Report from Israel: Saturday & Sunday

Hi All,

Our journey is in its final hours.

On Saturday morning, we boarded our bus and headed south and east from Jerusalem along the Dead Sea to Masada--a rock plateau.  On it are the remains of yet another monument to Herod the Great's architectural achievements.  Herod built one of his palaces there and fortified the mountain in 37 BCE.  Masada is most commonly remembered for the siege Roman laid there in 73 CE against a group of Jewish fighters known as the Sicarii.  The Jewish group overtook Masada in 66 BCE and inhabited it as a place of refuge and resistance.  It took many, many months before the Romans succeeded in taking the mountain.  The remains of the Roman encampments and walls they built to surround the mountain are still visible today.  When the Romans finally succeeded in breaching the hilltop they discovered that all 960 and inhabitants had committed a mass suicide.  According to the ancient historian, Josephus, only two women and five children were found alive.  We had an easier time of getting on the mountain--we took  the cable car!

We then drove north along the Dead Sea to view the remains of the ancient community of Qumran.  It is believed a group of Essenes--a highly religious, apocalyptic Jewish sect--settled there around 100 BCE.  They were preparing for the end of the world.  Qumran is best known for the Dead Sea Scrolls that were discovered there in 1947 by a shepherd boy looking for lost sheep.  Before the discovery of these scrolls, the earliest copies of Old Testament texts we had dated from around the 10th Century CE.  These scrolls dated back to 400 BCE and contained portions of every book in the Old Testament except for Esther.  A stunning discovery by any measure.

After eating lunch, we drove a bit further north to a place on the Dead Sea where those who wished could go for a float.  About half the group did.  

We then headed back to the hotel.  That night we gathered in the dining room for what would be our "Last Supper" together.  Five of our group would be leaving first thing Sunday for a few days in Jordan to visit the site of Petra.  After the meal, we lingered and shared reflections of our experiences of the trip.  All agreed, it was a phenomenal trip:  the encounter with the land; the connection of events and people of the  Bible to actual places and landscapes; the amazing expertise of our guide, Steve Notley, who made ALL those connections possible; the encounter with the contemporary tension between the Israelis and the Palestinians; the experience of being in the Old City--the Temple Mount, the Western Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre....); and finally, the way the group functioned so well together.  It really has been a wonderful trip with a really incredible group of travelers.

Sunday was a free day before we pack up and load up our bus at 2:00 a.m. Monday morning to head to the airport in Tel Aviv for our 6:30 a.m. flight.  We all went in many and various directions--many retracing visits to museums and the streets of the Old City and doing some final shopping.  Several of us rose at 4:45 a.m. to attend the Latin Mass at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  It took place in the Church, just outside the burial place of Jesus--the site of the Resurrection.  Like the women on Easter morning, early on Sunday, the day after the Sabbath, we went to the tomb.  Not many chances to do that!

Later that morning, Steve Notley and I met up with Zac, a friend of Steve's--a Palestinian who owns a shop in the Christian Quarter of the Old City.  He drove the two of us to the ancient city of Hebron where there is a Mosque/Synagogue (the building is divided) that contains the tombs of Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rebekah, Jacob and Leah.  It is a city that is disrupted often by violence between Jews and Palestinians.  It was a fascinating visit--amid signs of tension,, there was a thriving city and people who could not be more friendly and welcoming.

After returning that afternoon, Steve and I had the opportunity to have dinner with Estephan Salameh--the person we met with on Thursday who is a primary policy adviser to the Prime Minister in the Palestinian Authority....and a fellow Christian.  At one point in our conversation, he spoke of how much he has gained of late from his reading of a book by Martin Luther King, Jr.  It gave him hope that there would be peace and reconciliation in the land one day--but not without courageous leadership on all sides and mutual trust.  It was a wonderful and hope-filled conversation even as he acquainted us again wth the deep complexities of the contemporary situation.

After dinner, we stepped out onto the balcony of the Notre Dame Hotel just outside where we had shared our meal.  I snapped one last picture of Jerusalem and thought again to the ancient Priestly blessing.  A fitting benediction to our journey and our abiding prayer for this Holy Land:

May the Lord bless you and keep you.   May the Lord make his face to shine upon you  and give you peace.   Now and forever.  Amen.

May the Lord bless you and keep you.  
May the Lord make his face to shine upon you
and give you peace.  
Now and forever.  Amen.

Report from Israel: Friday

Hi All,

Today was a relatively light day of activity.  In the morning, we took in two museums in Jerusalem and then had a free afternoon.  I'm guessing the day was anything but light there in Cubs' Town!

This morning we visited Yad Vashem--The World Holocaust Remembrance Center.  It is an excellent museum.  It draws you into the narrative history of the rise of Nazi Germany and the evolution of the systematic, calculated murder of an entire people.  "Yad Vashem" means, "a place specifically to memorialize."  According to the mission statement of the museum, "As the Jewish people's living memorial to the Holocaust, Yad Vashem safeguards the memory of the past and imparts its meaning to future generations."  

In past years, I have visited Auschwitz, Dachau, and the "Warsaw Ghetto," and each time I am struck by the unfathomable capacity of human beings to perpetrate evil on their neighbors. The countless individuals required to carry out the untold number of orders that add up to this hideous nightmare we call the Holocaust defies comprehension.  Which is why places like Yad Vashem are so crucial.  What is incomprehensible, unthinkable soon becomes unbelievable.

The pressing questions for me as I wandered the gardens of the museum after walking through its exhibits were: "What is the meaning this remembrance must impart to future generations?  What does it mean to remember this well?  What does such remembrance require of us in this generation?"  Hitler rose to power as part of a political process.  His racist, hyper-nationalistic rhetoric struck a chord among the people of Germany that had consequences beyond anyone's prediction.  Words matter.  Leadership matters. Politics matters...

Upon leaving Yad Vashem, we made our way to the Israel Museum.  There we overlooked the incredible model (50:1) of the city of Jerusalem as it existed in 66 CE.  With Steve's guidance, we could now visualize all that we had been seeing over the previous days in our visits to Jerusalem.  We then walked through the Shrine of the Book that tells the story of the Dead Sea Scrolls and where we could actually see portions of the scrolls on display.  Tomorrow, we will be going to Qumran which was where the scrolls were discovered by accident by a shepherd boy in 1946.  

We then wandered through the amazing collection of antiquities on exhibit in the rest of the museum.  I'll mention one.  In 1979, a sliver amulet was found in a burial cave in Jerusalem by Gabriel Barkay (I met him on our last trip to here).  The amulet contained a tiny scroll (see picture below--about 5" long) on which was inscribed the Priestly Blessing found in Numbers 6: 24-26: "The Lord bless you and keep you.  May the Lord make his face to shine upon you and give you peace."  Dating back to 700 BCE, it is the oldest inscription from the Hebrew Bible ever found--the oldest mention of the Hebrew name for God (YHWH) outside of the Bible. The inscription predates all other written texts by 400 years.

As I walked out of the hotel later this afternoon the sun was setting and I remembered that Sabbath was about to dawn.  Across the street, families were streaming into The Jerusalem Great Synagogue--children skipping along the sidewalks as they went.  At some point in that service, I was sure the Priestly Blessing would be spoken yet again: "May the Lord bless you and keep you.  May the Lord make his face to shine upon you and give you peace."  Amen.

Report from Israel: Thursday

Dear All,

I can only imagine how many announcers had rehearsed over and over again (in case they needed it) the following lines: "After 108 years, the Chicago Cubs have won the World Series!"  It was an amazing game.  A script for a movie begging to be made.  I was living in New England when the Red Sox broke their 86 year losing streak and I am now living in Chicago to witness the Cubs' triumph.  I was in Newport, Rhode Island the day the Australians won the Holy Grail of boat racing, The America's Cup.  The Aussies came back from a  3 to 1 deficit in a best of 7 series and broke the 130 year winning streak of the USA.  (Keep in mind I was still an Australian citizen at the time.)  I am beginning to think I might carry some influence.  :)

Ok...on to the business at hand.  Another engaging day of encounters.   Our schedule consisted of three different conversations on the contemporary Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

Our first conversation took place in Ramallah (just north of Jerusalem in the West Bank) in the administrative offices of the Palestinian Authority.  There we met with Estephan Salameh who works as a policy and planning advisor to the Prime Minister.  Among many other things, he talked of how his whole life has been shaped by this conflict and of the ways he has dedicated his life to being a force for change.  He helped us see the complexities of the conflict on both the Palestinian and Israeli sides, how the situation has deteriorated over the past few decades, and why the current reality of life and fear cannot continue indefinitely.

From there we drove south of Jerusalem to Bethlehem to meet with the Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb. Mitri is the Senior Minister the Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem and is a highly respected community leader in that region.  He also serves as President of Dar ak-Kalima University College of Arts and Culture in Bethlehem.  Mitri shared with us his perspective of how the military occupation of the West Bank (which is where Bethlehem is located) negatively impacts the lives of Palestinians.  It was a somber reflection.  He also shared the incredible work being done through the University and cultural center.  

After a stop for lunch, we boarded our bus for the 40 minute drive to visit the site of Roots--a local Palestinian /Israeli initiative for understanding, non-violence, and transformation.  This is the organization begun a few years ago by Ali Abu Awwad and Rabbi Hanan Schlesinger (they both spoke at GUC last month) and is dedicated to reconciliation.  Shaul Judelman and Noor Hashem Atallah A'Wad shared their stories with us of how they became involved in efforts to bring together Israelis and Palestinians to meet face to face.  They are working to create the conditions for personal stories to be shared and heard in such a way that they do not compete or conflict--instead these encounters become the context for mutual understanding and recognition.  They know their progress will be slow.  They know even more that it is absolutely essential.

Since yesterday afternoon we have been learning just how complicated, confusing, and conflicted daily life on the ground is for Palestinians.  Both Mitri and Estephan are working through their respective institutional roles and community leadership to bring about a just, peaceful, and lasting change.  There was something uniquely captivating about the work of Roots--it felt very simple, direct, and full of hope.  

Throughout the day, I was reminded of something I read years ago by a theologian about optimism and despair:  they both claim to know too much about what will (or will not) be.  Hope, on the other hand, is different.  Hope, on the other hand, admits a certain ignorance about what could be and sets about taking the next step in that direction.  Mitri, Estephan, Shaul, and Noor were not optimists, they are certainly not strangers to despair--but each of them in their own way are full of hope. We all came away honored to be in their company.





Report from Israel: Wednesday

Dear All,

The Cubs are going to be the death of me!  Here it is 11:45 p.m. Jerusalem time...Game 7 begins here at 2:00 a.m. and I have to get some shut eye!!  Wow!  What a series...I hope it's enough to take your minds off the craziness of this wacky election season.

Today was another great day here.  We started out this morning on the Mount of Olives--overlooking Jerusalem.  Steve did a great job setting the narrative stage that makes this Mount loom so large in the Christian imagination. Our first visit was to the The Dominus Flevit Church--which translates from the Latin as "The Lord Wept," and is fashioned in the shape of a teardrop to symbolize the tears Jesus shed (on the day we call Palm Sunday) as he overlooked Jerusalem. He wept because "it did not recognize the things that make for peace." (Luke 19: 37-42).  Most of you have seen this church from the inside.  You'll recognize the view in the picture below.  After a brief time of reflection in the church, we sat outside on the wall overlooking the city and Steve shared the text from Luke 19 and called us to feel its relevance for today...and to pray for the peace of Jerusalem...which is to pray for the peace of the world.  We paused and prayed together.

We then made our way down the mount...along the same path that Jesus and his disciples followed, to the Garden of Gethsemane.  It was there that Jesus prayed his final agonizing prayers before his betrayal and arrest.  Steve noted that given that it was Passover at the time, there would have been tents housing pilgrims spread out all across the Mount of Olives and the valley below.  The authorities would have had a hard time locating Jesus if it weren't for Judas. We spent some time in The Church of All Nations that stands next to the Garden and commemorates the site where Jesus spend his final hours.

We made our way to the Lion's Gate into the Old City and followed the Via Dolorosa (the path of Jesus as he bore his cross through the city) making our way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.  This is the site that remembers the crucifixion, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.  It was jammed with pilgrims.  We made our way in and to the holy sites it contains.  Jesus' tomb is undergoing renovation for the first time in over 500 years.  Steve took us into a side cave in the church known as the tomb of Joseph of Arimathea--the man who provided a tomb for the burial of Jesus.  Nothing ornate.  Plain and simple burial chamber carved into the rock.  Tempts one to wonder if it might not be closer (at least in representation) to the tomb of Jesus.  

After lunch, we boarded our bus and made our way to Bethlehem (maybe a 30 minute drive) to visit the Church of the Nativity--the site that commemorates the birth of Jesus.  It too is undergoing a major renovation.  I tried to get a picture of the manger...but there was a woman sitting in it getting her picture taken. 

I then guided our bus back towards Jerusalem.  But I had it stop and drop us off before we passed through the Security Wall that separates the West Bank (Bethlehem is in the West Bank) from Israel.  I had arranged for our group to visit a small gift shop that is surrounded on three sides by the Wall.  It is owned by Claire Anastas and her family.  My thought was there is no better way for folks to understand the Wall and the way of life it imposes on the Palestinians than to see it up close and personally.  After visiting with Claire and making some purchases, we set out on foot for the pedestrian check point that would take us through the wall back into Israel.  This too was my idea to give folks a firsthand experience of life behind the Wall.  The group was game for it.

In my visit to Jerusalem in the summer of 2015, I had stayed at a conference center just outside the Wall on the Israeli side and passed through this check point many times with no delay or difficulty.  It was probably a half mile walk from the shop to the check point.  As we set out, I came to realize that my previous passages had never been at rush hour and so had very few people around.  The road leading to the check point was jammed with cars and men returning from work.  We wound our way single file through the cars and crowds of Palestinians who, no doubt, wondered who the heck we were.  The crowds consisted of hundreds of Palestinians returning from work in Israel--all on foot.  There was a steady stream passing us as we made our way into the check point--the lone travelers heading back into Israel.  This was an everyday ritual for these Palestinians.  Every morning, I am told, as early as 4:30 a.m. the place is jammed with hundreds of workers going the opposite direction we were now seeing them--back into Israel.  Only then, the line would move MUCH slower--they have to go through face recognition and have their thumbprints checked and show their permits.  All we did was flash our passports and pass through.  

Once through, we were met by our bus and whisked off to our hotel.  It was quite a day for reflection on tears and prayers for peace.

For now, I am off to bed for some shut eye before rising for Game 7.  Hints of resurrection will linger in my mind as I doze off only to rise too soon from now.



Report from Israel: Tuesday

Hi All,

We spent the day in Jerusalem--exploring the history and landscape (above ground and underground) of the Old City.  We visited the Wohl Museum where we explored the excavations of Herodian Villas from the first century--very possibly homes of High Priests who reigned in Jesus's day.  After lunch, we made our way to the southern wall of the Temple Mount.  It is from this side that pilgrims would have entered the Temple area.  As you will see in the picture below, this wall is massive!  The entrances are now blocked up.  However, at the foot of one of the entrances, there remains in place Herodian pavement stones from the first century.  This may be the one place where we can say with a high degree of certainty that we are walking in the footsteps of Jesus.

From there walked south for a few hundred yards to the area where King David built his palace and the ancient city of Jerusalem was centered.  There we descended down MANY stairs to Hezekiah's Tunnel.  This was a water tunnel constructed in the time of King Hezekiah to provide water to the city in anticipation of a siege by Sennacherib, the King of Assyria (ca. 700 BCE). The tunnel takes water from the Gihon Spring, which was located outside the city wall, and draws it into a pool within the city wall.  The siege did come and lasted two years.  The city did not fall.  Hezekiah's Tunnel saved the day.  About half the group chose to wade our way through the 1500 foot tunnel (which is still fed by the spring).  At times the water level rose above our knees!  (Bill Evertsberg--Senior Minister of Kenilworth Union Church--and his wife Kathy made it through!  See their picture below.

We made our way back the hotel for a few hours of rest before dinner.  After dinner, we convened for a conversation with Rabbi Ma'ayan Turner.  She is from New Zealand and has lived in Jerusalem for 25 years.  Ma'ayan works for an organization that focuses on human rights related to land and urban planning issues for Israel and the territories it controls.  She provided us with an excellent orientation to the contemporary situation in Israel particularly as it relates to the current Israeli/Palestinian conflict.  It was great preparation for the conversations we will be having with other guests over the next few days.

It was another rich day.  We hear rumors that the election season there continues to defy all prediction.  We feel fortunate to be contemplating other times and places.  One of the things we are learning is just how much Jesus challenged the religious and political status quo of his day.  So even here, we find ourselves wondering what it means to walk in the way of Jesus in our day and time.  We feel we are just getting our feet wet.

Grace & Peace,


Report from Israel: The First Three Days

Dear Friends,

Greetings from Jerusalem!  We arrived in the city from Tiberias (on the shore of the Sea of Galilee) this afternoon.  I have been meaning to get this blog off the ground long before now…but it has taken me a while to get into a rhythm of writing. My apologies for the delay!

I am now committed to this daily task…so I intend to post daily from here on…probably this time of day.

So, let me begin with a summary of our first days.  The map. comments, and pictures below will give you a sense for the ground we have covered so far:  

  • We landed in Tel Aviv on Friday afternoon and drove to Netanya (about 45 minutes north) to our hotel for the first night.  Early the next morning we headed up the coast to Caesarea to visit an incredible site where Herod the Great (d. 4 BCE) built his seaport and palace on the Mediterranean Sea—equipped with a hippodrome for horse and chariot races. 
  • From there we made our way to Nazareth (with a brief stop in the ancient city of Sepphoris).  In Nazareth, we visited the Church of the Annunciation (the site that remembers the Angel Gabriel’s visit to Mary).
  • We then drove on to Tiberias, situated on the Sea of Galilee, and checked into our hotel for the next two nights. 
  • Over the course of the next two days (Sunday and Monday), we visited the principal sites of the life and ministry of Jesus around the Sea of Galilee:  Mt. of the Beatitudes (where the Jesus’ Sermon the Mount is remembered) Chorazim, Capernaum, a place on the shoreline where the Jesus’ visit with his Disciples after the Resurrection is commemorated, and Magdala (the home town of Mary Magdalene).
  • First thing this morning (Monday), we took a ride on a boat on the Sea of Galilee before boarding our bus to make the 2 hour journey to Jerusalem.  Upon our arrival into Jerusalem, we visited the Temple Mount (where the Dome of the Rock is located) and then took an orienting walk through the Old City of Jerusalem before heading to our hotel which will be our base of operation for the remainder of our trip.

Below I have posted pictures from several of the sites and activities mentioned above.  I will write more of my impressions in the coming days…for now, I just wanted to orient you to our activities so far.  The trip is going wonderfully...the group has gelled nicely and our guide, Steve Notley, is doing a phenomenal job!  

Everyone is thoroughly enjoying the trip.

More tomorrow!  Peace, David