Category Archives: Travel

Visit the sites – engage in the question….. Come share the experience with us.

As we enter the Advent season my thoughts go toward Bethlehem and the events in that small city so many years ago.  I remember my visits more recently to the city of Bethlehem – cold, wintry, sunny, and warm with friendship in the faith community.wpid-IMG_9692.JPG

When we talk about Jesus’s birth, we also need to talk about the purpose and mission that Jesus carried out.  We talk about sacrifice, crucifixion, resurrection and life everlasting.

As Christmas comes near the end of our calendar year, we look ahead to the next year.  We plan and we set goals.  We start talking like the disciples did just after Jesus ascended into Heaven – “What do we do now?  How do we live our lives differently after this experience and knowing Jesus?”

I struggle with this question, just as the first century Christians did, just as Christians throughout the ages have struggled and still struggle.

In April, 2015 The First United Methodist Church in McKinney is sponsoring a field trip – the opportunity to visit the cities where those early Christians lived in Greece and Turkey.  We will read from Paul’s letter to the churches in these cities and discuss the struggle through the ages.

I’m looking forward to sharing this adventure with new and long-time friends.

We still have room on the trip! We would love to share this adventure with you.

Contact me right away to join us.  Info@FUMCinTheHolyLand.org

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A Full Day in the Holy City

The “Palm Sunday” walk down the Mount of Olives got us started today, and a beautiful first full day in Jerusalem it was. It was awe-inspiring to stand on the Mount of Olives overlooking the city from the east on such a gorgeous day. The weather was perfect for us again today, and we made the most of it by covering a lot of ground.
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At the top of the Mount we visited the Pater Noster church, which has a very old tradition of being one of places where Jesus taught the disciples the Lord’s Prayer. We prayed the prayer ourselves as a group to get started, then we toured the grounds of this church which has the Lord’s Prayer in dozens of languages from around the world, written on ceramic tiles and placed on the walls.
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We visited one of Jewish cemeteries on the Mount of Olives next. This is where wealthy Jewish folks are buried, mainly because they believe that when the Messiah comes, he will come there (Zechariah 14), and he will raise the dead there first. We learned from our guide that a burial place on the Mount of Olives costs around $50,000.

Across from the cemetery stands the church of Dominus Flevit, or “The Lord Wept.” Here, Jesus wept over Jerusalem, and the place is commemorated by a church that resembles a teardrop in its architecture, built by the Italian Antonio Barluzzi. One of the most spectacular views of Jerusalem from the east can be had from the grounds of this church.
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The Garden of Gethsemane and the adjacent Church of All Nations stand near the base of the Mount of Olives. This was the place of the Lord’s agony, just before his arrest. The olive grove contains the oldest trees in the Holy Land, and the olives that they produce are harvested each year in the fall and pressed. We learned that the oil from these olives is sent to the Vatican and used by the pope in the ordinations of cardinals and bishops. The church next to the garden has a large, flat stone in front of the altar believed the place where Jesus prayed for God’s will to to be done. The stone is surrounded by small crowns of thorns made of iron that remind us of His suffering as he faced the torture to come.
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From the Mount of Olives, we drove to Mt. Zion, the western ridge of ancient Jerusalem and the location of Dormitian Abbey, the Upper Room, Caiaphas’ house, and the Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu. We visited and prayed in the place traditionally believed to be the Upper Room (though the structure is not the original one). Then, we even stopped in to see the famed “Kind David’s Tomb” nearby, which is certainly not David’s burial place, but stands in for the unknown locale as a holy place which the Jews revere.

The Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu marks Caiaphas’ house where Jesus was tried, and reminds us of Peter’s denial of Christ. The building also contains a dungeon that may have been where Jesus was held while under arrest during part of that night. It was a former cistern for water, so a person would have to be lowered into it through a hole on ropes. It had no other entrance or exit and would have been pitch dark. We read Psalm 88 and reflected on Christ’s abandonment and loneliness during those hours of his likely imprisonment.

The first century remains excavated around this area argue strongly that this was the high priest’s house. Our guide, George, participated in the archaeological dig there for four years, and taught us about what was found and how it is relevant.

Next, we entered the Old City of Jerusalem (the part inside the walls) by the Jaffa Gate, had a snack, and got to do some wandering and shopping on our own for a short while. Then we made our way to the Garden Tomb for a special time of meditating on Christ’s resurrection and a celebration of communion as a group. This is a place that is likely similar to the original location of Jesus’ crucifixion and the garden of his tomb and resurrection, though the evidence suggests that it is not a strong candidate for the actual location. It is a wonderful place to reflect, pray, sing, and worship, however, and is very conducive to an encounter with the truth that what matters most is that Jesus rose from the dead, rather than where he rose. Belief in the resurrection is far more important than knowledge of its specific whereabouts.

After a short break at the hotel, we struck out for Bethlehem one last time for dinner in a restaurant called the Grotto. Tasty local cuisine prepared and presented with flair made this a treat and a fun change of pace.

Tomorrow is Sunday already! We will worship together at East Jerusalem Baptist Church, and spend the day touring in the Old City. We plan to visit the Israel Museum in the later afternoon, then head to the airport to begin the journey home.

Up to Jerusalem

The day’s journey took us from the lowest place on earth (the Dead Sea) up to Jerusalem for a welcome that none of us will ever forget.

We were able to get a little bit later start today (on the road at 9:30 instead of 8:00), so we enjoyed the leisurely pace and the opportunity to relax and prepare for the weekend in Jerusalem. Our first stop was Masada, the mountain fortress made most famous first by Herod the Great’s palace, then by the band of Jewish rebels who made their last stand against the Romans there. This is a fascinating and dramatic site with a view of the Dead Sea and surrounding desert mountains that leaves one speechless.
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We spent almost two hours on top of Masada touring the ruins and learning the stories of that place, and we did not even cover the entire site. It seemed that one could spend the better part of day up there to see everything Masada has to offer!

We continued north along the shore of the Dead Sea, and before leaving the region, we were treated to a surprise stop at “Cave 1,” the cave where the first Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. Many of us made the hike up to the cave to stand in the entrance, the very location of one of the most important archaeological discoveries of the twentieth century. This is not on typical tours, and it was a delightful treat (and a privilege) to get to visit this place.
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In the afternoon, we went around Jerusalem on the east, through Bethany, to Bethlehem. This route afforded us a great view of the Mount of Olives, of the Kidron Valley, and of the impoverished West Bank town of Bethany. What a difference a few hundred yards makes! There is a great variety of living conditions around the Holy City.

We arrived in Bethlehem to visit the shop of the legendary Kando family. The Kando’s grandfather was instrumental in bringing the Dead Sea Scrolls to the attention of the world, and his family was the first to be licensed as official antiquities dealers by the Israelis. They own one of the original scroll jars discovered in the caves, and it is on display in the store.

We lunched at the Kando store and had time to shop at this Christian-owned business. The items in the store come from Christian artisans, and a portion of the profits go to a foundation that supports the Christian community in Palestine. We were welcomed warmly by our friend Shibli Kando, given some history about the family, the store, and the Scrolls, and treated like family by everyone there. We found beautiful pieces carved from olive wood, jewelry, and genuine ancient coins and pieces of ancient pottery. We saw their inventory of pottery ranging from 4000 BC to about AD 400. Amazing!

After the fun of a great shopping expedition, we resumed the tour with an entrance into Jerusalem. We had a great view of the city as we approached, and we stopped on the southwest side for a “Genesis Welcome.” As we looked out over the city, our guide George led us through the story of Abram and Melchizedek in Genesis 14. We were served bread and wine, as Abram was, and we were wel
comed formally to the city by two native Jerusalemites: our guide, George, and our driver, also named George. We will always remember this hospitality and signature greeting.

Tomorrow we walk on the Mount of Olives, and we begin to see Jerusalem. Wow!

A Journey South

Another spectacular sunrise brought in a new day for us on the Sea of Galilee, and the weather stayed sunny, clear and mild for us all day. We loaded up the bus and headed south toward our final destination of the day, the Dead Sea.

Passing the place where the Jordan River reemerges on the south side of the Sea of Galilee, the drive across the lower parts (the eastern side) of the Jezreel Valley took us by Beth Shean. This was where king Saul’s and his son Jonathan’s bodies were hung after their defeat and death on Mt. Gilboa in the Old Testament, and it was one of the ten cites of the Decapolis in New Testament times, known then as Scythopolis. From the bus, we saw the well-preserved Roman-style arena used for gladiator games and other entertainments.

The trip then took us through the biblical land of Samaria as we traveled along the Jordan River, with the hill country visible to our west, and the river valley just to the east. Beyond the river, the high country of today’s Kingdom of Jordan was visible. This territory was known as Gilead and (farther south) Moab (where Ruth was from). Our route was through West Bank, and we could see the farmlands that serve as the agricultural “bread basket” of Palestine. The Samaritan hill country suddenly turns into the Judean Desert, a vast and stark land that made a sharp contrast to the lush Galilee that we had just left.

One left turn and short drive east brought us to the riverbank itself, a place just opposite the location known as Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan. This site is not far from where the Israelites crossed the Jordan under Joshua’s leadership as they entered the land (Joshua 3-4). It is also where Elijah passed the prophetic mantle to Elisha and was taken into heaven (2 Kings 2). But this place is known best as Jesus’ baptismal site. John baptized Jesus in this very place, so we were able to focus on baptism, on God’s grace that we celebrate in baptism, and on the meaning of baptism in our own lives. We were able to put our hands and feet in the water and linger a moment to reflect and pray and give thanks.

Jericho is very nearby, and we made a brief visit to tell es-Sultan, the ancient city of Rahab and the city whose walls famously and miraculously fell down at the trumpet blast of the Israelites (Joshua 6). This site is in poor archaeological shape, so it is difficult to get a sense for how the city was laid out, but the size of the city and its strategic location were easy to understand and appreciate once we were up on the tell. From there we could look up straight to the west and see the Mount of Temptation, traditionally identified as the mountain where Jesus was tempted (Matthew 4; Mark 1; Luke 4). We had another good view of the mountain during a brief shopping stop that we made to purchase fruit, nuts, spices, and for some, to ride a camel. Great fun!

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Qumran was next, where we learned about the Essene community that retreated to the northwest corner of the Dead Sea to escape the corruption that they believed had overtaken Jerusalem and the Temple, and to prepare for the final showdown between the Messiah (with his people) and the “Sons of Darkness” whom they opposed (1st c. BC-1st c. AD). This was the community believed to be responsible for the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were discovered hidden in caves all around that area. We toured the excavated site that housed the group, and we saw some of the caves from across the ravine. The caves are very difficult to access (you even need a special permit to get to them and go inside), so their choice as a hiding place for the scrolls from the Romans makes good sense.

After lunch and a little shopping at the Qumran kibbutz, we started the final approach to our Dead Sea destination for the evening. But wait, there’s more! Not atypically, George gave us an unscheduled treat by stopping briefly at En Gedi, the spring/oasis in the wilderness to which David retreated when he fled and was hiding from Saul. The cave is associated with the story in 1 Samuel 24 was visible, and George gave us an orientation to the place and to the spring that served to refresh David and others in that harsh desert terrain.

Our hotel on the Dead Sea is beautiful, and we arrived early enough to make our way to the beach at each one’s own leisure to enjoy a float in the famous super-salty water. The evening was likewise leisurely as we rested and relaxed and prepared for our later morning departure tomorrow. We’ll visit Masada first, then, up to Jerusalem!

The Sea of Galilee

A morning walk through the Valley of the Doves got us started on an absolutely beautiful day. We had the best weather of the trip so far today, and it was the perfect day for it. We are so thankful for our experiences and for the sunshine that accompanied us all day. The Valley is part of the “Gospel Trail” in Israel, and was the route Jesus took when he left Nazareth to relocate his home base to Capernaum on the Sea of Galilee.
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Around 9:00, we were on a boat headed out onto the Sea, where we were able to cut the engines, listen to the Scriptures, and have some quiet time and prayer before finishing with a song together and returning to shore. The lake could not have cooperated more in its peacefulness. The tranquility of being out there and being able to be still (physically and spiritually) was a great gift from God.

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Before leaving the kibbutz where we caught the boat, we saw the first-century “Jesus Boat.” It is a fishing boat similar to one Jesus and the disciples would have known, and it was recovered from the mud in the Sea of Galilee during a time of extremely low water levels in the 1980s.

We continued to visit sites associated with specific events in Jesus’ life and ministry. First, the place of the multiplication of the loaves and fish in Tabgha, then up to the Mount of Beatitudes, which is likely very near the place where Jesus gave the Sermon on the Mount.

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After lunch of St. Peter’s fish (fresh from the Sea of Galilee, served whole!), we visited Sower’s Cove, known for its natural acoustics. This is the location believed to be the place where Jesus preached about the sower and the soils in Mark 4, speaking from a boat to a large number of people seated on the hillside of the shore. Harry Park led us in our devotional time, focusing on this parable as it appears in the three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). What an amazing experience to consider the parable in the very place it was given by the Lord! (Thanks, Harry!)
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Our last stop was at the large town of Capernaum, where Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law, among some 20 other miracles. This town was on an international highway: a perfect place for Jesus to preach, teach, and heal. His message of good news could be carried by the many travelers to places near and far because of Capernaum’s strategic location.

We heard a choir sing in the church that sits above Peter’s house (a beautiful impromptu blessing for us), and we toured the 4th century synagogue built on the same foundation that held the first century synagogue that Jesus attended and taught from. We also got a sense for the size and layout of Capernaum itself, and for how the homes in Jesus’ time looked there.
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We thank God from whom so many blessings have flowed today! And we prepare to travel south to the Jordan Valley and the Dead Sea area tomorrow.

Where Jesus Lived

Our first full day in Galilee began in Cana, the place traditionally associated with Jesus’ first miraculous sign. The Lord was a guest at a wedding, and he turned water into wine during the festivities (John 2:1-11). A beautiful Catholic Church stands on the location, with ancient Jewish and Christian ruins visible underneath. There is something quite powerful in Christ’s choice to sanctify a wedding with his presence, and we had an opportunity to reflect on this during our visit.
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A great highlight of the day was the opportunity to celebrate the renewal of wedding vows with eleven couples. This was a truly special moment for us. We have folks married 50 years, folks married 8 years, and everywhere in between. Tina hosted a “wedding reception” before dinner this evening for the whole group. What a great gathering!

We visited Nazareth next, beginning with the Greek Orthodox Church that has “Mary’s well” inside. This is one of two major sites associated with the announcement of Mary’s conception by Gabriel the angel. One tradition holds that Mary received the news while drawing water at the local well. A more likely site is the Church of the Annunciation, which we visited next. This magnificent basilica is the largest in the Middle East and is built over caves believed to have been Mary’s home (or part of it) in Nazareth. The church stands over the visible remains of an octagonal Byzantine church built next to the cave and contains artistic renderings of the Annunciation to Mary from countries around the world, each with its own cultural signature.
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After lunch we stopped at Nazareth Village, a recreation of first-century village life in Nazareth. We saw crops planted with ancient methods, olive trees and vineyards, a threshing floor, a wood shop, and an ancient wool weaving demonstration. They have a replica of a first-century synagogue also, where we learned more about Jesus’ teaching there in Luke 4 when the Lord read and expounded on Isaiah 61.
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From there, we completed our touring on Mt. Precipice in Nazareth. This is the place where the crowd tried to throw Jesus over the cliff in the above mentioned episode in Luke 4. The late afternoon view of the Jezreel Valley below and Samaria in the distance was jaw-dropping. The edge of the cliff is imposing, and a fall from that height would surely be deadly, so the hostile crowd in Nazareth meant business when they heard Jesus speak a message of salvation that included hope for the Gentiles (which would include their detested enemies, the Romans).

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Tomorrow we will be on and around the Sea of Galilee, the places where Jesus spent the majority of his public ministry. We can’t wait!

The Vineyard of God

From the hill country of Judah to the coastal plain to the shore of the Sea of Galilee in one day! The sunrise in Bethlehem this morning was colorful and gorgeous, and set a perfect backdrop for a day of continual blessing. We made the drive back into Israel from West Bank (and had to fight some traffic on the way), passing Jerusalem and taking us to Caesarea Maritima on the Mediterranean coast.
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It was cool today, but dry, and a little breezy. The sun came and went, but we had a glorious day of seeing the sights. Our guide decided to delay our visit to the Temple Mount until the end of the week in order to use our time today more efficiently. So we’ll be visiting the Western Wall and offering our prayers there in a few days. We are all looking forward to that very holy part of our trip.

Caesarea met us with the sun shining, as we saw the beautiful Roman-style theater, the ruins of Herod’s palace and of the many other luxurious amusements he built there, and the prosperous port that he constructed. Caesarea was magnificent in its heyday, both commercially and culturally, and it was the seat of Pontius Pilate’s prefecture in the first century.
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Just down the road, we saw a portion of the large aqueduct that brought fresh water into Caesarea. A section of it still stands in amazingly good condition. Some of us dipped our toes in the Med (brrr!), and we all got to reflect on the irony that such a great city could not sustain itself without the outside water supply brought in with the aqueduct. Life itself literally had to come from elsewhere for the “city that had everything.” Quite a theological message in there for all of us today.
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We visited Mount Carmel, where Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal (1 Kings 18). Carmel means “vineyard of God,” and is full of life and growth and a spectacular view of the most fertile land here: the Jezreel Valley. The coastal plain of Caesarea warmed us up to enjoy the agricultural lands of the north, but the green, productive Jezreel Valley as seem from Mount Carmel was an overwhelming sight. What a land!
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We descended to the valley to climb the ancient Tel Megiddo. Because of its strategic location, the city was fought over, destroyed, and rebuilt some 24 times. It is truly an archaeological marvel. Because it has been one of the most intense focal points of war in the world throughout history, it is depicted in the Book of Revelation as the site of the final battle. “Har Megiddo” (the mount of Megiddo) is rendered “Armageddon” in the Greek text of Revelation.

The drive across the valley, past Mt. Tabor (likely the Mount of Transfiguration), and into Galilee has left us eager to explore this area over the next couple of days.

We are lodging in Tiberius, a Jewish city right on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. The views of the Sea are incredible. We’ll be following in the footsteps of Jesus together as we learn about his life and ministry with the disciples around (and on) the Sea. Exciting!
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Photos by Tina

Throughout our wonderful Holy Land journeys this year, we have been blessed to have our blog posts illustrated with great photos. All of these images were taken and uploaded by our fabulous group leader, Tina.

In so many ways because of her ministry, our group has been led toward the cross, deepened in our faith and fellowship, and awakened to the richness of the Scriptures.

Thanks so much to Tina for the beautiful (and fun) photos, and for the daily effort of making them available to us here on the blog!

Never the Same

Some Psalms of Thanksgiving and Praise as we Depart the Holy Land:
Psalms 118, 111, 100, 93, 148

RisenWhen Jesus ascended to heaven after his resurrection, the disciples were assured that he “will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). While we return to our homeland in the same manner by which we traveled to the Holy Land, we do not return the same. Our lives have been indelibly stamped with a new impression.

Our prayer through all of our preparations for this pilgrimage and through our actual journeys in the land has been that God will use this experience for making us the disciples of Jesus Christ that God has called us to be. By God’s grace and through God’s power, the future our Lord envisions for his people on this earth is a future that includes a complete transformation of society.

The righteousness of God’s people will contribute to the changing of the world. This righteousness comes from Christ (it is his gift by grace through faith), and it will bring about a peace in and for the community of faith that will witness to the world. Isaiah puts it this way (32:17):

“The effect of righteousness will be peace,
and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever.”

As you have walked where Jesus walked and have experienced places where God has been so powerfully at work in history, Scripture will never read the same again for you. May the riches of its testimony stay forever with you, and may the righteousness that God strengthens in you through it serve him in transforming the world around you.

Jerusalem Past and Present

We began our last day with a peaceful visit to the Garden Tomb, a popular site especially for Protestants. While not a good candidate for the authentic place of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, the garden is a good place to get an idea of the setting for the cross and tomb because it has been preserved as a garden. It was a relatively quiet place to reflect on what Jesus did for us and on its implications for us. We finished our visit with a service of Holy Communion together.
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We traveled next to the Old City to see the Pools of Bethesda and St. Anne’s Church. The church has great acoustics, and was good to us as we sang Amazing Grace.
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Our morning walk from there was the famed Via Dolorosa. We followed the stations of the cross, read Scripture along the way, and ended at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This church houses the traditional locations of the place of crucifixion (Golgotha) and Jesus’ tomb of resurrection under one roof.
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The Church is like no other, with so many religious denominations, mainly Orthodox and Catholic. This is the holiest site in the Christian world. Pilgrims from everywhere file through the church, though in a somewhat chaotic fashion. Processions of singing priests make rounds while performing their liturgies. The lighting is dim, with candles and lanterns burning around the church, and the fragrance of incense generously fills the place. It certainly captured some of the mystery of our faith for us, and we encountered a global symphony of liturgical worship as we made our way around.
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After dinner in Jerusalem at Pasha (a Middle Eastern restaurant), we headed for the airport, where we are sitting now awaiting our flight back home. God has given an amazing gift of grace and blessing. This group has been an incredible fellowship of pilgrimage. Thank you, Lord!