An Apology to Jefferson Bethke

Ya know, sometimes, I can be a real ass snob cotton-headed-ninny-muggins when it comes to my theology.

At some point, between being accused of “lacking passion”, or being “un-Biblical”, or even worse, “un-Christian”, I began defending my theology by attacking the theology of others.

And in many instances I tend to become as “holier-than-thou” as I accuse others of acting.

So a few weeks ago, when I saw Jefferson Bethke’s Video “Why I Hate Religion but Love Jesus”, I took the chance to have the fight I’ve been waiting for.

Maybe it was because he used the word “hate.”

Maybe it was because I found out he went to a conservative mega-church with a controversial pastor.

Maybe it was because I found him to be biblically/historically inaccurate.

Maybe it’s because his anger against the church reminded me of my own struggle with the church over the last several years.

Maybe it was because I was jealous of his rapping skills.

But I was looking for a fight – and the more I read about Jeff Bethke, the more I’m convinced, he was not.

I wish I would’ve appreciated Jeff’s gift to poetically raise issues in a way that could’ve gotten my own students talking about the benefits and challenges of religion like Brian Kirk did.

And I definitely wish I would’ve chosen to engage Jeff in conversation like Kevin DeYoung did.

In an Email exchange between him and DeYoung, Bethke wrote:

I just wanted to say I really appreciate your article man. It hit me hard. I’ll even be honest and say I agree 100%. God has been working with me in the last 6 months on loving Jesus AND loving his church. For the first few years of walking with Jesus (started in ’08) I had a warped/poor paradigm of the church and it didn’t build up, unify, or glorify His wife (the Bride). If I can be brutally honest I didn’t think this video would get much over a couple thousand views maybe, and because of that, my points/theology wasn’t as air-tight as I would’ve liked. If I redid the video tomorrow, I’d keep the overall message, but would articulate, elaborate, and expand on the parts where my words and delivery were chosen poorly… My prayer is my generation would represent Christ faithfully and not swing to the other spectrum….thankful for your words and more importantly thankful for your tone and fatherly like grace on me as my elder. Humbled. Blessed. Thankful for painful growth. Blessings.

Grace and Peace,


I’m not saying I was wrong in what I said, but I sure was wrong (and obnoxious) in how I said it.

I think DeYoung says it best:

A friend wrote to me yesterday and said, “This is a good test for both Jefferson and for yourself. Is he the kind of guy who would be willing to write a critic with humility? And did you write the piece in such a way that the one being criticized would feel comfortable chatting with you?” I hope we are passing that test. Through the years I haven’t always aced this kind of exam.

I sharpened my teeth alongside people who were willing to listen to and empowered my passionate words but also loved me enough to challenge me to dig deep for truth and clarity.

Shame on me for not taking the opportunity to share that love and challenge with somebody who is clearly both passionate and talented.

I’m not agreeing with everything that Jeff said in his video, and had I given him a chance to dialogue, I would’ve learned that he probably doesn’t either.

Oh if I had a dollar for every time I spoke in ways that misrepresented how I really felt… I wouldn’t need to blog anymore, that’s for sure.

For what it’s worth, Jeff, thank you for using your gifts to raise a conversation about the church in a way that gets my students both talking and listening. I believe that you have talents, gifts, and a passion that all seem to be ferociously ignited by the grace of Christ.

I’m sorry that I did not extend you that grace.

I am reminded that what makes you and I, and anybody else different can either divide us or bring us closer together. Our different views can either tear us away or bring us closer to a clearer understanding of our God.

That’s what makes religion dangerous.

And that’s what makes religion beautiful.

A Response to “Why I Hate Religion but Love Jesus”

I’ve come across this video several times this weekend, and with almost 10 million views in not even four days, I think it’s fair to say that it has gone viral:

Taking the Path Most Traveled

I appreciate those of you who have shared this with me. It’s a great conversation starter.

I have a couple of concerns though.

First of all, at points Jefferson Bathke (the poet in question) is not correct.

I contend (quite strongly) that

  • Jesus did not come to abolish religion. It’s not possible to separate “religion” from “way of life” 2,000 years ago. Religion apart from our everyday life is something that we’ve perfected, but was not the case back then. I believe Jesus came to lead us in the way we live our lives. Change it? Sure. Abolish it? That’s a stretch lie.
  • God did not call people whores. Not even “religious people.”
  • In the first two points, Mr. Bethke might be referring to those who worshipped false idols. Now if he wants to accuse many religions of worshipping false idols, now, he has my attention. But I never heard him get that far.

It’s not that I don’t think our poet raised a few good points.

I think these points are acknowledged very articulately by Nadia Bolz Weber, an ELCA pastor in Denver Colorado:

“I totally get it. I hate the way in which the church is more of a behavior modification program and a purity system than a place where we hear the truth of who God is and the truth of who we are because of who God is.

I also resent the way in which the term “Christian” has become synonomous with a conservative social agenda and exclusion of the weak the poor and the outcast (namely the people Jesus chose to hang out with)

I too reject religion that does little more than prop up an identity of sanctification and righteousness based in the successful adoption a particular affect, style, personality and way of speaking.

I too think that Jesus is about grace and being with those on the margins and the unbounded way in which God is always coming TO us.”


Concern Number Two

It sure does seem to be taking the easy way out.

Believe me, nobody has tried to do the God thing while sneaking in/out the backdoor of religion more than me. I used to introduce occupation as a “Youth Programming Consultant with Religious Undertones.” There are plenty of reasons to not be proud of the way religion (so-called religious people, so-called religious leaders) are acting/talking living.

But it’s impossible to change the system from the outside. Literally.

Do you know what we would call a group of people who agreed that religions were evil and that the only true way to live was to follow Jesus?

A religion.

I like Tony Jones’ response and I especially appreciate his definition of religion: “Religion is simply the social and psychological framework by which human beings organize their experience of the Divine.”

It just drives me nuts when someone asserts the problems of humanity as being a problem of religion.


It’s the Transitive Property all over again.

People, People, People

People start wars. People can be hypocritical. People can spend their (our) lives doing anything to avoid the real issues in life. People can be dishonest with others and with themselves. And religions are made of people.

But people can be generous. People can be loving. People can rebuild houses and feed the poor. People can advocate for those less fortunate. People can model peace. People can provide great windows into the experiencing and understanding of God. And religion can too.

Let’s talk about changing, adapting, cleansing, enhancing, healing, and empowering our religion to be more inline with what we think our Christian call is supposed to be.

And let’s encourage other leaders of other faith communities to challenge the way their religions have manifested further and further apart from the God of peace – something that we really should be able to agree upon.

But getting rid of religion? Well, aside from being grammatically and mathematically impossible… it’s just throwing the baby Jesus out with the 2,000 year-old bath water.

A closing from the much less defensive and much more articulate than me, Nadia Bolz Weber:

“I believe in Religion AND Jesus. I believe in the Gospel. I believe in the transformative, knock you on your (butt) truth of what God has done in Christ. I believe that I can only know what this following Jesus thing is about when I learn it from people I would never choose out of a catalog when we all gather together as the broken and blessed Body of Christ around the Eucharistic meal. I believe that I am the problem at least as often as I am the solution. I believe in participating in sacred traditions that have a whole lot more integrity than anything I could come up with myself. I believe I need someone else to proclaim the forgiveness of sins to me because I cannot create that for myself. I believe that Jesus is truly present in the breaking of the bread and that where 2 or more are gathered he is there. That’s religion AND Jesus. May God make us worthy of it all.”

Israel 2012 – Day Nine: The Kiss

Click Here to Link to Day One
Click Here to Link to Day Two
Click Here to Link to Day Three
Click Here to Link to Day Four
Click Here to Link to Day Five
Click Here to Link to Day Six
Click Here to Link to Day Seven
Click Here to Link to Day Eight

(A Side Note to Americans: Though it is the same day for you, it is a different day for us, so please make sure you did not skip over Day Eight: A Miracle in the Upper Room)

We were all but guaranteed that it would rain this morning – even harder than it did yesterday.

But it has not rained one big. And this morning, there was not even one cloud of the sky. It emphasizes to me: just how sporadic and unpredictable the rain can be in this region, and just how fortunate we have been with the weather this week.


We went on to The Garden Tomb. Yes, we did visit the rock of the tomb believed to be where Jesus was buried. To transition, please allow Casey Baggott:

“In 1837 American seminary professor, Edward Robinson travelled to Palestine to research and identify Biblical sites. He noted then that the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, traditionally considered to have been constructed on the site of the crucifixion and burial of Jesus, would have been inside the Roman city walls at that time. As execution and burial sites were never located within city walls, he argued that the Church of the Holy Sepulcher could not be located on the authentic site.
Some years later, British General Charles Gordon t, travelled in Palestine and noted, in 1882, a hill face outside the walls of Jerusalem that looked like a skull. (Skull in Hebrew is “Golgotha”.( Nearby he found an ancient tomb, dating to the first century, which seemed to fir the Gospel descriptions of Jesus’ tomb.
Now called the “Garden Tomb,” this site has become a popular one for visiting Protestants. We can be no more certain, however, of the site’s authenticity than we can of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.”

The Garden Tomb

I’m not trying to convince anybody of anything, please know that as I relay to you my experiences of the day.

That being said, this site LOOKED much more like what I would have expected (hoped) the tomb to look like. It is amazing to me how much of this area has been marked sacred or holy as it is covered and shrined behind rails, glass, bars, and churches.

It is a different kind of tradition in terms of preserved land than what I am used to in America. Further, it seems that in this area, there is a bit of a race to secure and build upon every holy site, before another religion/culture claims it for themselves. There is but so little space and so, so much holy history.

The site of this Garden Tomb is at the foot of Mount Golgotha (the Skull) as the Bible says Jesus tomb would be, and near what have had to have been a vineyard (olive press?) owned by a wealthy man like Joseph of Arimathea, who the Bible said used “lent” his tomb to Jesus.


Further, the foot of the mountain is at the intersections of two major roads going into Jericho and Damascus from Jerusalem. It was critical for Roman’s to crucify outside of the city and at major intersections to be able to give it as much exposure as a display of power as they possibly could.

As we walked up to the tomb, I’m sure all in our group had different perceptions of what we were seeing. There was, however, one thing we could agree on, as our tour guide reminded us:

the tomb was empty.


Just as the one in the Holy Sepulcher, we stared at at least a much more realistic inside of a tomb that was so tiny we had to crouch to enter. Christ was not in one tomb or the other.

He has risen! He has risen indeed!

We went up the steps, still on the edge of Golgotha for a closing communion worship.


Casey’s message was incredible.

I could never do it justice. I fear that as I attempt to summarize it, I would only do the message she shared less service than would serve how amazingly affective it was.

A Paraphrase of a Closing Message by Dr. Casey Baggott

Dr. Richard,Selzer, a surgeon, tells of a story in his book “Confessions of a Knife”, about a surgery he performed to remove a tumor on the cheek of a woman. He had to be very careful so to not nick one of the nerves in her face. Doing so would cause her permanent facial disfigurement.

However, in order to completely remove the tumor, Dr. Selzer did have to nick a nerve.

When the woman woke up and was handed a mirror, she immediately became very disappointed, and I’m sure, very self-conscious. I can imagine her saying “who could ever love me with a face like this?.”

With that, her husband leaned over and said, “You are still so beautiful to me.” He leaned in, further contorted his face to mirror hers, and gave his wife a kiss.

At this point in the story, we were all very moved.

Dr. Selzer stared at the ground, saying in his book, “One is not bold in an encounter with God.”

Regardless of what we think we deserve, or what those around us deserve, we are reminded that in his last supper, Christ called his disciples to go forth representing the daily bread, the living body of his spirit.


For 9 days, we have walked in the footsteps of “A Man From Galilee”. We have been walking the paths, been where miracles have been, and seen a few new ones along the way. We have studied and searched, prayed to and celebrated the living flesh, the embodiment of when God contorted God’s face and kissed us with love and presence.

No matter how badly we may feel disfigured, our God has reached out to us. Despite all the ways we have seen that humankind can be violent, destructive, and unloving, still we get that kiss.


So What Now?

On our first night, Phil expressed his intention for our trip. He wanted to experience with his five senses something that had always made sense to him, though he had only known it on paper.

Well, he has seen, heard, felt, smelt, and tasted the reality of Jesus of Nazareth.

But Casey reminded us as we took our communion together that it is now up to us to search for that Christ, that kiss from God, in two other places: ourselves, and those around us.

As for me, well, I came to find a bridge. A bridge between the old and new. A bridge between what was and what is. A bridge between ignorance and knowledge, war and peace, what Christianity IS, and what it COULD be.

And I suppose I made strides in that direction.

What I experienced though, was a bridge from who I was, to who I am called to be. I experienced a bridge from what it means to tiptoe around a calling, and dance in the light of where God has called each and every one of us.

I walked in the steps of a man that showed grace, humility, love, healing, joy, compassion, strength, discipline, and more. I will try to do the same.

But he never showed apathy, and he never made excuses. He never negotiated or qualified his calling. And I will do my best to not do that either.

When and if I ever return to this holy land, I pray that I will be with students. What joy would be found when these students cross the bridge from who they thought they were into the limitless land of who they can be.
May the footsteps, life, and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth bring peace and purpose to the next generation of pilgrims, as it has done for me.

And now, it’s time to return, not to end the trip, but to begin the next step in the journey.

But first, maybe one more falafel for the road.

A Pilgrim’s Prayer for Silent Reflection When Returning Home

Lord Jesus, your feet made the land holy when you came as a pilgrim of peace to Israel. As we have followed your septs in these past days, so may we follow them in the years ahead.
We have seen the ancient sites and the old stones of your land. Let our memories of these places provide a firm foundation for lasting faith, and may our faith rest upon you, s its cornerstone.
Write your Gospel in our hearts. Help us to proclaim its joy with our lives. Give us the frace to return now to our homes, less full of flat facts than of your buoyant love.
And may our spirits come to reflect your own, even as our words of prayer reflect your words:
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be they name. Thy kingdom come, they will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day, our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtor. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom , and the power and the glory, forever and ever. Amen.(written by Casey Baggott)

Shalom, friends.<


Israel 2012 – Day Eight: A Miracle in the Upper Room

Click Here to Link to Day One
Click Here to Link to Day Two
Click Here to Link to Day Three
Click Here to Link to Day Four
Click Here to Link to Day Five
Click Here to Link to Day Six
Click Here to Link to Day Seven

I’ve never been good at geometry or geography, but I know enough about both to know that Jerusalem is not technically the center of the world. However, long ago, in ancient times it was believed to have been indeed the center of the world, and geography and geometry aside, many people still refer to Jerusalem as the center of the (religious) world today.

And I can understand why.

The Wailing Wall


Today was very cold.

Very, very cold.

We began our day by heading into the gates of Old Jerusalem on the side of the Western Wall. For most Jews, who were not allowed to enter the site of where the Temple, the Holiest of Holies stood, the wailing wall represented the barrier at which they stopped.

With this being as close as they could get, they would stand up close to the wall and pray. And so it is to this day. 24 hours a day there are people praying at what is commonly referred to as the Wailing Wall.

There were people of all shapes, sizes and colors moving towards the wall. There was a sectioned off area for women, and another (much larger) one for the men. Trying not to judge a place and tradition so foreign to the one(s) I know, I tried to suppress the discomfort I felt with this requirement. It made being asked to wear a yarmulke as I approached the wall no big deal.


Inside the many cracks of the wall are thousands of letters stuffed tight as I’ve ever seen anything stuffed. I’m sure some of them are personal prayers and perhaps some of them are prayers of those unable to make the pilgrimage, carried to the wall by a pilgrim friend.


I certainly was very mindful of all those that asked me to pray for them or “drop them a line” as the case may be. I even learned that the state of Israel has people who watch the internet for those who type in their prayer requests so that they may go stuff their requests in the wall as well.

I thought to myself, what if I started every day as eager to pray for those I know well enough to share my trip to Israel with, but not well enough to have any other reason to pray for them daily. I may need to expand my prayer practice a bit. Even when I am not traveling half way across the world.

We then gathered and walk past a much more technical security check point with x-rays scanners and metal detectors. We were on our way to the Dome of the Rock, the third-most holy Muslim site, built on top of the ruins of the old Jewish temple.


Dome of the Rock


After Jerusalem was conquered by the Turks in the 7th century, the holy site atop the Temple Mount has been considered a Muslim territory. Since the Intifada in 2000, Christians and Jews have not been able to enter the Mosque or Dome and Bibles, Hymnals, Non-Islamic Prayer are not allowed on the grounds outside either. At 10am every morning, all non-Muslim visitors are instructed to leave so that the rituals of the Muslim day are not interfered with.

In many ways, it looked like a very holy site. The architecture, the people, the beauty.


As I looked around at all the beauty, I never had a few without several armed Israeli soldiers. Some of them were in uniform with guns hung around their chest. Some were in plain clothes with guns hung around their chest. And still even others were in plain clothes watching every move made on the premises.

There are places in the world where a scuffle could diffuse itself on its own without the world noticing. This as certainly not one of those places.

That all added to the tension that I felt, maybe that we all felt. What a shame that such a holy place for all three Abrahamic traditions Judaism, Christianity, and Islam – thus meaning, we all agree on something – has to be surrounded with such animosity.

Generations, regimes, and centuries worth of wars over the site that we were standing on now. It was perhaps the most surreal moment of my trip. Only time would tell if this land had seen it’s last battle.

I would’ve never figured something so much rock and limestone could be so fragile?

It was hard to leave. But at 10:00 am, it was necessary to leave.


On we went, to the Via Dolorosa.

Via Dolorosa

I was certainly looking forward to this. To what? Well, let’s let Casey Baggott summarize it for you.

Tradition has claimed as few and seven, and as many twenty places along the Via DOlorosa (the Way of Sorrow) to be authentic Stations of the Cross. Many Catholic Churches depict the last, painful walk of Jesus toward Calvary in fourteen paintings or sculptures adorning their sanctuaries, as a remembrance and a prompt to worshippers to reflect on their own walk with Christ. Today we will follow the traditional path of the Via Dolorosa. Let us consider how our life’s walk with Jesus Christ is influenced by his final walk.

What I didn’t realize about this walk, is that though almost every station is marked at a place of worship inside the Old City (the original, wall-surrounded, smaller, denser part of Jerusalem), this walk is not at all isolated. It leads us through the tiny, tiny streets lined with vendors on either side, clamoring, begging, and even insisting on our patronage.


As we began our walk, Bob hit the nail on the head. How true is that as we focus on the purpose and fulfillment of Jesus do we get distracted by consumerism, by greed, and by the clamoring all around us?

It was our task and try to focus. And it was not easy at all.

The streets were packed. Many others were tourists, but most were not. As we walked and reflected vendors would shout out prices and walk along side us telling us about their children and how hard it was to buy the milk that they needed.

It was all we could do to focus on the stations that Jesus passed on his way to fulfilling his purpose.

We walked along the streets, stopping as a group at each station as we took turns reading the prayer of reflection.


The Via Dolorosa Devotion Walk, written by Casey Baggott (parenthesis indicate the contemporary setting of what was the station some 2000 years ago):

1st: Jesus is Condemned to Death (near the Franciscan Biblical School)
Prayer for Reflection: Gentle One, forgive us, for we know not what we do. Foolish and stubborn, we are the sheep you came to save. Good shepherd, we follow in your steps this day, asking that you will lead us on your path, every day of our lives. Amen.

2nd: Jesus Take the Cross (near Ecco Homo Convent)
Prayer for Reflection: You picked up the burden we rightly should carry, Christ. Teach us to carry our own crosses, whatever they might be, with the same courage, stamina, and determination, as we follow you. Amen.

3rd: Jesus Falls for the First Time (near the courtyard of the Armenian Catholic Church
Prayer for Reflection: Weighed down by the great burden you carried, You stumbled and fell, Jesus. We can never take lightly the gift of Yourself, given at so great a cost. Lift us, with You, again and again. Amen.

4th: Jesus Meets His Mother, Mary (near the courtyard of the Armenian Catholic Church)
Prayer for Reflection: O Christ, your mother stood by you through your pain and your death. May we be as committed by our love to you as Mary was. Amen.

5th: Simon Helps Jesus Carry the Cross (on the road)
Prayer for Reflection: God, bleess all those who shoulder burdens not their own. Give your strength to those who give of themselves for others’ sake. Make us, like Simon of Cyrene, a willing helper of Your Son. Amen.

6th: Veronica Wipes the Face of Jesus (on the road, near the chapel of St. Veronica)
Prayer for Reflection: How many simply rushed past you, Jesus as you struggled with your heavy cross toward your death? How few were willing to stop to offer a cup of water, a towel to wash your tired face? Make us willing to stop on the busy paths of our lives to walk nearer you, Jesus. Let us offer what we can, to ease the way of those you came to love. Amen.

7th: Jesus Falls the Second Time (at a busy intersection in the old city)
Prayer for Reflection: We know our own struggles push us off balance and send us reeling. You have stumbled, too. Strengthen us when our legs give way, and we find we have no support. Help us remember you. Amen.

8th: Jesus Meets the Daughters of Jerusalem (near Aqabat el Khanga)
Prayer for Reflection: As you walked to your death Jesus, you turned to speak to the women who followed you in grief. You warned them of fire, of revolt, of violence and destruction. Teach us these lessons. As your disciples, may we work to bring only peace. Let your great kingdom come. Amen.

9th: Jesus Falls the Third Time (near the chapel of the Ethiopian monks)
Prayer for Reflection: Let us not remain mere spectators in this walk of faith. Let us, though we may be weighed down, step up to lift the load for another. May we share in this holy burden of bearing Christ’s gifts to the world. Amen.

10th: Jesus is Stripped of His Garments (The Chapel of the Divestiture, Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher)
Prayer for Reflection: How thoroughly you were stripped of your place in this world, Christ. How methodically all honor and respect was taken from you. Today may we re-clothe you in the richness of our songs of praise and in the beauty of the love we hold for you. Amen.

11th: Jesus is Nailed to the Cross (the Latin Altar, Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher)
Prayer for Reflection: Nails could not hold you at that cross, Jesus. God’s great love set you free. Let us see the marks in your hands and feet. Remind us that the love you bore for us overcomes everything that binds and constrains us. Amen.

12th: Jesus Dies Upon the Cross (at the Orthodox altar, Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher)
Prayer for Reflection: “It is finished” you said, Jesus, as you commended your spirit to God. A life of such grace and such holiness ended. And some who loved you stood near and watched. Are we willing to stand near you, even when admitting our love of you is tiresome, dangerous, or troublesome? Make us your loyal followers. Amen.

13th: The Body is Taken From the Cross (at the place of the red stone and the mosaic depiction, the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher)
Prayer for Reflection: Those who cared for you came to take you away, and laid you in a borrowed grave, Jesus. You had nothing to call your own, not even your own tomb. How dark it must have been when the tomb was sealed. But your light came into the darkness, and the darkness could not overcome it! Help us perceive the brilliance of your love, lighting the paths before us, Amen.

14th: Jesus Rises to New Life (under the altar in the second chamber, Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher)
Prayer for Reflection: No tomb contains the Love of God. No pall shadows the Light of Life. He is risen! He is risen, indeed! Hallelujah! The whole earth is full of his glory! Amen.


We all met outside the Basilica of the Holy Sepulcher at noon as the bells of the churches tolled loudly in the courtyard drowning out (perhaps intentionally?) the Islamic call to Prayer being played in this city. Never a dull moment in this place…


Garden of Gethsemane

After lunch, it began to rain. It was so bitter cold and windy by the time we reached the top of the Mount of Olives, we were certain we felt a little bit of sleet/snow/slush that was no longer just rain.

We descended down the mountain, looking out over the walk that takes the step of Jesus’ Palm Sunday Processional (it was way too slick and rainy for that!) and went to the Garden of Gethsemane.


“Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane; and he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” He took with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be grieved and agitated. Then he said to them, “I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” And going a little farther, he threw himself on the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me; yet not what I want but what you want.” Then he came to the disciples and found them sleeping; and he said to Peter, “So, could you not stay awake with me one hour?” (Matthew 26:36-40)
At the foot of the Mount of Olives is the area known as the Garden of Gethsemane (from the Hebrew word for oil-press). Here Jesus, after eating the Last Supper with his disciples, is said to have experienced the agony of solitary, searching prayer, shortly before his arrest. Today the splendid Church of All Nations commemorates this lonely event with a building that draws people from across the globe. (Who Else? Casey Baggot)

The Church is very dark, very little lighting illuminates the building purposely acknowledging the darkness, literally and otherwise of the betrayal in this garden.

For the first time in Bob’s 23 trips to Israel, we were permitted on the altar to gather around the Stone of Agony to sing a hymn and pray. The church was empty.


Yet another part of our trip perfectly on cue, at our last verse, the church began to fill up again, and we were on our way back to the bus.

First, we walked through the garden of olive trees much bigger than any other we had seen. Some of these trees were dated to be at least 2,000 years old. Could they have provided the canopy for our savior as he searched above and within for answers and strength? Either way, they couldn’t have been too far away.


If I remember correctly about trees, perhaps the carbon dioxide, the breath of the man who changed the world helped develop and sustain these trees. Though their was wind and icy rain, I certainly felt renewed by the breath of the spirit as well.

To Hell and Back

We stopped near Mount Zion to look out over the city again. As we did so, Ronen explained alot about the city walls that we could see and what had been revealed in excavations.

After that, Casey pointed out to an area called Gehenna. Gehenna was the first word in the Bible to later be translated into the word “hell”. It was a valley just outside the Jerusalem walls where trash used to be dumped and there are even references to fire sweeping through to destroy anything in Gehenna. Thus, when it was threatened that someone would be thrown into the fires of Gehenna (now translated “the fires of hell” this valley was what they were referring to.


Many people have told me that I was going to go to hell…

Jokes on them. Cuz I’ve been. And I’m back, baby!

A Miracle in the Upper Room

“Down a narrow alley, past arched doorways, up a flight of steps we come to an open room with a magnificent heritage. Though this room was constructed by the Franciscans in the the 14th century, it is said to stand on the site of the original Upper Room where Jesus gathered his disciples for the Last Supper.” (CB)

It was almost too cold and rainy to get off the bus, but because our forecast for tomorrow looks about the same we pressed on.


This was what I always expected to be the highlight of my trip.

You see, Maundy Thursday is my favorite Christian Holiday. I enjoy Easter, I do, please don’t get me wrong.

But for me, Jesus’ fulfillment of his calling begins on Maundy Thursday when faced with one last opportunity to take the way that nobody could’ve blamed him for taking, Jesus gathers his friends and tells them, to their surprise, I’m sure, that he must complete the task he’d been sent to do.

It’s one thing to plan to leave, I’d imagine it’s much harder to leave when you see the devastated faces of your twelve best friends.

My mentor, Drew, and I have a tradition. Every Maundy Thursday we call each other and talk for sometimes hours about Jesus choice. The humility he showed in the face of those mocking him and spitting at him. The grace he showed in praying for their forgiveness. And the courage shown, choosing the path of most resistance, because love… had… to… win.

Drew has given me so much of who I am today. And I would give the world to him in return. When I told him I was coming to Israel, I told him I would go wherever to get whatever he wanted. “Just soak it in, brother.” he told me. “But there is one thing. Now, I don’t want you to deface anything, but if there is anything, ANYTHING – a rock, a stone, a pebble – in the Upper Room, I would cherish something that has been in that spot.”

I had one mission to fulfill my entire trip, and there was only one person on my heart as we entered the Upper Room.

There must’ve been about 50 people in the room with us, two or three other tour groups. The echo was so loud it was hard to make sense of anything. As my group sat down to read our devotions, I continued to scour the room.

There was nothing.

Though there who two cats in the room that had straggled in to save themselves from the cold, they seemed indifferent to my search.

That’s cats for ya, eh?

I ran my fingers over the floor. In the low light of the room, it was hard to differentiate between what could be pebbles and what actually were dust bunnies.

My heart began to race, I could NOT go home empty-handed. It’s the one thing he asked me for! I needed something. ANYTHING.

As the rest of the groups had cleared out, our group began to sing hymns from our devotion book. Not me, though. I kept searching. Having scoured the floor, I ran my fingers along the edge of the floor and the back wall, hoping for a miracle.

I kid you not, as I ran my finger no more than four feet, all of a sudden, a stone of the edging at the bottom rolled loose. I had used only my index finger (tip, not nail) to make sure that I would not scratch or scuff, this rock had been waiting to roll loose.

I felt such joy! “Wouldn’t it be cool to have one for both of us?” I wondered. I looked within the area I found my rock, and saw/felt nothing more. I reminded myself that the most important part was done, and put the rock in my pocket and headed back to our group. Would I call that a miracle? (Sigh)… Probably not.

As I joined our group, I proudly leaned back, and put my hands in my pocket. Apparently I put my hands in a little too roughly as the rock broke off into two pieces! How’d that happen? One for each of us! Too Cool!


Would I call that a miracle? (Sigh)… Prolly not.

We had the whole room to ourselves, and as long as that was the case, Bob was going to keep calling out hymns.

We wondered if he was pushing it a bit, going back to his Baptist roots with “Softly and Tenderly”:

Softly and Tenderly, Jesus is Calling
Calling for you, and for me.
See on the portals he’s waiting and watching
Watching for you, and for me.

Come home, Come home.
All who are weary, come home.
Earnestly, tenderly, Jesus is calling
Calling, “O, sinner, come home.”

Apparently, we had pushed it just a bit too far, as one verse into the song, a large group entered in.

Bob was determined, though, to finish the song, and so we sang the last two verses with him. When we finished, I could’ve sworn Casey had tears in her eyes. Apparently, she looked over and saw the group in the front of the room singing along with us.

I looked over at the group that I later learn would be mostly Indonesians. “Really?” I asked. “I think so.” she said. That’s what it looked like to me.

And then, all doubt was removed.

The crowd began making a noise. In the strong echo of the room, we struggled to make out their sounds. Their words were definitely not English words. Yet, the melody they sang rang in a universal key.

They too, were singing “Softly and Tenderly”, so we joined in with them to sing one final verse together, each in our own language.


We began the day in the cold, icy rain, and the cold icy reality of knowing that we were visitors in an unfamiliar land. We ended our day being reminded of how Great and Big our God really is. Not in the sense that he is only “ours”, but rather, in the sense that though the world is so big we may never see our choirmates again, God is not mine, or theirs, God is ours.

What a better cure for a frigid day than joining in song from others around the world, in the room where Christ called his disciples to continue on, each as if bread broken from his one body, basking in the warmth of God’s love

Would I call that a miracle?


Yeah, I would.

Perhaps it’s even just a relatively small one.

But when God reveals God’s face in a miracle, big or small, I don’t think it really matters.

Shalom until tommorow, friends.

Click Here to Link to Day Nine

Israel 2012 – Day Seven: Once in Royal David City…

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Click Here to Link to Day Two
Click Here to Link to Day Three
Click Here to Link to Day Four
Click Here to Link to Day Five
Click Here to Link to Day Six

I began today as a tourist, shopping, supporting the Bethlehem Christian community. I felt the rush that we all feel as we purchase and receive, what control!

I was quickly humbled by the reminder that there is so much outside of my grasp that I have no idea how to control.

Once in Royal David’s City


The scenery into Bethlehem (“house of bread”) from Jerusalem reminded me of how the scene change must’ve been for the same rout 2000 years ago. Bethlehem looked much… poorer, weaker, more humble? Perhaps. Compared to the largest city in Israel, it didn’t seem desolate, but definately outmatched in terms of resources.

2000 years later, it’s still a humble town.

Bethlehem is in Palestinian occupied territory and we needed to drive through security to get there. We were told we may need our passports to get back in when we return to Jerusalem. With an economy based almost completely on tourism, the Christian population of Bethlehem (roughly 40%) were happy to see us arrive in our luxurious tour bus.

After making a shopping stop, we headed to the Dheisheh (pronounced De HAY shuh) Refugee Camp.

When we arrived in a neighborhood with graffiti walls and trash all over we were lead off the bus into the gates of the camp. We did not see what we were expecting.


Instead of tents we saw apartments (they looked like multi-story barracks to me). Instead of people working fields, we saw almost no bare grass at all. We didn’t see fencing surrounding the camp, instead there was a wall whose gate, at least for the time being, was left open.

We were met by Ishril, a 22 year-old man who was born inside the camp. As he led us inside the center of the camp, I decided that these conditions were actually worse than I might’ve expected.


Ishril sat us down in a room full of “trinkets” that the women of the camp made to sell. He explained to us that in 1948, Palestinians were forced out of their homes with force by the Israelis. For one year the refugees camped outside the border, unwilling to just give up and walk away from their home land that had been taken from them.

One year later, in 1949 the United Nations brought in tents for them to sleep under and the refugees remained steadfast that someday soon, their help would come and they would be allowed to return home.


Some seven to eight years later, the U.N. began to help construct housing “apartments” that despite their small size, are still shared between several families.

Today, despite two U.N. Resolutions stating that the Palestinians be allowed to return home, they are forbidden to do so.


Some 13,000 residents of the camp live in a walled-in area roughly 1.5 square kilometers.

There is one doctor.

There are 20 teachers that share two schools (one meets in the morning, and one in the afternoon) because there is not enough space for the 3500 kids in the camp to attend at the same time. None of the 20 teachers are qualified as we would define it which is just as well because nobody in the camp can afford to pay for any type of what we would call “quality” education.

The majority of the camp has water and electricity, although it is more expensive because they have to pay the Palestinian authorities who have to pay the Israelis for the water.

Two times a week the Israeli army comes into the camp. Sometimes to make patrol or make arrests, and sometimes to train.

Ishril told us a story about when he and his friend were coming back through the checkpoint and three Israeli soldiers asked to see his ID. His friend showed his first. Realizing that they were born in the camp, the Israeli soldiers decided to “play a little game.” They wrote on a few pieces of paper and folded it up.

Ihsril’s friend picked the one that said “Break his arm.” Two of the soldiers grabbed his friend from either side while the third feigned pistol whipping his arm. All three soldiers laughed at how frightened he’d become.

When you face that type of treatment in that type of environment, Ishril pleaded, there are only three ways a young person can react.

1) They can become psychologically broken and give up aspirations, dreams, potential, and confidence.
2) They can become defiant and even violent. He talked about the kids who throw rocks. Even those who wake up in the middle of the night to go outside to throw rocks. “It’s not what they make it seem on TV, please know that,” he warned. Or
3) They can educate themselves and others to try to work towards a solution.

This very sweet, articulate, caring young man was quite honest about his trust in those leaders and officials that claim they want peace and equality. Since 1948 his family has been kept from their homes and even some 65 years later, there is no hope for anything different in the near future. Thus, despite all the talking, there wasn’t much trust to be had.

I was overwhelmed by what I had heard. We stood to follow him out the door for a tour of the camp.

It grew hard to hear him, though.

We had to stay in a narrower, deep pack because there was not a wide space between the housing and the wall. It grew harder and harder to hear Ishril, but frankly, I didn’t really know how much I could hear.

I became so angry, I could kick the wall.

I thought of what I would write to explain the situation or my feelings.

It is not my intention to advocate for a certain political view or even religious culture. I know far too little about politics AND religion. I’m not even able to offer a solution. The closer I get to understanding the conflict in this region, the more I understand how little I know.

As the thoughts raced through my mind, I hear a polite, “Hello, excuse me please.”

A man with his daughter by the hand was trying to walk through us to get wherever they were going. I shook my head. It’s just not fair. It’s just not fair for that little girl to know what she already knows and see what she’s already seen. It’s just not fair for that father because I KNOW he wants something different for her than what he has and had. It’s just not fair.

I choked back tears in some mix between grief, shock, and anger. What I was feeling wasn’t political. It wasn’t religious. It was human.

The kids began to come out of area. 6 to 8 of them. They came up to us playfully almost like dolphins in the sea approaching the boat of spectators. They seemed happy, joyful, and certainly not shy.

They tickled each other, posed for our pictures, and kept saying in broken, high-pitched English, “Hello. Hello. Hello!”, hoping that everybody in our group would acknowledge them.

Once our group started heading back towards the bus, I stayed back to compose myself. These kids, so happy now, have such an uphill battle to climb. I wondered if the climb is even possible.

As I went to catch up to the group, a pack of boys began to run along side my fast walking steps.

“What’s your name?” One boy asked boldly. I turned around and stopped. Abruptly as they could, the five boys stopped too.

I laughed but I’m not sure why. Maybe it was that I was surprised at his English. Maybe I was touched by his courage, his spunk. He sure was cute.

“My name is Neal.”

He looked at me like I just said supercalifragilisticexpialodocious.

This time it was much more confused. “What’s your name?”

“Ne-Uhl” I said very slowly, with a smile.

He repeated it over and over, each time with a little less help from me, until he had it.

“What’s your name?” I asked slowly. He looked almost panicked. This conversation turned to a part of English he was not prepared for. He turned to the tallest boy behind him who told him something in Arabic. Immediately, he looked relieved and regained his confidence.

“My name is Mohommed.” he told me proudly.

Mohommed is a name that scares many Americans. Mohommed is also the psuedonym many of us use when we’re using jokes or slurs.

This Mohommed was not a threat. This Mohommed was not a terrorist. This Mohommed was an eight year-old boy.

Each time I went to talk to Mohommed, it became a little more impossible to make a sound with my choked back tears. I made sure on my way out I made sure to hug Ishril goodbye.

Bob told me to hang back and take my time.

Bob gets me.

I turned back to the boys again. Ishrim – one of Mohommed’s friends – and I exchanged pleasantries as well.

I asked, “How old are you, Mohammed?”

It was like I threw him the hanging curveball he’d been hoping for.

“I am eight.” he said.

“I am twenty eight.” I showed him with my hands. God, I miss when my age and my hands made easier sense.

He repeated again, as if he was trying to memorize it.

Bob came up to talk with us for a few moments too.

Ya know, it wasn’t the most complicated conversation that I had today. It might not have even been the most interesting. All we did really, was try to memorize each other’s names. (“Bob” made much more sense to their tongues than “Neal.”)

But it will forever be the most memorable conversation I had in all of Israel.

As I turned to get back on the bus as the kids chased after me, (“Please one money, one money, please!”) I couldn’t hold back the tears.

Phil was there, he got pictures of the whole conversation. There’s a great picture of us old boys talking with those young boys, laughing and goofing.

I can’t show you any of the pictures though, Phil has pretty strict standards about posting pictures of kids on the internet without parental permission.

You may still get to see that picture though. It will be framed on my wall, and I will look at it every time I think of how fortunate and lucky I am to be where I am with who I am with. I will often look at it and pray for justice, and peace, safety and deliverance from evil. And when I do, I will be sure to pray for Mohommed too.


The Cave of the Nativity

There is no transition from my conversation with Mohammed to our visit at the Cave of the Nativity. And in our day, there was no transition either. He was all I thought about even as I exited the bus up to the church (now, churches) built on top of the cave (stable) and exact spot where it is believed Jesus was born.


Standing in line, I bought a few candles to burn in prayer inside the church. This whole time I have been praying for me and my loved ones, but I knew exactly who I would be praying for this afternoon.

I lit the candle and said my prayers not just for the ones I love, but for Mohommed and the ones that he loves too.


My heart began to open up to the similarities between one strong little boy born with nothing, in the middle of near obscurity, with a steep hill to climb.

We climbed practically moving from a line 10 people wide, narrowing into a single file line as we climbed into the cave where the nativity took place.


During my descent into the cave, it hit me. Yes, God does small miracles in small ways. But, staring at the manger, I felt a sense of peace. In the tinyest, darkest of places, God, can, and does, BIG miracles against BIG odds, too! Thanks be to God.


Our group huddled together in the corner of the cave, had a prayer, and sang Silent Night. I will never forget it. In all the ways God gives us birth, rebirth, new life, and life renewed, I am truly humble and thankful.


The Nativity Cave was not what I expected, it was better, and just what I needed.

We went downstairs into through the catholic church into the caves where St Jerome, against the will of many religious authorities, translated the Scriptures from Hebrew to Latin.


I guess writers cramp is a small price to pay for the good of the people, eh?

From there we had lunch and headed to the shepherds fields.

Shepherds Fields

It’s not really possible to top the Cave of the Nativity, but we found a good way to wash it down for the day!

Near the Boaz fields (as in Boaz, Ruth’s husband) were the fields many believe hosted the Angel’s proclamation that Jesus had been born!


We walked past the fields where the Shepherds were watching their flock and most likely sleeping right beside them (in this cold weather, I am easily reminded of how nice if not necessary it would be to snuggle up with some extra wool) into a chapel on a hill. Noting the incredible acoustics and the fact that we were miraculously alone, we circled around the chapel and sand “O Come All Ye Faithful” and “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear”. Noting our intonation, it occurs that we still have reason to believe in miracles after all.


After that, we headed towards the cave where the first church was on these fields. In almost near darkness but complete stillness we read the Angel’s proclamation (“And in that region there were shepherds watching over their flock by night…” Luke 2:8-17).

Casey reminded us: perhaps these humble shepherds, so willing to drop what they were doing to see what had happened in Bethlehem. Or perhaps, the call was not just for them, yet, they were the only ones who were able to hear it. So many times in our lives we are busy, cluttered even. May we be able to break away from the binds of stress and that which is not as important or urgent as it seems to be able to see, experience, and revel in, what God is doing now!


Amen, right?

Our Way Back

On our way back in to Jerusalem, we stopped at the checkpoint where two young men in fatigues boarded the bus. The one who walked past me with an automatic weapon hanging from his neck could not have been anywhere close to my age (28). He said, “hello, how are you doing?” as he smiled, assuring us that we had nothing to worry about. In that strange setting, I think many of us felt safe and secure.

I immediately thought of Mohommed. Would he have felt the same way? Would he have gotten a smile and a wave?

I’m Just Thinking

It’s been harder for me to sleep at night, and I suspect it has been for many of us. For me, I think it’s the anxiety.

Half of it is the anxiety behind knowing that my time here is almost over. Half of it is because of the cultural climate, intensity, and tension of this city.

I wonder how Jesus felt during his last time in Jerusalem because certainly both were true for him.
I do calm down when I remember and embrace the home that I am going home to. Did Jesus do the same?

Though so much has changed in 2000 years, I feel very much a part of the emotional terrain of the holy land, then and now.

And speaking of emotion in the holy land, on to the culmination.

Tomorrow is the biggie.

We will head into the Old City (of Jerusalem), visit the Dome, the 3rd most holy Islamic site, then head off to Via Dolorosa (The Way of the Cross), The Garden of Gethsemane, and The Upper Room.


Friends and Family, please know that as we experience the emotions of these final days we bear you in our hearts and prayers and give thanks for you.

Shalom until tomorrow.

A Prayer for Mohommed

Faithful, Everlasting God, you have reminded us time and time again of your ability to do huge things in tiny places, to do grandiose miracles amidst meager circumstances. None are as big of a reminder as that tiny baby Jesus in that tiny cave, in that tiny town, two thousand years ago. May you continue to remind me, and the adults of this world, that it is not our might that conquers, but your love. In the midst of steep climbs and odds that seem insurmountable, grant us the humility and courage to rely on you and claim you, and your miracles. Keep us ever attentive to when our arms, feet, shoulders, or time, will be needed in bringing that miracle to light. May we come running to your call as quickly as the shepherds did, and may we be willing to leave behind whatever we thought we knew as quickly as they did two thousand years ago.

For a boy that right now knows no better than to smile, may you give him confidence and courage to smile, love, and persevere. Will you give him the comfort when he begins to look up that mountain he has to hike. Will you give him patience when he realizes that education is not at all the easy way out. When he feels afraid and abandoned I pray that you will comfort and shelter him. Will you inspire in his giant-sized heart, the power to bear your love to others around him.

And God, when he feels abandoned, as if the rest of the world has forgotten about him, please, let me be living my life in such a way, where he isn’t right.


Click Here to Link to Day Eight
Click Here to Link to Day Nine

Israel 2012 – Day Six: A Great Shift Has Taken Place

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Click Here to Link to Day Two
Click Here to Link to Day Three
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Click Here to Link to Day Five


Day Six deserves a hundred thousand words, but because a picture is good for a thousand, we’re going to let them do most of the talking today. I am short on energy, thus short on ability to completely process the powerful events of the day.

It was a day of highs and lows. Elevations, that is.

Beginning with Masada.

When I saw Masada on the itinerary several days ago, I glazed over it. I suppose that as Neal-Centric as it sounds, it did not interest me. It wasn’t in my Bible, and it had nothing to do with me or my faith/religion. Today I am reminded that God speaks to us through our scriptures, our histories, and the land all among us; and God is still speaking.

Masada has a lot to do with me, my faith, and my God.

A Preparation from Casey Baggott:

“Atop a rugged hill stood an ancient fortification of Herod the Great. Roman soldiers took posession of the site. After the fall of Jerusalem in 70 AD, Israelite Zealots took the fortification from the Romans and held it for three years against their mighty was machine. All but a handful of the 967 Zealots committed suicide just as the Romans overwhelmed the fortification. They died rather than submit to slavery and Roman rule. Centuries later, “Masada shall never fall again” was the cry of modern Israeli army recruits as they completed graduation ceremonies atop Masada. The ruins stand as a symbol for defiance against one’s foes.

PRAYER: Lord God of Ages, our hearts and wills are stirred by the courage of those who have gone before us and have blazed a trail of valor and devotion. May our own weaknesses be overcome. May we courageously seek to resist evil, pursue justice, and love mercy. As Christ’s followers in this time and place, let us find fitting ways to offer our own witness to the greatness of God, Amen.”


Masada is identified by Flavius Josephus to be where Herod the Great built a fortress in the event that he would need to escape to safety. Atop a mountain that by my estimations is a bajillion feet tall, it could be one of the most impressive things I have ever seen. It had the luxury and technology beyond what I would’ve ever imagined to be possible with spas and bath houses, and the ability to store enough water to last for incredible periods of time.

Though you could see for miles and miles in any direction what scene stuck out the most was the scene right at the bottom of the mountain. Outside a stone fence representing the siege wall put up by the Romans, were eight different squares representing the surroundings of the Roman camps. In essence, these men and women, boys and girls, lived their every day fully aware of who was just outside their “window” preparing and working to come and kill them.

Not to degrade my first-world problems, but at that point I realize that I live in a way where my conviction of faith, conviction of self, and conviction of God are subject to a matter of convenience. I was deeply moved by the memory of a group of people who lived out the convictions of all three every day of their lives.

As we looked down the mountain we saw college-aged Jews climbing up the mountain. They had been climbing for over an hour to reach the top. We learned that they were part of a program referred to as “Birth Right” where young Jews from around the world are brought to Israel (at no cost to them) to come for somewhere around two weeks to experience the holy land.


Ronen says that when we come back with college students, we’ll hike up the mountain to see the sunrise. Then, hike back down to go miles into the desert to camp out in tents for the night like they might’ve done 2000 years ago.

Ronen’s the man.

Anyway, we were all uniting atop this mountain to experience the fervor, dedication, and brilliance of the zealots reclamation of Herod’s palace. However, every time we looked over the edge, we were reminded of the looming danger they fought against for three years.

They zealots inside the fortress could never take for granted the threats they faced on a daily basis. While we were atop Masada, an Israeli Army plane thundered through the sky, reminding me that even still, the threats that these Jews face are not taken for granted.

We walked into the synagogue (though very much of a Roman in lifestyle, Herod also tried to establish his Jewish roots to demonstrate to the people) where the community would gather. It was here where the decision was made that it would better to die by their own hands then live at the hands of the Romans.

It is known that ten men were selected to kill the rest of the community (because suicide was a sin for the Jews). Then, one man would kill the other nine, set flame to Masada and throw himself off the cliff.

When the people of Israel say “Masada shall never fall again.” It is speaking of much than just the one time event. It is a call to remember those that gave their lives refusing to give up what they believed and a call to be invested in our lives so that we never let it slip away again.

I know, sometimes, I’m prone to feel like periods of my life – hours, days, weeks – have slipped away.

Masada has a lot to do with us, I think.



From there we went to the caves of Qumran. Dry, arid, and sandy, Ronen told us that because the height of the mountains, the rain clouds would hardly ever make it to where we were standing. However, during the three of four days a year it might rain, it would be enough to create flash floods rolling down the mountain in the body of what was a dry river bed just hours ago. This rainwater would be stored in cisterns and last until the next year’s rain.


To give us a bit about Qumran, as Bob would say as he introduces Ronan every morning: here she is, you know her, you love her, Casey Baggott.

“The archaeological site which preserves the remains of the village of Qumran sits where the rough and rugged terrain of the Judean wilderness overlooks the northwestern shores of the Dead Sea. Qumran appears to have been settled by a religious community of dedicated Jews called “Essenes.” The Essenes awaited the coming Messiah, while zealously devoting themselves to a lifestyle of strict religious observance which included voluntary poverty, abstinence from worldly pleasures, focus on ritual purity, study, renunciation of marriage, and daily baptisms. Some have speculated that John the Baptist was influenced by the Essenes.

The Essenes occupied this site from around 200 BC until around 68 AD when it was destroyed by the Romans. The Essenes apparently hid their treasured library of scrolls in caves in the vicinity shortly before the community was destroyed. The first scrolls were discovered in 1947 by a Bedouin shepherd.

The scrolls of Qumran offer the oldest existing biblical manuscripts for some of the books of the Old Testament. The “Shine of the Book” in Jerusalem currently houses the scrolls.”

Talk about a needle in the hay stack! I had always assumed the discovery of Qumran to be some sort of accidental finding. After looking at all the caves, mountains, rocks, and sand that seem to span out endlessly in a region that is consistently well about 100 degrees with no visible sources of fresh water, here’s my conclusion: that discovery is nothing short of a miracle!


I found it especially fascinating that though these scripts are 2000 years ago, they are still easy to read much like the Hebrew Biblical writing of today.

Not only is God still speaking, but when God speaks, it is ofter as clear as the sky above the beautiful Dead Sea.

The Samaritan’s Walk

After lunch, we went into the gift shop and I finally did it. I broke down and started shopping for my soon-arriving baby girl – God help me, it’s a lifetime of spending ahead!

The surprise of the day came when our driver Saher, was willing to drive us down the mountainous, thin, curvy, steep road between Jericho and Jerusalem.

(For those of you following at home, every time we see the word Jericho, Bob makes Saher play us “Joshua Fought the Battle Of Jericho” on his (Saher’s) ipod through the bus speakers. I always see God in the way Saher, a Christian, smiles proudly and sings along to his Christian Playlist.)

(And yes, I mean EVERY time, we saw the work Jericho, I can sing that song in three languages in my sleep at this point!)

You see, with any precipitation, the road down to the Wadi Quelt becomes slippery and very dangerous. I am not exaggerating when I say that several of us on the bus felt like the bus was going to roll off the cliff from these narrow, windy roads.

But we’re all glad we took this spontaneous excursion, here’s why:


The St George Orthodox Monastery in Wadi Qelt was founded in the late 5th century by John of Thebes, a hermit from Egypt.The Monastery was destroyed by Persians in 614 when they swept through the valley. The bones and skulls of the martyred monks killed by the Persians can still be seen today in the monastery chapel. In 1878, a Greek monk, Kalinkos settled here and restored the monastery in 1901.
The Monastery is currently inhabited by Greek Orthodox monks. It is reached by a pedestrian bridge across the Wadi Qelt, which many imagine to be Psalm 23′s “valley of death.” The Wadi Qelt valley parallels the old Roman road to Jericho, the backdrop for the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:29-38)

PRAYER: Even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, O God, we fear no evil, for you are with us. No terrain is too rugged and no circumstance is too dire to keep us from your care. We are grateful for humble, committed, faithful people who have, by their lives, shown us reliance upon you in all times and places is possible. Amen. – Casey Baggott (WHO ELSE?!)

We parked the bus when it was no longer possible for a bus to continue the path, and were greeted by Bedouins who physically did everything they could to first buy fruit and other things from them, and then as I struggled past them to continue down the path, they begged me to make the trip easier and use their donkey (for a fee).

I would’ve used the donkey too! That walk was so hard, even on the way down my legs shook with every step as I tried to stabilize myself. The only thing keeping me from riding the donkey wasn’t that I couldn’t afford it financially. Rather, my 84 year-old friend Lincoln, was huffing and puffing ahead of me and there’s no way I could’ve afford to let him see me ride past him; oh the (donkey) crap I would’ve gotten from him!


Eventually we arrived at the monastery. Hours earlier we began our day in a place of violence, invasion, and destruction. A fortress for battle.

And now we stood at a palace of peace, serenity, and solitude. A fortress for faith.

We soaked in the rich symbolism all around us. The calm still walls, and the clarity in the art and icons on every wall in every room.


Some of us even lit candles as we said a prayer for those we love.


With all the beauty and tranquility, it was a hard place to leave.

Plus, it was one really, really, long hike back to the bus.

Lincoln is an animal!


Change Gonna Come

And then it was onward to Jerusalem.

Now, speaking of Jerusalem, there’s a song “Holy City”, though you probably know it better by the chorus where the singer leads “JERUSALEM, JJJJEEERRUUUSALEM!”. Sound familiar.

It happens to be a song that my wife finds very moving. She talks about it from time to time and claims that just thinking about her gives her goose bumps. I had no feeling about the song, personally, but I would always say I wasn’t impressed, just to get a rise out of my wife. (The truth comes out in the holy city…)

I digress….

Though we hadn’t arrived yet, we had already begun to notice a shift. The people were a little less friendly, it was much more crowded, almost in a way that seemed to rush, and the topography seemed to be much more dry and sandy.

Well, as we finally began to head towards the city, the shift was clear. We went from 1200 feet below sea level, to 2400 feet above sea level. The weather had shifted 20 degrees cooler. But in other ways than just the temperature, the air seemed different.

As we cleared a security check point, Saher reached down at his ipod. We headed through a tunnel. I recognized the song to be “Holy City.” I realized the flutters in my stomach as I anxiously waited the city that for so many thousands of years was thought to be the center of the world.

I had goosebumps.

After a minute we exited the tunnel heading on an incline and to our left was the holy city. At that exact moment, I kid you not, the soloists exclaimed “Jerusalem, JERUSALEM!”

And it’s a good thing, because I had almost made it through the day without a tear in my eye. Not anymore though.

What a beautiful song. The sun had all but set as we pulled the bus over, allowed the song to finish, and stepped out for a brief, unphotographed moment to see the city and breath the air.

There were horns honking constantly, traffic backed up for blocks. There were the rumbles of a city, the hustle and bustle of unfamiliar crowds.

From the land of Galilee to the holy city of Jerusalem; it was a little bit exciting, and a little bit scary.

In that moment, I felt very connected to Jesus of Nazareth.

More to Come

It is sure to be a few very emotional days ahead.

Tomorrow we go to Bethlehem, and possibly even the Garden of Gethsemane.

It is a lot to process today, and a lot to adjust to as we go from where Jesus lived as a boy and grew as a man, to where Jesus rode like a prince, and died as a savior.

Until Tomorrow, Shalom.

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Israel 2012 – Day Five Part: Leaving One Paradise…

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From Galilee to the Dead Sea, birds to humans, today was a day of healing and rejuvenation.

Today was our last day in Galilee. I woke up with that feeling in the pit of my stomach similar to what I always felt on the last day of camp – afraid to leave, afraid to lose the experience. I can only imagine how I will feel when it’s time to leave Jerusalem.

After breakfast, we left to go to out behind our hotel down to the Sea of Galilee. We boarded a boat and headed out to the middle.


Our readings:

“On that day, when evening had come, he said to them, “Let us go across to the other side.” And leaving the crowd behind, they took him with them in the boat, just as he was. Other boats were with him. A great windstorm arose, and the waves beat into the boat so that the boat was already being swamped. But he was in the stern, asleep on the cushion; and they woke him up and said to him, “Teacher, do you not care that we are perishing?” He woke up and rebuked the wind, and said to the sea, “Peace! Be still!” Then the wind ceased, and there was a dead calm. He said to them, “Why are you afraid? Have you still no faith?” And they were filled with great awe and said to one another, “Who then is this, that even the wind and the sea obey him?”” Mark 4:35-41

“The Sea of Galilee is the only significant body of fresh water in the Middle East. The ancient people of this region had no word to distinguish between a lake and a sea. They called these waters, only thirteen miles by eight miles in size, Kinneret, or Genessaret, or the Sea of Tiberias.
Then and now, powerful storms spring up suddenly on this Sea, as winds blow violently down the gorges, causing deep waves. Yet we are told that Jesus had the capacity to still the wild and chaotic winds and calm the waters. He simply spoke the words: “Peace! Be Still!” Hear those words today in the whisper of the breeze, the cries of the shore birds, the lap of the water on the boat’s hull.” – Casey Baggott


The sea was so flat and peaceful. We could look out at all of Galilee, we could see most’ve where we have been over the last four days.


Is There a Doctor on the Boat?

We moved around the sea for a few minutes until the captain announced we were going to be delayed for a few minutes. A small distance from the boat was a small mass of white, what we realized were two seagulls tied up in fishing lines and multiple hooks, so tight together like puzzle pieces, one of them was face up on his back.

The captain explained they (the crew) were going to do what they could to help the birds.

It reminded me of the parable of the Good Samaritan. These guys had every opportunity to say to themselves, “There will be other boats coming through that will be able to help these birds.” because there would have been,” Bob said moments later in his sermon. “Or they could’ve said, “There are plenty of birds near the sea” because there were.”


But they didn’t. And the rescue began.

For what seemed like an eternity, the crew worked to circle the boat near the birds and bring them in to the boat using a net, a pole, and a bucket.

It seemed like a doubled eternity while the team of bird doctors (not really, but they did stay at a Holiday Inn Express last night) worked together to clip the wire that had wrapped itself around the birds several times.

On and on they worked as our crew gathered around and watched.

Christians, Muslims, and Jews, praying for a miracle. I felt God’s smile.


We could see it too.

On cue, the sun burst through the clouds in a way that only a picture could describe.


As they clipped the last of the wires I realized that the fact that the sea was calm enough to remain still may have been a miracle in and of itself.

Eventually, they launched on freed bird back into the sea. He flapped his wings long enough to show his appreciation. I felt God smile again, and we were smiling too.


The other bird didn’t seem to be as fortunate as he landed back in the sea unable to turn over on his stomach. We were all a little sad. I decided that that bird was on his way closer to God, and in many ways, in the middle of the Sea of Galilee, so was I.

We got off the boat just a mile and a half away from Magdela and visited a museum run by Messianic Jews (People who recognize Jesus as messiah but keep their practices with the Jewish traditions of Jesus) where they showed the preservations of a boat dated to have been 2,000 years old.


This boat would have been on of the rarer boats of the time, as it was bigger than most could’ve afforded. The odds are that Jesus was either on that boat, one like it, or certainly knew the owner of that boat.

Get On the Bus

So now we’re on a bus driving some two hours south along the Jordanian border toward Jerusalem, into a much dryer, rockier geography, and a terser more intense social climate. Today we go to the Dead Sea and Jericho


I watch the West Bank, the Mountains of Samaria turn from grassy and rocky to complete sand and rock. A shift is underway for our group.


I think of Jesus’ life in Galilee. And I think of how it shifted when he got to Jerusalem. In a different way, our time in Galilee has been necessary to transition us into what will happen in Jerusalem.

Even still, now going past security check points into Palestinian occupied territory, we are anxious but ready for whatever God has in store for us next.

Crossing into through Jericho into the Dead Sea, we are now some 1200 feet below sea level. Aside from the mountainous topography, this nothing like what we left. I think of Jesus’ first journey into Jerusalem as a boy. What went through his mind?

I’m in culture shock before I even reach Jerusalem. I imagine how Jesus must’ve felt as a boy! And I have the internet!!

The Dead Sea

We arrived to our hotel at 3:30pm local time and had about an hour and a half until sunset – though it was already growing dark. Some of us immediately changed into bathing suits and headed in our robes, crossing the street to the Dead Sea.

Behind us were tall orange mountains that look like caves that went as high as if to imply that the world stopped there.

We know better, though.

We went into the Dead Sea one at a time. Somebody had to be first and prove it was tolerable. It was 64 degrees!!

It was so worth it though. The Dead Sea has a salt density ten times that of the Atlantic Ocean. What does that mean? Well two things.

#1 – don’t drink the water. A rule that I tested, and now agree with.

#2 – It was so salty not only was it easier to float, but it was hard not to! Literally! When my feet hit the ground (only once) they would immediately bounce up as if I was hopping like an astronaut on the moon. Once you got the weight shifted to your butt (read for the kids: tooshy) it took many of us a good four or five tries to get back upright.

For kicks and giggles a few of us tried rolling over to our stomachs to give it a shot – now there was a sight to see! Wish I could show you folks back in America the video, but you know, what happens in the Dead See… (wait for it)… stays in the Dead Sea.

The Dead Sea is supposed to have healing power. Because of the natural salts and minerals in the Sea, many lotions and scrubs, salts and smells have been processed and sold not just in the Middle East but all around the world. (I wrote that last sentence for anybody who has never been in a shopping mall before)

Yes the Dead Sea is supposed to have healing power for your skin and beyond.

We arrived today, achy, tired, travel-logged, and perhaps a bit cranky (over emotionally-processed). We ended our day, many of us, laughing like children, flipping, and giving each other hugs and high-fives of encouragement. The Dead Sea is supposed to have healing power… and I would have to agree.

We have been revived by the Dead Sea!


Now On to Jerusalem!

A Note To Friends, Family, and Readers

Neither Phil or I feel like we are sacrificing by writing this blog.

But it has become, at times, a bit cumbersome. Phil has at points become worried about me sacrificing my time to process this once in a lifetime opportunity in order to journal. I tend to think that this is helping me process immensely (that’s one of the reasons I wanted to blog), yet other times I grew concerned he was right.

Today at lunch (lunch was a whole other story! We ate at a placenamed Temptation Restaurant after the overpoweringly high mountain where Jesus is believed to have been tempted! Boy were we ever tempted at this meal! The plates of food just kept coming! but I digress…)


Many of our travelers were asking me what Phil and I were working on. I explained that this is a personal lens of what I hope is a group picture. They are excited to have a travel log of our time together, and Phil and I are excited to be able to portray at least a portion of their feelings (at least as a part of our travel group) to their loved ones as well.

All that to say this, when we got back to our room between the Dead Sea and dinner we were greeted by several of your comments – both on our blog and my facebook page.

It is incredibly humbling to realize your support and care for us while we are here. Thank you, thank you, thank you. You have been in our prayers, and I pray that you have been as blessed as we have been by your care and prayers.

It is also humbling to realize how many of you have shared that you feel as though you’ve been able to SHARE in the experiences with us. That is as fulfilling to me as the other miracles I have experienced on this trip.

Thank you for your willingness to share. I assure you, it has gone both ways.

God of abundance, I celebrate how big you are. Big as the Mountains. Big as the Seas. You are big enough to be at one end of paradise. And the Other.
May you give us the blessing of being able to feel what it’s like atop the Mountains of our lives. And when we are there, may we radiant enough, by your blessing, that those we love feel the warmth too. In the holy land where it began, and in all the holy land where it continues, Amen.

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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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Israel 2012 – Day Three: Just a Closer Walk With Thee

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The Odd Couple has just returned back to our hotel and immediately upon entering our room, held a meeting.

We don’t want to be reporters (Phil has already spent 40 years doing that, and I only had one college class in communications). We want to be bloggers. Blogging is not about facts, it’s about feelings.

We will try to do both.

It is our intention to include the feelings of this trip which means two things: We might make less sense and we might go a little bit longer. Feel free to skip ahead as needed.

Day 3
Today was Friday, an important day in this area. For Muslims it is the most important day of the week. For Jews, it is the day before the Sabbath Fast, thus typically a day of great eating.


It was a rainy day… rain is a blessing in Israel. Ronin told us that it rains intermittently only four months out of the year. Water of course is vital for the area all year. This means that a years worth of water supply is dependent upon four months of unpredictable rain.

In that context, it’s impossible to pray for a break in the rain for the sake of our trip… I think of all the great Biblical droughts and famines and feel much more guilty for every time I’ve even thought to pray for a break in the rain while so many others must be desperately awaiting just one more day’s precipitation.

After a wonderful breakfast we drove to Cana, in Galilee the site of Jesus’ first miracle (water into wine). We turned corners into streets that we might’ve assumed wouldn’t have been made big enough for a bus. It reminded me (Neal) of a mountainous version of Little Havana.



We went from 600 feet below sea level (our hotel) out of the bus up a pathway 6 feet wide lined with vendors all claiming to be the first or best, up to 1600 or so feet above sea level and arrived in the courtyard between a Greek Orthodox claiming to be on the exact spot, and a Catholic church claiming to be the same.


You see, what remains are excavations of what was 2000 years ago. So, all over the Holy Land are churches, temples, shrines, etc. built above what once was.

We went down passed a Catholic wedding (live and in progress) into the grotto (cave) with the excavations believed to be where Jesus walked, we circled the vessel believed to be used by Jesus to turn water into wine and we had a devotion:

A Reading from the Gospel According to John

On the third day was a wedding in Cana of Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine gave out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” Now standing there were six stone water jars for the Jewish rites of purification, each holding twenty or thirty gallons. Jesus said to them, “Fill the jars with water.” And they filled them up to the brim. He said to them “Now draw some out, and take it to the chief steward.” So they took it. When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, “Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.” Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him. (John 2:1-4, 5-11)

(I had the opportunity to share, Bob called on me) “It seems that with expressions like “prime of our lives” and “peak of my career” that we also apply this theory that the best will one day pass us by if it hasn’t already. Jesus’ first miracle can empower us to understand that even when we think we have enjoyed all that (or the best) life has to offer, in fact, the best is yet to come.”

Prayer: God, you are the gracious host of our lives, who still works miracles among us, even on ordinary occasions. You offer us the wonders of mirth and merriment, friendship and festivity. Today as we enter that place made holy by Jesus’ transforming water to wine, let us be transformed as well.
Here may we grow sweeter, more lighthearted and joyful, more satisfying to those who know us best.
Here, where wedding vows were exchanged, may all the vows we have made be renewed and strengthened.
Here, may we know that You care for us eternally, for better or worse, for richer or for poorer, in sickness and in health, until death draws us back to You.
Here, where Jesus blessed a simple celebration by his renewal of the party’s supplies, we pray that we will be blessed by Christ’s spirit. Bless us with laughter and lighthearted friendship. Free us to celebrate all life’s simple joys. We pray in the name of Jesus, who enlivened the wedding feast so long ago. Amen. (Casey Baggott)

As we finished this prayer, the singing of the wedding worship upstairs was reaching a crescendo, beginning as a backdrop ending as the forefront. At this point we held hands and prayed the Lord’s Prayer in honor and thanksgiving for our loved ones, those present and passed, here and home, who are ever with us in our hearts.

You want emotion? We stood among those who in the last year one who has married his true love and one who said goodbye to his in a wedding chapel at the sight of Jesus’ first miracle separated by one Israeli married couple three feet in front of an excavated stone basin where the water might’ve literally been turned into wine!

Yet another experience shared together.


Nazareth Village


We went on to Nazareth Village, land purchased by Christians seeking to revive the Arab Israeli Christian community and present an interpretation of how Jesus’ life and village might’ve looked.


Designed under the guidance of several Biblical and Ancient scholars using only Biblical methods and materials we saw models of homes, tombs, an olive press, and a synagogue (gathering place) that were replicated after Jesus’ childhood years. It was a representative oasis amidst a teeming city densely populated.

We were challenged to consider how influential our childhood was in who we would become. Understanding even the simple tendencies of life in Jesus’ time was so fulfilling to better understand the path he walked. Literally.

Walking up the steep, rocky, slippery, narrow path, Bob reminded me that it’s much easier to grasp the parable of sowing the seed in the grass as opposed to the path.

While somewhat Disneyesque and resemblant of the Holy Land Experience in Orlando, we can be certain we treaded on holy ground.


Our guide stood on what looked to be an artificial hill and explained that it was a chiseled wine press. It was on the land purchased to be this site and later determined to be the wine press, where the entire village (500) would gather with music, dancing, and food, as they piled the grapes on top, smooshed them with their bare feet (to detect and remove the bitter seed) and allowed the juice to pour down until the “basin” at the bottom.

This was the only wine press discovered by excavators in Nazareth, thus, we were certain that Jesus, community man, child of Nazareth that he was, that this, must’ve walked the ground we were standing. HOW COOL IS THAT?!?!


Basilica of the Annunciation

Despite having the largest Christian population in all of Galilee, Christians represent only 30-40% of Nazareth. The majority are Muslims. Driving to the Basilica of the Annunciation we were greeted with store signs posted in Arabic and English reminding us that Christians and Muslims coexist.


There were also sign messages displayed proudly around the corner from the church reminding us that for so long Christians were a threat to Muslims in this area, reminding us that the tension still existed.


I wasn’t offended/defensive though. I’ve seen SOOO many similar Christian signs in America. Haven’t you? We all get kinda aggressive/judgmental when we’re threatened, I suppose.

So we walked up the street into the church to head downstairs into the grotto (cave) that led to the excavations of what is claimed by the church to be where the angel Gabriel came to Mary.


On our way back up the stairs, compelled by the emotions in this place and of this day, we stopped (Phil and I) and knelt together to pray a silent prayer. In perhaps one of the biggest shrines to the woman of Magdela, both missing the women of our hearts, it was not the first time that this odd couple has prayed and cried together, but it might have been the most impressive place we have ever done so.


Our Prayer and Reflection by Casey Baggott:

“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin encaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Hail Mary, Full of grace! The Lord is with you.” Then Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” Then the angel departed from her.” Luke 1:26-28, 38

Mysterious God, the ancient text reminds us that Mary was an extraordinary young woman – full of your grace – and this made possible her gift to the world. We ask today that your grace might be visible in our lives, too. Help us to follow the leading of your daughter, Mary, who bore your Love to the world.

We long to do Your will, at whatever cost, for however long, toward whatever end You would ask of us. Give us the courage to speak again the ancient words… Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word. Amen

Nazareth Galilee Academic Institute

After lunch we headed from lunch at the Holy Land Restaurant, we headed back to the bus among the sounds of the Islamic call to prayer, heard at a distance from all over Nazareth. The streets were certainly less full during this walk compared to the rest of the morning. The call and chant played on loud speakers placed throughout the city streets.

We headed to the NAI. A brief word about the NAI

Abuna (“Father”) Elias Chacour founded the Mar Elias School in Iibillin, Israel in the early 1980s. It began as a pre-school and kindergarten, and grew to offer education through high school level. Mar Elias School was founded with the dream that by educating the children of all the religions in Israel together (Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Druze), they might learn how to live in peace. Currently over 1200 students study and learn together, and are coached in peacemaking. For this work, Abuna Chacour has been nominated several times for the Nobel Peace Prize.

(Tomorrow we meet with Abuna Chacour, more on him tomorrow)

In 2011 the school applied and received academic accreditation at the college level by the Israeli Ministry of Education, becoming the first Arab college given accreditation in Israel. The college was named the Nazareth Galilee Academic Institute and relinquished its Christian affiliation, in order to gain accreditation. It is still the hope of the college to promote peacemaking. It is intentaionally supportive of multicultural and multifaith.

A prayer as we departed the bus to experience the NAI:

O God, give us eyes to see clearly your truth in life’s complexity. Then may we be freed from the temptation to cloak our own desires in grand justifications. Help us establish meaningful ties to your children everywhere. Let us be your tools in overcoming mistrust, in establishing lasting peace, in ensuring justice and your reign of loving kindness. In Christ’s name we pray. Amen.


Dr. Raed Mualem


This was the most interesting and inspiring moment of the trip yet. Dr. Raed is a man of great wisdom, vision, and intense passion for reaching peace through education. and understanding. In a showed time he impressed me with his love, sincere humility, and extravagant hospitality.

After a warm welcome, he gave us a powerpoint presentation that presented the current status of Arab Israel. In his presentation, he said:

Arabs account for 20% of the population of Israel (53% of Galilee) but only produce 8% of the regions GDP.

The average household income of Arabs is 60% of the income in Jewish households.

20% of Arab women in Israel work versus 62% in the Jewish community.

Dr. Raed praised Americans for their higher education and claimed the United States as their model for developing well-rounded education that in turn, develops society.

“You all say in America, if you educate a woman, you educate a household. We believe,” (with Arab Israel in it’s current state) “if you educate a woman, you educate a whole community.”

He thanked us for the model of the Liberal Arts education that develops the whole person and teaches them critical thinking.

He introduced faculty that underscored the importance of the four languages they teach at the university: colloquial Arabic, grammatical Arabic, Hebrew, and English.

Dr. Raed said, when you learn a language you begin to learn not only how to communicate but how to understand the culture – a tool necessary for bringing about peace to this world.

The university requires studies in 3 areas: Degree Concentration, Practice, and Multi-Cultural Dialogue and Peace Studies Education. “If we want peace, we have to teach peace.” Raed said, “Peace is not just a word, it is a mechanism, it is a tool.”

One-third of the professors are Muslim, Jewish, and Christian respectively.

They offer two degrees: Chemistry and Communications. Why? Because much like Nazareth is the crossroads to the rest of the Middle East (2 hours to Beirut-Lebanon, 2 hours to Damascus-Syria, 2 hours to Amman-Jordan, 2 hours to Jerusalem-Israel), these degrees are crossroads and intersections of their fields.

When the first (female) student spoke about her desire and dreams for her education, I was moved to tears. I think it was the future-father-of-a-daugher in me that dreams for similar conviction and within my daughter.

She was a communications major. She came because she wanted the chance to get a BA (more than 90% of the schools’ inaugural class were women). She was encouraged by her academic “family” (her fellow students at the school) to think critically because she was not just here to learn about TV and Radio. She told us, “When you have a Jewish professor, you learn how he thinks, you learn to understand him and where he came from. You realize all the similarities you share.”

“I want to become a journalist because I don’t think that this world has a portrayal of my perspective or my people’s struggle.”

I was am moved and inspired by her ability as a 19 year-old, to ask “What does the world need? And how can I meet that need?”

I looked at Dr. Raed’s smile of pride and excitement, and I wept again.

It was fatherlike.

Dr. Raed said, “I have no doubt that these students will pave the way towards a world of understanding and peace… I am confident that through education and understanding we will again bring to the world hope and love – the same hope and love that began in a man in this town two thousand years ago.”

This is the prayer, for the capabilities and potentials of the young women in the Middle East and throughout the world, that they may be celebrated and nurtured, educated and loved; may it be so, Amen.


Bob Baggott says we have says we have been “spiritually tenderized” for what is to come…

Shalom until tomorrow.

Click Here to Link to Day Four
Click Here to Link to Day Five
Click Here to Link to Day Six
Click Here to Link to Day Seven
Click Here to Link to Day Eight
Click Here to Link to Day Nine