Sea of Galilee to Jordan River: 7/18 – 7/25/2019

We stayed in our second convent, the first located next to the Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth. Our second experience was the convent that housed the Mount of Beatitudes Church on its grounds near the Sea of Galilee. The view of the lake and the grounds around the convent were beautiful. The nine beatitudes (Matthew 5) Jesus taught offer a challenge on how he wants us to live both now and in the future.

Next, we visited the church that recalls Jesus words to Peter that he is the rock on which God will build his church (Matthew 16:16-18) which Roman Catholics call the Primacy of Peter. Protestants refer to the faith of Peter who declared that Jesus is the Messiah as the rock on which God builds the church.

As we traveled from the west side of the Sea of Galilee, we traveled a few minutes to the north shore of the lake to Capernaum. This is an archeological site and with no modern city but its importance is as the ministry base for Jesus. We saw both the synagogue (Mark 1:21ff) and what is traditionally identified as Simon Peter’s home (Mark 1:29ff).

Among the religious site along the Sea of Galilee my favorite is the Greek Orthodox Church of the Apostles. One of the special things we did there was our guide had our group sing one pedal note while she sang in Arabic the Magnificat of Mary. The sound beneath the dome of the church touched my soul deeply. The fresco’s of Jesus life from the gospel stories spoke as loud as the Scripture stories themselves.

We ate lunch at a local café and I ate St. Peter’s fish which is a type of tilapia. The joke is that you burn more calories picking out the meat from the bones of the fish than what you eat. Like almost everything we have eaten, the fish was delicious (not to be compared with the fish from the Canadian fish fry at Knorr’s!!). Jody ate tasty chicken as well.

The grand finale for Friday was our boat ride on the Sea of Galilee. Having viewed a first-century fishing boat like Jesus would have ridden in earlier, our boat ride was a thing of peace. It gave us a chance to imagine Jesus and his disciples out on the lake ringed with cities along the shore from Jesus’ day. We shared communion out on the sea. It was a special moment.

On Friday morning, we stopped at the base of Mount Tabor and took vans to the top. This is the traditional site in Galilee where Jesus took Peter, James and John with him for three days and was transfigured (changed) before them while Moses and Elijah appeared in a vision (Mark 8). I led chapel that day for our group in the Elijah chapel room. We sang Taize songs out of the Lutheran worship book and I preached. The 360 degree view from Tabor was striking.

We ate lunch at an area café and the table was so full of plates with humus and various pita dips and a delicious kabob with beef and lamb. Yummmm!!! Despite all of the walking and climbing we do, I know I am gaining weight. Jody and I are now in the swing of Middle Eastern food and it is tasty.

On our drive to the Jordan River baptismal site, we stopped off and walked through a Circassian village. They are immigrant people driven out by the Russians from their lands located between the Black and Caspian Seas near the countries of Georgia and Armenia. Join my club if you have never heard of it. It was new to me. We tasted their traditional bread infused with cheese.

We passed to the south of Jericho to stop at the traditional as well as designated location where John baptized Jesus in the Jordan River. The river was low despite good spring rains because of too extensive use of river water upstream. Water is gold in the Middle East. When we arrived at the site, a young woman to our right was crying and sharing her testimony of faith in Christ before she was baptized. A priest was in full robes and entering the river to immerse his church members as they remembered their baptism long ago. Two Israeli military women stood guard above with semi-automatic guns to stop anyone from crossing the river into Jordan. It caught my attention.

Our group was in the middle on the wooden platform that had steps leading down to the Jordan River. It is more like a stream right now about 15-20 feet across and caramel brown in color. Jody and I celebrated our baptisms in the Jordan River. This does not in anyway minimize the importance of our infant baptisms when we were received into Christ and his church. There was something special about being in the same river where Jesus was baptized.

Jody and I parted company on Saturday as it was a day off for our group. Jody enjoyed a quiet day to read and rest. Meanwhile, I was part of a group of six who got up at 3:00 am and returned at midnight from a trip to Petra, Jordan (one of the 7 wonders of the world). It is famous for being the site where Indiana Jones goes in to look for the chalice of Christ in the movie: The Last Crusade. The bus rides were long but the experience absolutely stunning. Along the way we could see the Gulf of Aqaba (Part of the Red Sea) when we were in Eilat, Israel about 15 miles from Saudi Arabia.

Jody and I went to worship at the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in the Old City of Jerusalem on Sunday. Pastor Kari (who was a pastor in Capron, IL) was on vacation and back in the States. The English-speaking congregation is small with over half of the worshippers were visitors. It felt like home to worship in a Lutheran church. We even sang: What a Friend We have in Jesus.

We stopped in a pharmacy after not finding a salon so we picked up hair color product and later that afternoon Jody risked having me color her hair. It is clearly not my gift but it turned out ok. In the evening, we had our preparation meeting for the upcoming week.

Today (Monday) proved to be a demanding day. We experienced the West Bank city of Hebron. This is the largest and most productive Palestinian city with a small Jewish population. This is one of the most contentious cities between Israeli’s and Palestinians. One of the primary reasons it has had such a rocky past is because it is an important city to both peoples. It is the burial place for Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, Jacob, Esau and Leah. With both Jews and Muslims regarding Abraham as their ancestor, it is a holy site.

Rebeckah’s Tomb

We had a Palestinian and later a Jewish couple as our guides. Each had their own perspective and story to tell. Next we listen to and had conversation with a Jewish settler who grew up in Colorado and moved to Israel 55 years ago. Then, we met on the property of a Lutheran Palestinian family who are fighting in the courts to keep their land from the settlers who want to take it from them. David told us of the struggles they have faced for 17 years. There ministry of peace and kindness toward their neighbors is called “Tent of Nations.” You can google it to read about it. David’s dad was a Lutheran pastor. He told me that in Israel and the West Bank, Lutherans are a minority of minorities.

Tent of Nations

On our way back to Tantur, we visited a Palestinian camp near Bethlehem. The refugees were kicked off their land in the war of 1948. It was a day of discovery as we heard stories of pain on both sides of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict.

I was excited to have the opportunity to spend the night in the church of the Holy Sepulchre in Old City Jerusalem. At 9:00 pm they lock the doors and only allow 50 people who have signed up in advance to spend the night. I prayed for Grace, my family and the Arab/Israeli conflict in the chapel of the crucifixion. From 9 pm – 2:00 am., this was my prayer spot to read Scripture and pray. It was an amazing time that I will never forget. At midnight I could hear the Greek Orthodox sing and lead the Divine Liturgy. At 2:00 pm I went down to the chapel area where Jesus was buried and watched and prayed as the Orthodox worship lasted until 3:30 am. Then I left the old city, caught a taxi and was in bed by 4:15 am. zzzzzzzz!

Tuesday: after a quick shower and breakfast at 7:30, we had a lecture and discussion around the topic of the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Our presenter is a professor at Notre Dame University and an Israeli citizen. He did a great job of presenting the challenges for both Israeli’s and Palestinians historically, today and where he sees the future going. In the afternoon, we had a presentation on Zionism, the vision for an Israeli state that emerged in Eastern Europe (due to continued antagonism and pogroms against the Jews by primarily Christian nations) in the 1870’s and 80’s. The fuel to the fire was the holocaust during WW II.

Jody attended a cooking class from the Tantur chef. The group learned how to make falafels, hummus, specialty bread, and various salads. Delicious!

Today (Wednesday) our group was treated to a challenging and insightful presentation by the Rev. Dr. Munther Isaac on Palestinian Liberation Theology. Dr. Munther serves Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem. As the Christians continue to leave Palestine due to oppression and resulting better opportunities elsewhere in the world, for the Palestinian Christians who remain here, it is difficult to remain hopeful. Despite the challenges, Dr. Muther refuses to lose hope. His message is one of God’s justice and his deep faith Christ which propels him forward as a minister of the Lord.

Christian Zionism (the teaching that the Israeli state has been promised this land from God and consequently, the Palestinians or early followers of Jesus in the land do not matter to God or Christians in the West. There is also the teaching that rebuilding the temple will bring the return of Messiah) is painful for the Palestinian Christians. As a result, the church in Palestine often feels forgotten by their brothers and sisters in the West. Let me add that the Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) does not nor do I teach Christian Zionism thinking. Jews like all people matter to God. Palestinians matter to God as well and we must pray for our sisters and brothers who face injustice.

Let me add that Dr. Munther, who wrote the book: From Land to Lands, from Eden to the Renewal of the Earth: A Christ Centered Biblical Theology of the Promised Land, will be at our Lutheran Seminary in Chicago (LSTC) and at several area churches in late September of this year. He is a shining light in Palestine and worth your effort to try and hear him speak.

I saw God at work in deep ways in Dr. Munther and Tent of Nations – both Lutherans by the way! Good work. Hard work. But is this not just the places where God works most profoundly? God touched our hearts as we journey around Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee as well. Reading scripture where it happened opens the Word in a special way. I am honestly proud of the Lutheran presence in this land. They as well as other Christians inspire me. We have seen deep faith at work here.

Jody and I cannot say often enough – thank you for supporting this opportunity. God is up to something special in our lives. Praise God!

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