Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Holy Land Tour, Part Six: The Trip of a Lifetime

Sunrise over the Sea of Galilee, May 20, 2013.
I took the photo above on our last morning in the hotel beside the Sea of Galilee. We were there for four nights before moving to a hotel in Jerusalem. On three of the four mornings that we were at this body of water around which Jesus spent much of his physical time on earth I went to the shore in hopes of witnessing a beautiful sunrise. 

I guess every sunrise is beautiful in its own way, but, let's face it, some are prettier than others, right? On the first two morning that I went to the beach early, the sky was so overcast that the sun could barely be seen. But on the final morning that I was up with the sun near that lake, the sky was golden and the water reflected it. And I think my little camera did a fairly decent job of capturing that moment of beauty. In fact, I got a poster size print of this photo and framed it for my office.

I wonder if there was a sunrise like that on the morning that the risen Jesus fed breakfast to the disciples on the shore of the Sea of Galilee (See John 21)?

This really was the trip of a lifetime. I actually got to see places that I have read about and studied for, well, almost my whole life. I got to meet new people and make new friends, not to mention deepening the bonds of friendship with some folks that I knew before this journey. I learned many new things. 

Perhaps most importantly of all, my faith was renewed in ways that were surprising for me. I really didn't anticipate being moved the way that I was often moved by some of the places we visited. Jesus is just as present and just as real here in North Carolina as he is in Israel and the Palestinian Territory. Nonetheless, I was touched in unexpected ways by walking where Jesus physically walked.

I don't know how much, if any, further blogging I will do about this pilgrimage. Terri, my wife, has posted hundreds of pictures from our travels on her Facebook page. I posted some of those on the church Facebook page and we may post more later. I'm sure that some of my experiences in the Holy Land will find their way into my preaching and teaching. But there are elements of this journey that will impact me for the rest of my life. 

What did I like the least? To be honest, it was the sites where churches have been built over sites where important events from the life of Jesus are believed to have taken place. I understand that the Christian groups that built those churches did so out of reverence for Christ and I have deep appreciation for that intent. Still, I wish those places had been left in their natural state with, perhaps, sanctuaries built nearby.

What did I like the most? As mentioned above, I enjoyed making some new friends and spending times with friends I have know for some time. And I liked walking where Jesus walked. "Liked" isn't the right word, really. I found great meaning in this pilgrimage. It really was the tri of a lifetime.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Holy Land Tour, Part Five: Where Jesus Prayed

Eight stops in 11 hours of touring today. The Western Wall Tunnels were amazing. We heard an enlightening lecture at Bethlehem Bible College. But it is a moment at Gethsemane that I will focus on now.

In our debriefing tonight our group discussed this question: What is the difference between a pilgrim and a tourist? Of course, pilgrims seek to get in touch with their faith in some way through a particular journey. Tourists tend to be more focused on rest, relaxation, and having a good time.

On a journey like this, weaving back hang forth between tourist and pilgrim is unavoidable. On the one hand we visit holy sites and we have devotionals at some of those locations each day. On the other hand, we visit the gift shops and we take photos like any tourists.

Today at Gethsemane there was a moment when tourist and pilgrim were mingled in me in a pretty good way, I think. Jesus, of course, prayed in Gethsemane on the Mount of Olives on the night that he was arrested. But, as Karen Pruette, a Campbell Divinity School student, noted in a devotional that she led on the Mount of Olives, Luke 22:39-40 tells us that it was Jesus' custom to go to the Mount of Olives. He must have prayed there often.

We visited a church on the Mount of Olives and beside that church are some olive trees that are 2,000 years old.  The place was crowded with tourists/pilgrims. There was a noisy street and there were street vendors haggling over prices nearby. It was not the ideal setting to ponder a spot where Jesus was known to pray. But I had a 'moment' anyway.

There I was, on or near a spot at which Jesus made it his custom to pray--probably among the very same trees still standing on that location. He wasn't there physically today but I sensed his presence just the same even amid the hustle and bustle.

I started taking pictures of those trees (see one below). I plan to have one or two of those photos enlarged and placed in a few locations that I have in mind. I want to be reminded of the moment. I also want to be reminded that Jesus made it his custom to get away and pray so I had better do the same.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Holy Land Tour, Part Four: Renewal of Vows

Yesterday we saw many great sites and switched hotels. We were late getting in and then the hotel was having Internet problems so I couldn't post an entry. In a few minutes there will be a sale on personalized Holy Land jewelry here at the hotel. I'm not interested, but today is Terri's and my wedding anniversary, so I figure I'd better go with her. So for now I'll tell you briefly about an event in which it was my great honor to participate two days ago.

Two members of our group are also members of Woodhaven Baptist Church--Bob and Pat Barker. While here in Israel, they asked me to officiate over a renewal of their vows. No, not their wedding vows; their baptismal vows.

Many pilgrims to the Holy Land find it meaningful to be baptized in the Jordan River--the river where Jesus was also baptized. Fifteen members of our group decided to take this step, including Bob and Pat. I was honored that they asked me to to baptize them.

On the night before the trip to Yardenit, the site of the baptism, Dr. Cameron Jorgenson did a great job of explaining the theology behind this pilgrim step of faith. He was careful to point out that these baptisms should not be seen as re-baptisms. Rather Dr. Jorgenson suggested viewing this as a renewal of one's baptismal vows somewhat like a renewal of wedding vows.

The five ministers carrying out the baptisms in our group did not use the traditional "I baptize you ..." formula. Instead, we called on our fellow pilgrims to remember their baptism.

Below are a couple of photos from Bob's and Pat's renewal of their baptismal vows in the Jordan River this past Sunday. I hope it was meaningful to them. It certainly was for me.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Holy Land Tour, Part Three: Dangerous Gospel

Signs like the one above warning of "Danger of Death" are on power poles all over Nazareth.
This sign at the peak of Mount of Precipice says that Jesus jumped to flee pursuers when Luke 4 tells us that he actually just walked through the midst of his attackers just before they threw him over the edge.
Yesterday we visited Caesarea by the sea, Tel Megiddo, Zippori, the Church of the Annunciation, and Mount of Precipice. In the course of our travels we went to Jesus' hometown of Nazareth twice. Today's tidbit is based on a couple of things I found interesting and enlightening in and around Nazareth.

Power poles up and down the streets of Jesus' hometown have signs on them like the one in the photo above advertising "Danger of Death." I've seen signs like this in other towns here but, perhaps because we spent more time in Nazareth, they seemed particularly prominent there. Those Nazarene signs took on a new significance for me after our second visit to the city at our last stop of the day.

Not long before sunset our tour bus lumbered up a steep incline at the edge of Jesus' hometown. We were entering a park surrounding the Mount of Precipice, the traditional site from which enraged worshipers from the synagogue nearly threw Jesus off a cliff. The sign at the peak (second photo above) says that Jesus jumped to escape his pursuers but the account from Luke 4 tells that rather than leaping he simply walked through the midst of his attackers.
Dr. Cameron Jorgenson reads the account in Luke  4 in which the worshipers from Nazareth nearly threw Jesus from a cliff.

At the peak our group sat down and listened as Dr. Cameron Jorgenson read the passage describing a seriously bad day for Jesus.. The people of his hometown violently rejected his revolution of grace. Before he prayed, Dr. Jorgenson mentioned that Jesus preached a "dangerous gospel."

Sitting there on Mount of Precipice I was impressed with the severity of the danger inspired by Jesus' message of grace that day in the synagogue. We don't know for sure that it was that exact cliff from which Jesus was nearly pitched but it had to be somewhere close to that spot. As you can see on the sign above, it's 397 meters to the bottom of that cliff--more than 1,300 feet. I noticed numerous other high ridges around Nazareth plenty tall enough to cause death if one were to be thrown off the edge. Look how small the features are in the valley behind Dr. Jorgenson in the photo above.

Jesus definitely faced danger of death due to his dangerous gospel even in his hometown.

There at or close to a spot at which Jesus faced grave danger because of his message, Dr. Jorgenson closed with a word of prayer in which he requested that we might be bold to proclaim Jesus' dangerous gospel. It is a charge to which all Christ-followers are called, even if we face danger of death.

(Note: Our schedule and Internet problems at the hotel prevented me from posting this yesterday. Tonight we pack and tomorrow we head for another hotel in Jerusalem. I don't know what it any Internet access I'll have there.)

Friday, May 17, 2013

Holy Land Tour, Part Two: The Gates of Hell

If I were to blog about every site we visited today in even summary fashion this blog entry would be (1) probably longer than you want to read and (2) definitely longer than I want to write. We visited the Mount of Beatitudes, Tel Hazor, Tel Dan, Caesarea Philippi, and the Valley of Tears Memorial. Each site was breathtaking in its own way and I learned more than I'll report fully here. For now I'll tell you about just one interesting tidbit that is illustrative of the day.

At Caesarea Philippi, we stood outside a large cave opening surrounded by carvings paying tribute to Greek gods on the cliff facing. Our leader, Dr. Tony Cartledge, told the group that the water supply for the area once flowed from the mouth of the cave until an earthquake changed the course of the river. He also explained that many believed the river flowing from that cave to lead to the River Styx at Hades in Greek mythology.

Dr. Cartledge then reminded us of the scene in Matthew 16 when Peter confessed Jesus as the Messiah, the Son of the living God. If you will recall, verse 13 tells us this happened at Caesarea Phillippi. Dr. Cartledge pointed out that it's possible that Jesus and the disciples were right there in view of icons to gods when he asked his closest followers who people said he was and then who the disciples said he was.

Finally, Dr. Cartledge underscored the Lord's response to Peter's confession of Jesus' Messiahship: "... I will build my church and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it" (v. 18, NRSV). Could it be that Jesus was at that place where we stood--a place known as the Gates of Hades--when he uttered those words?

We can't be absolutely sure that this turning point in the earthly ministry of Christ took place at that spot. But the evidence from the text coupled with the evidence remaining at the site is pretty overpowering. It seems likely to me that Jesus used important visible symbols as illustrations of a very important teaching.

And I was moved.

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Holy Land Tour, Part One: 6,000 Miles

Terri and I are in Israel for a Holy Land tour sponsored by Campbell University divinity School. I'm going to blog about it when I can ...

Back in the 90's I officiated over the funeral of a man who died at age 93. He once told me that his family, in the 1920s, was the first in their area to own a car. He drove his mother from Wilmington, North Carolina to Lumberton, North Carolina--a trip that takes about an hour today. He said that it took them three days.

When we got on the plane for the second leg of our journey to Israel on Wednesday evening, I noticed that the small screen on the back of the seat in front of me was equipped with a GPS option for our flight. If memory serves, early in that flight, that device reported that we had something over 5,700 miles to go. I don't know how far it was from Raleigh to Philadelphia--the first leg of the journey from earlier in the day--but I know it was a lot more than the 300 miles needed to put the total miles of our trip over 6,000. The flight time of the two legs put together was about 11 1/2 hours.

I know air travel has been around for a long time, but the way this invention has made our world so much smaller in the space of just a few decades still amazes me.

The trip was smooth and uneventful. The folks that we are traveling with are wonderful. We arrived last night in time for a somewhat late supper, an orientation meeting, a devotional, and an opportunity to unpack before bed. The tour begins today.

 Right now jet lag has me up early. Our hotel is on a beach on the Sea of Galilee. The sun is coming up and I'm going for a walk.