Our first full day (and it was full)! When we landed in Tel Aviv yesterday afternoon, we met our amazing guide George and went by bus directly to Bethlehem, where we checked in to the beautiful St. Gabriel Hotel. Our dinner was a delicious buffet that included fresh local items from olives to hummus to figs, main dishes prepared in a variety of Middle Eastern styles, and desserts of fresh organic fruit from the area.
Bethlehem was beautiful this morning: cool but not cold, and a little hazy in the hills. We had a little drizzle around mid-day, then the sun came out for the afternoon.
The day began at Shepherd’s Field. We learned much about how shepherds cared for their sheep and the lengths that they go through not only to look after their safety and well-being, but also to discipline them in order to teach the flock not to stray. George helped us to see the connections between this kind of care for the sheep and the Good Shepherd, Jesus, who cares for us even more deeply.
Since it is Sunday, we got to worship here in Bethlehem at the Lutheran Christmas Church. We reached the church on foot, walking through the bustling morning market, and just making it to the service on time (many of us felt at home in this regard!). Today was communion Sunday for this congregation as well, and the powerful and moving experience of sharing at the Lord’s table with our brothers and sisters in Christ here was not lost on us. This will be a true spiritual highlight for many of us.
The service was in Arabic, but one of the Scripture readings was in English, our group was welcomed by the pastor from the pulpit in English, and we were able to follow the Apostles’ Creed as they professed their faith during the service. The sermon was from Genesis 8 and focused on being the Church in turbulent waters, with the Middle Eastern church especially in mind. Additionally, we were able to participate in our own language as we sang “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” and as we prayed the Lord’s Prayer along with the congregation as they sand and prayed in Arabic. Some things are universal and really help us feel in unity with the Body of Christ in other places.
The Church of the Nativity was next, and we got to spend a fair amount of time in the church built over the traditional site of the cave where Jesus was born. The church is undergoing much-needed renovations, so some of the columns and walls are covered, but the cave and place of the manger, as well as the main altar place, the adjacent Roman Catholic sanctuary, and the courtyard commemorating St. Jerome were fully accessible.
Our friends and United Methodist missionaries Alex and Brenda Awad welcomed us warmly to Bethlehem Bible College this afternoon. They had snacks and coffee waiting for us, we got to meet one of the students, and Alex gave a presentation about the college, its ministry in the community of Bethlehem, and some history and analysis of the challenges that Palestinians currently face. We learned a lot about Palestine in general, and about the Christian community there in particular. We are grateful for their hospitality and the extra effort it took to host us on a Sunday, when the college is not usually open.
Tonight, we experienced some more of this Christian community by dining in the homes of local believers. We divided into groups of 4 or 5 to join families for dinner and fellowship. What an amazing way to end a Sunday! We are thankful for the strength of the Church in the place. They are small in number, but strong in the Spirit, and they will surely remain in our prayers as they shine for Jesus Christ here in the land where both our Savior and the Church were born.
More Picture tomorrow.