Israel 2012 – Day Four: Free As a Bird

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Baptism by Surprise

Today, I was a little home sick. Not for the place, just some of the people. Namely, Pam.

My brother Charlie has been on my heart a lot lately too. I’ve been feeling his stress in his time of transition (link); his fear and anxiety that sometimes consumes him as it does all of us.

Before I left, when I prayed for him, I prayed that he would one day feel the freedom, joy, and peace of that goofy, funny, silly little boy that I used to lay down to sleep at night in the room we shared.

I thought about this a bit as I went to sleep last night, tossing and turning, trying to adjust to the time change that didn’t seem to affect me at all the night before.

When I woke up it was midnight in the States and I knew my brother would be up. So I called and got to annoy him a little bit.


Today, Saturday, the Sabbath, was too gorgeous of a day – we had to change our plans!

Instead of heading out immediately to our day as scheduled, Bob and Casey decided that our first stop would be the Jordan River.

Half-asleep, I stumbled off the bus, through a gift shop into what suddenly let us out a few feet away from where water of the Jordan was being sold in bottles, big and small. Ironic, because the river itself was just mere feet away.

I bought an empty bottle. I wanted to get the water myself.

We were lead to the corner of the river and steps were that went to the river. We on the steps for our morning devotional. We read:

“Reorient your lives.” That is what Jesus told his disciples, knowing full well that was what happen the moment Jesus came to live in them. Forget everything you ever thought you knew about who is in charge in this world. Get ready to revise all your notions about what makes someone great, or right, or worthy of your attention.

If you think you know which way is up… think again. If you think you know how things should turn out in the end, get ready to be wrong. This Jesus I have been telling you about is one surprise after another. You cannot second guess him. All you can do is love him and let him love you back, any way he sees fit. Sometimes it is so strong it can scare you to death. You want to know what you should do? Repent, return, revise, re-invent yourself.

Then, go our and get born again, by water and the Spirit. Walk into the river of death with him. Go under with him, and while you are down there, let the current carry away everything that stands between you and him. Then, when all your breath is gone, let him give you some of his. Take his breath inside you. Let it save your life, and when he rises, rise with him, understanding that your life is no longer your own. You died down there. You are borrowing his life now. Let someone make the sign of the cross on your forehead to remind you of that, and join the community of those who call themselves his body, because they believe his heart beats in every one of them.
-Barbara Brown Taylor


And then we sang “Holy, Holy, Holy”, which is nowhere near my top 500 songs.

But it is the song that my brother used to walk around the house singing as a little boy. It was the song that he and I would laugh and sing together when we laid down together at night, when he was just that goofy, funny, silly little boy I’ve been praying for!

Sometimes we don’t get answers to our prayers.

But sometimes we do.

Sometimes we get to see them.

And sometimes we get to feel them.

At peace and in tears, I began to focus on Barbara Brown Taylor’s definition of a baptism. I began to think back to my baptism. December 24, 1983. Of course, I was there but my memory is foggy.

However, I’ve watched the video dozens of times, espescially as a young kid. Truth is, I’ve seen that baptism 50 times, but not once in the last 18 years.

We all were contemplating our baptism, the meaning of affirming that baptism, and all the things that had transpired between then and now. One by one, and in some cases, two by two as couples, siblings, and individuals they came forward to be baptized. From where I was standing, I could tell, this was a very powerful experience for all of us.


I held the bowl of the Jordan River water between Bob and Casey as they crossed the foreheads of our pilgrims. I almost felt like I was intruding on an intimately powerful ritual. I had an important job though – who else would hold the water bowl??

Before I was composed and ready, Bob grabbed the bowl from me, turned to face me, smiled and asked, “By what full name are you called?”

Instantly, as if I was fully there the first time, I heard my dad’s voice answer like I had heard it on the video 50 times before, “Thomas Neal”, (which is his name too), his voice booming with pride announcing to the world his first born son.

I could barely talk. Thank God that Bob already knew my full name.

I hadn’t been that overcome with emotion since my wedding day. I have no idea what he said next – in either event.

I thought of what it will be like to be the father at the baptism.

I bent down with my empty jar and felt the closest I’ve felt to the pride of a father. Here I am thousands of miles away from home, thinking of a tiny being that has yet to be born. I only know the name Pam and I will call her, and nothing else about her, except that I will love her.

In the same river where Jesus was baptized, my family was there too. I bring back a bottle of the river so that it will always be with us.


As we walked out, we passed a baptismal gathering where a man spoke with a headset microphone wearing a robe and sandals while reading his notes from an ipad.

It was the levity I needed.

Mount of the Beatitudes

On next to the Mount of the Beatitudes.

“When Jesus saw the crowds, he went up the mountain; and after he sat down, his disciples came to him. Then he began to speak, and taught them, saying: 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 receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peace makers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:1-10

“God of the ages, our minds reach back to that small group of Jesus’ earliest followers. They followed him in his travels around the shores of the Galilee. They listened with reverent awe and profound hopefulness to his teachings. His words gave their lives a brave new purpose, a durable dignity. The voice is gone, but his words remain to challenge and strengthen. May we receive the blessings he envisions for God’s faithful people. Amen.” – Casey Baggott

I could never understand how the Garden of Eden could exist in these parts of the world, at least as I had envisioned either of them.

But today I could.


This area was always documented as fertile, rich, colorful and beautiful. And it still is. It was relatively high compared to the other mountains (hills) we have climbed so far. There were various pockets where the sound seemed to be picked up by the wind and carried down the mountain in the accoustical way that Jesus would have needed to have his Sermon on the Mount reach the masses that gathered to hear him.

Loudest of all was not the hundreds of people assembled from all over the world, but the birds in the sky!!

These birds were so proud, so at peace, so undisturbed, not worried at all about their next meal. They were chirping and singing. Loudly.


As I looked over the Sea Of Galilee, and the banana trees, down the slopes of the mountain, I prayed: May you be glorified in the way I live, chirp, and sing.


“The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, “Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while.” For many were coming and going, and they had no leisure even to eat. And they went away in the boat deserted to a place by themselves. Now many saw them going and recognized them, and they hurried there on foot from all the towns and arrived ahead of them. As he went ashore, he saw a great crowd; and he had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things. When it grew late, his disciples came to him and said, “This was a deserted place, and the hour is now very late; send them away so that they may go into the surrounding country and villages and buy something for themselves to eat.” But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.” They said to him, “Are we to go and buy two hundred denarii worth of bread and give it to them to eat?” And he said to them, “How many loaves have you? Go and see.” When they had found out, they said, “Five and two fish.” Then he ordered them to get all the people to sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in groups of hundreds and of fifties. Taking the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before the people; and he divided the two fish among them all. And all ate and were filled; and they took up twelve baskets full of broken pieces and of the fish. Mark 6:30-43″

We visit here, O God, the site of one of the earliest churches in the Holy Land. Help us to recognize the significance of this place, where meager supplies were blessed and shared and proved more than sufficient to meet the needs of all who gathered with Jesus. Let the old, old story of hungers satisfied remind us of all the ways your care extends across the years of our lives to satisfy our deepest needs. Amen (Casey Baggott)

Then down to Tagbha. We followed down pathways carved out by the warm springs that provided such luxury to the area, down to a little chapel, where in the place of an altar stood a large rock that extended through the wall out to the sea, representing the table of Christ where the multitudes were fed (the loaves and fishes miracle). It was apparently rare to find this chapel empty, so we went inside for a devotional.


On the site believed to be where Jesus fed the 5,000 we read, prayed, and sang.

Our ending hymn was Amazing Grace (1st, 2nd, and 5th verses, look em up) and as our chorus (not bad for who we were) reached the last verse, a bird flew in through the window, chirping and singing, flying among us. It floated about the altar and sang with us in front of what became a crowded back three rows of Europeans.


Maybe it was just a coincidence.

I doubt it.

This is a story I would like told to be told at either my ordination or funeral – whichever happens first.

We walked down to the Sea of Galilee – so flat, so beautiful. Here, I could see the excitement as our group watched where Jesus would’ve been on a boat just offshore! Oh, the stories the sea knows.

I began picking up rocks on the shoreline. I gave thanks for the people who have been rocks in my life. I looked out at the sea, the birds were at the water’s level, the sea was unusually calm, and I was too.


Before we left to our next site, we left with an inspired sense. Along that shoreline, with all that we know of the area, we stood there knowing that we could be more certain here than any other point on our journey, that we were walking on the ground where Jesus had walked.


A word about Midal by Casey Baggott:

Magadan, a city on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee in the region where Jesus lived and taught, is mentioned only in Matthew’s Gospel. The site now known as Migdal (Aramaic for “tower”) is assumed to be the former Magadan. Tradition has long believed that Mary, called Magdalene, received her name because she was a native of this town.
Mary Magdalene is mentioned numerous times in the Gospels. She was clearly a close follower of Jesus and his most prominent female disciple. Yet her reputation suffered a severe blow in 591 when Pope Gregory the Great preached a sermon which confused several biblical Marys, assuming that all were actually Mary Magdalene. From this point forward Mary was believed to have been a prostitute, reformed by Jesus.
We went on to Magdela (Migdal). Once a vibrant city with high walls, Migdal was barren and closed off for excavations. It looked like it had been shut down. I wonder: if Mary Magdalene isn’t the first woman oppressed by the church?


Some gospels not in the Bible have Mary of Magdela and Peter as rival if not equally important followers of Jesus and beginnings of the early church.

The difference between Mary’s land and Peter’s land is at least curious. To me it was disturbing.


“They went to Capernaum; and when the sabbath came, he entered the synagogue and taught. They were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes. They were all amazed kept on asking one another, “What is this? A new teaching– with authority! He commands even the unclean spirits, and they obey him.” At once his fame began to spread throughout the surrounding region of Galilee. As soon as they left thee synagogue, they entered the house of Simon and Andrew, with James and John. Now Simon’s mother-in law was in bed with a fever, and they told him her at once. He came and took her by the hand and lifted her up. Then the fever left her, and she began to serve them. ” Mark 1:21-22, 27-31

The sites of Capernaum, where Jesus stayed for a few years with Simon Peter, his brother Andrew, and (Peter’s) mother-in-law who Jesus healed, were enshrined reminding me of a national monument.


There is a Franciscan church built atop what is believed to be the home of St. Peter and a walk way with signs attached to the fence explaining the different excavations all around.


Capernaum (Peter’s hometown) and Magdela (Mary’s assumed hometown) were only a few minutes apart. It amazed me how many important villages exist(ed) within such close walking distance of each other, but I suppose it shouldn’t have. Was I expecting them to have driven?

After lunch (where we began to hash out the logistics of a mission/emersion trip for college students), we went up Mount Carmel in Haifa, the third largest and most industrial city in Israel. It was a beautiful view out over the port at the Mediterranean Sea.


ArchBishop Chacour


And then we ended our day in the presence of a man, a Christ figure, and a Nobel Peace Prize nominee who’s visit was worth our 10-hour plane ride.

ArchBishop Chacour’s life as a Palestinian Christian is best documented in his book, “Blood Brothers.” I highly recommend it. In the hopes that you will read it, I will not include the beautifully portrayed yet heart-wrenching stories he told us from his childhood.

He asked us how many of us were born as Christians. Many of us raised our hands.

“Not me,” he said, “I was born a baby.”

He reminded us that all babies are born in the image of God and all people, Jews, Muslims, and Christians, are born as babies.

He told us of the struggles he had while building by hand his school for Palestinian children.

So many things I will take away from my one hour sitting next to this man:

I will never forget when he said: “People always ask me to just start talking, but I have two ears to listen and only one mouth to speak, so I should be a better listener than speaker… … so tell me, why leave Vero Beach to come here? Please tell me, I would be so very very grateful if you share with me.”

He was as prophetic as anybody I’ve ever heard or read about in the course of history.

“If you have a Jewish friend, stand by them! Hold on to that friendship dearly! Be a rock and a model for them as you should be for your Palestinian friends too! But do not take a side and become one who hates the other, the last thing any Palestinian or Jew needs is another enemy!”

“When you pray, I hope you never pray for money. I don’t worry about money, God always provides. Instead pray for solidarity and friendship!” It was that, the true miracle, that he believes leads to peace.

And he warned, “I hope you will be willing to raise a little hell, should there come a need to do so.”

For a man so willing to give his life to peace; to education; to unity in diversity, how could I not be willing to pray for or do whatever it took.


May peace, and the vision of Elias Chacour prevail, Amen.

Tommorow, swimming in the Dead Sea, Worship on the Sea of Galilee, and a trip to Jericho.

Shalom til Then.

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