our east. We glide countless miles above the earth, moving through atmosphere that would kill us in an instant, if it weren’t for the airplane keeping us afloat and secure.

Our ground speed is 976km/hr, it is 7:14hrs to our destination. We have already travelled 2646km, and we have so much further to go.

These are all just statistics. Numbers with only a little meaning. Only in certain contexts.

Each of us will be changed by the trip we undertake. In ways we cannot even imagine right now.

I am blessed to be taking this tour for the fourth time in my life. Knowing that as I walk, I will meet Jesus – in the paces he ministered and in the miracles he worked.

I am thrilled to lead followers of Him to this place, to his land, to his home. May all of us meet Him here in ways we didn’t expect. In moments that take our breath way. In places that are holy and wholly natural.

Amen. And amen.

Now the “half” part of this post. We made it safely off the plane in Tel Aviv. We found our luggage and our busses and our guides.

Because of the delays we weren’t able to do a whole lot today, but we did make it up to Mt Carmel for the story of Elijah’s battle with the prophets of Baal.

It was windy with some real rain coming through, but we posed for a few pictures before seeking shelter.

Then we got back on the bus for an hour’s journey to our home for the next four days: the Hotel Kinar Galilee. Right on the shores of the Sea.

It was dark when we arrived, but here are a few photos from Mt Carmel.

Tomorrow our journey begins in earnest.