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

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Dome of the Rock

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

(Sigh)

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?

(Sigh)

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

Amen.

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

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

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

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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.”

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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.

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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.

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Qumran

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.

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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!

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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:

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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!

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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.

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

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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!

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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.

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