Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Wednesday, 18 January 2017: Bethlehem

Today we plan to visit the Environmental Education Center (EEC) in Beit Jala. Returning to Bethlehem, we will meet with local Israeli and Palestinian organizations before enjoying dinner in Bethlehem. This evening we will have the unique opportunity to celebrate Christmas with our Armenian brothers and sisters as we witness their Christmas Eve procession to Manger Square. We will return to our Bethlehem hotel for overnight. (B, D)

Colorful pictures on Facebook. 

Our entire group split into two to experience the two opportunities mentioned above. Susan and I chose to stay in Bethlehem, and observe the procession of the Armenian patriarch through the city streets. Gates were erected, guards were attentive, and we had a front row seat at a local café.   Scores of scouts marched through the streets, either drumming or trumpeting their way through Manger Square. We happily watched the crowds, enjoying a slower paced day.

It was a good thing, as I fell ill around noon. We think it was a touch of the flu, but it took me down for the rest of the day. Susan took great care of me as I rested and nibbled what I could.   I'm sad to be missing the final dinner together, but knew I had best rest my body before a full day tomorrow, followed immediately by a 15 hour flight back to California.  Keep praying this passes...and Susan stays healthy!  

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Tuesday, 17 January 2017: Jericho

Today begins with a visit to ancient Jericho, where we have the opportunity to travel by cable car to the Mount of Temptation and enjoy the panoramic view before enjoying lnch in the Old City of Jericho. This afternoon we will motor to the Dead Sea, the lowest spot on earth, where we’ll have the unique opportunity to float in the Sea. Next we will see Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, before returning to Bethlehem for dinner and overnight. (B, L, D)

Well, today was one of those crazy-odd days.  No churches, no holy spots, per se, but a WHOLE lot of history, a WHOLE lot of ROCKS, and a WHOLE lot of salt!  

We first traveled to Qumran, the site of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls.  Apparently, some kid threw stones into a caves, breaking a jar that was inside, and inside the JAR were the scrolls.  TONS and TONS of Scrolls. Who knew!?  There was a short and very lame movie to watch before we sat down to talk (our guide was MUCH more informative than the ridiculous movie).  Great to be outside on suc a nice and mild day.  

Walked around the site a bit, but there really wasn't much to se other than some bathing places and old cisterns.  Cave #4 was visible, but only in the distance.  I would have loved to see more displays and information about the Scrolls themselves.  Thankfully, we heard that the Scrolls themselves are being digitized and will be available for viewing online soon!

Then, it was off to the Dead Sea!  HA!  What a hoot - here we are, a busload of people, piling into the Dead. Sea to float.  We honestly had a BLAST - and what a kick to be doing this in the middle of January!  Temps outside were great and the water was warm enough once you got it.  It was surreal to be so incredibly buoyant - if you swam out far enough, you could "stand" vertically, legs completely beneath you and have your hands high above your head...and not sink!  Splashing was a HUGE no-no, as the water was PAINFUL if you got it in your eyes (only once, thankfully, but it burned like crazy).  THe mud was ooshy and gooshy and was fun to spread all over our arms and legs.  SA bunch of us ladies actually gathered in a circle, started to sing, and did synchronized swimming moves!  Completely ridiculous and great fun to have in the sunshine and the water.  What an experience!

Lunch was in nearby Jericho, and was a delicious meat dish;  A delightful shop was just under the restaurant, and was filled with glorious, colorful items.  I could have purchased millions of dollars worth of items.  SO pretty!

Our final stop in this lazy day of water and sun brought us to a road once through to be traveled by Jesus himself.  We drove to the highest point of the road, overlooking the Judean desert.  Hills, mounds, caves...and more rock!  There was a monastery built into the side of the mountain, and a huge cross stood at the top.  GREAT pictures.

WHat a great day to get away from the hustle and bustle of the busy, city life.  A nice chance to learn some more about the geography, but not have to do it beside so many crowds and venders.  Tomorrow is an even calmer day, which I think we both need....although, we are both looking forward to watching the Armenian Christmas Celebration in Nativity Square in the morning. Should be a colorful and majestic display of their Christmas cheer!

Monday, January 16, 2017

Monday, 16 January 2017: Bethlehem

Today we explore “the little town of Bethlehem.” We begin the day visiting sites commemorating the birth of Jesus – the Church of the Nativity and Shepherd’s Field. We will also visit the DIYAR International Center, where we will enjoy lunch and a special talk led by Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb. This afternoon we will meet with local dignitaries and organizations to gain a deeper understanding of the current political and cultural situation in Palastine. This evening we will enjoy dinner with our guest speaker, Rev. Dr. Robert Smith, Academic Director for University of Notre Dame at Tantur Ecumenical Institute, before returning to our Bethlehem hotel. (B, L, D)

Just your typical day in the Holy Land.  Went to some field where the SHEPHERDS WERE TENDING THEIR FLOCKS BY NIGHT.  No big deal.  Just a cave where they once HUNG OUT, trying to catch some Zzzzs.  The real field.  The real cave.  The real deal.

As if that wasn't enough, we visited the Church of the Nativity, which has about 100 different lights and incense holders hanging from the ceiling (causing me to constantly duck), and ornate paintings and mosaic tiles.  The entire church in under renovation, so there was a lot of scaffolding, but God bless them for trying to preserve what was so amazing from so long ago.  Oh, and did I mentioned that we visited the PLACE OF JESUS's BIRTH!?  Oh yeah.  DId that, too.  It was fascinating to pair the visitation of his death yesterday, only to follow up with the place of his birth today. I have so much more to write on this topic, but it's 1123pm and my eyes aren't even open as I type this.  Just know that kneeling at the manger spot, as the holy visitors did long ago, was enough to bring this Christmas story to an entirely new level for these gals!  And singing Christmas tunes with poignant words while around the grotto?  Indescribable.

The rest of the day was spent listening to a bunch of incredibly smart, educated, and forward-thinking individuals who highlighted the many plights and struggles of the Palestinian people.  THeir main message is that not all people from Palestine should be considered violent and full of terror.  They revealed a very human side to a country in constant conflict.  While it was a long time to sit (three presentations in the afternoon and one following dinner) the knowledge gained can only shape this pastor-to-be's responses and educational moments in her parish to come.

We have a BIG day ahead of us tomorrow, and we've barely unpacked out fourth and final hotel room.  Headed to bed in this not so little town of Bethlehem as the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.  

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Sunday, 15 January 2017: Jerusalem

For those who wish to participate this morning will begin with a very early breakfast and an early morning walk along the Via Dolorosa. At 9AM we will gather for worship at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer followed by a visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Later we will visit Yad Vashem Holocaust history museum. From Yad Vashem, we will return to our hotel for a free evening. (B, D)

Pictures on Facebook.  

Do not let today's relatively short itinerary fool you - it was PACKED with moments of heartbreak and reflection, at depths I've never felt.  We walked the stations of the Cross this morning, in the quiet hours, when the rest of the city was still asleep.  How nice to have experience those Scripture readings and reflections without the typical hustle and bustle of the city.  We could reflect in silence after the readings, and think about our Lord during this trek.  I thought of Him having to stumble through those lumpy and stone-filled streets, carrying a heavy, wooden cross.  Splinters in the skin, insults in the ear, turmoil in the heart.  I stumbled once and thought of the many times Jesus fell (we all tripped and fell in those streets today, so more seriously than others), and I thought of how easy I had it, with my comfortable shoes and easy access to a place to sit and rest if needed.  Not the case for Jesus.

We wound our way through the streets, eventually entering the last stations, inside the Church of the Holy Sepluchre.  Oh dear.  Did THAT hit us hard.  That church is part museum, part church, part cathedral, part wonderland.  I'm dying to take some time and look up the blueprints of the layout, as it was so convoluted, I would NEVER be able to explain all I saw.  I remember looking at the tiniest of mosaic pieces, all perfectly aligned to depict the story of Christ's finally moments.  I remember smelling the strong incense coming from the HUNDREDS of lights/spice holders that dangled above our heads.  I remember kneeling in reverence and awe where they laid our Savior, feeling like I had an extra "I know the rest of the story!" card in my pocket.  I remember lighting candles with Susan and praying in our hearts as the Greek Orthodox leaders below us sang into the rafters.  It was an incredible experience for ALL senses, and I'm thankful we went through twice.  The first time was the Holy walk, and the second tour was a more explanative tour with Peter, our guide, telling and showing us the highlights.  

We concluded our Via Dolorosa walk, and attended the 9am worship service in the Church of the Redeemer, just around the corner.  This was an English-speaking, Evangelical Lutheran congregation, filled with all of the English-speaking visitors in the city.  We PACKED that place, and happily so - the Pastor, Rev. Carrie Smith was a dynamic leader and preacher - a woman who knows her stuff.  She spoke to us after the service, explaining the difficulties of being an ordained Pastor in the Holy Land.  The main perk for me was meeting sweet, little Josie, the daughter of the Church leaders.  That little peanut climbed and crawled all over me (I'm thinking she was 3 or 4) and was an absolute delight.  Just a squish able, little love!  Helped buoy the spirit of what was a heavy and ponder-filled morning.

I continued to be thankful for Miss Josie all afternoon, as we headed to the Holocaust Center after a brief lunch at a hotel.   Another smack to the gut.  We walked through an incredible museum, filled with historical pictures, videos, clippings, and artifacts, all the while feeling terribly conflicted:  here we are, in a land where Israeli people have taken land away from Palestinians by building settlements, and yet I have a heart of empathy for them.  Talk about holding too many things in conflict - how on earth could one group perpetuate the kicking out of people from their land....after they had just been booted from their own land?  How on earth did the world let this happen!?  

I can tell that I have SO many more questions than answers, but we are SO tired and SO exhausted.  We are walking around 4 miles a day, whic is great, but the emotional toll is quite taxing.  Thankful and tired...that would be us.  

Saturday, January 14, 2017

Saturday, 14 January 2017: Jerusalem

We begin our day by visiting the grounds of the third most holy place in the Muslim tradition, Al-Aqsa Mosque, where according to the Quran, the prophet Muhammad ascended to heaven. Later we will visit the Mount of Olives and tour Augusta Victoria Hospital with Rev. Mark Brown of the Lutheran World Federation after which we will have a catered lunch at the LWF Vocational Training Center and tour that facility. Later we will walk part of the Palm Sunday Road to visit the Garden of Gethsemane, and in the late afternoon we’ll walk through the Armenian, Arab and Jewish quarters of Jerusalem’s old city. (B, D)

Remember: Pictures over on Facebook!

While we stick to the script for most of our days, today was another day where our events were moved around.  We didn't visit the mosque, but instead visited the church directly next to the Garden of Gethsemane, the Church of the Agony.  And oh what sadness it was.  The morning started out cloudy and damp, and catching the end of the Mass only added to the somber tone.  Nothing like walking through the very garden where Jesus fell to his knees, asking God to take away this painful and sorrowful cup.  This was the location I had so looked forward to seeing...and didn't plan to be as sad as I ended up being.  I know Jesus was in the Garden at other times, and I guess I had focused on those aspects and those stories.  Being in the Church of the Agony FIRST put me in the mindset of the betrayal and crucifixion, and was anything but prayerful and pensive.  I was disappointed to see that the actual Garden was fenced off.  Understandable, I suppose....but still disappointing not to be able to be IN the actual Garden.  I was thankful to be outside the Garden at least, and fell to my knees in prayer.  One of those deep, deep prayers that is clearly between you and God.  To think that my tears fell on the same ground where Jesus's tears had once fallen was a bit too much for me.

Susan and I re-joined the Mass in progress, and they were singing their sending song, "Will You Come and Follow Me?", a favorite Lutheran  hymn about discipleship.  What a wonderful hymn to sing, arm in arm.  The windows in the church were ALL PURPLE!  Purple crosses - SO my color!  But then it hit me..."Will you come and follow me...." You mean....until death?  Follow Me to the grave?  Follow me into the Garden...?  The tune suddenly held much deeper undertones than I had ever experienced, and I left wondering just how far I would be willing to follow.

We also reacted as a Seminary group to the fact that we couldn't partake in Communion. Now, mind you, it was a Mass, so we played by the rules of the House.  But being excluded from Christ's table at a place so important in the life of Christ didn't feel so hot.  If anything, this Pilgrimage is highlighting aspects of our pastoral identities that we will take into the parish.  Our Tables will be OPEN in nature, to ALL, as it is Christ's Table, and not ours.  DIdn't make or break the Garden experience, but certainly was a point well worth exploring.

We visited Mark Brown at the Augusta Victoria Hospital - just walking through brought me RIGHT back to all of those sounds and smells of CPE this summer.  Incredible.  Lutheran World Federation has certainly played a role in making sure they are taking care of the people of the land.  We went to a nearby Church and listened to more details, and eventually had time to sing.  I lead "It is Well" from the center of this German church, which resounded with such beauty, and was amazing to look at as we sang together.  THEN, I snuck up on the altar as we were wandering around, and found a PIANO!  Well, I HAD to play that while we finished up.  Did my spirit good!

Off to the Lutheran World Federan Vocational Training Center, where they teach kids in the area some really specific skills.  Warehouses had room after room of fantastic tools and whatnot, allowing the kids to learn the actual tools of the trade.  Lots of incredibly practical skills being taught here.  Lunch was made by some kid chefs.

Off to Church of the Pater Noster, where the Lord's Prayer is posted in 153 different languages, all on ceramic tiles.  Fascinating to see the differences and similarities as we walked along the tiles.  We read the prayer in Hebrew, Aramaic, and in Ethiopian, as one of our student friends is from Africa.  We even SANG the liturgical version of the prayer inside the lower part of the cave.  What a trip this is!

Rounded out another full day atop the Mount of Olives, overlooking all of Jerusalem.  Our guide, Peter, was extremely helpful in pointing out all of the amazing sites, and the path Jesus took to them all.  I can honestly say we just might be able to connect the dots if we had to explain it to others.  Might.  I mean, if we had a map.  And a guide.  And a really detailed explanation once again!

I can't imagine the emotion that tomorrow holds:  we start with a walk down the Via Dolorosa, the path Jesus walked through the city to his demise.  A church service follows, and it's off to the Holocaust Museum.  Good grief...or perhaps just GRIEF GRIEF.  Not entirely sure our spirits can handle the power and depth that Sunday will bring.  Lord, have mercy.