July 25 proved to be one of my favorite trips as we started the morning out with a Communion worship in the church in Bethphage (village at top of Mount of Olives; Mark 11:1) which Jesus and his disciples passed through on Palm Sunday. This village is adjacent to the village of Bethany, the hometown of Mary, Martha and Lazarus. It appears that some of Holy Week, Jesus and his disciples return in the evenings to stay in Bethany (Mark 11:11-12) most likely with his friends).
We began our walk descending the Mount of Olives on the route Jesus would have taken on that Palm Sunday. On a hillside dotted with ancient olive trees, we made our way to a church marking the traditional site of Gethsemane where Jesus prayed before he was arrested on Good Friday. Near the bottom of the hillside is an Orthodox Church to Mary Magdalene. We next hopped a bus to the other part of Jerusalem where Peter denied knowing Jesus. Lord, forgive me for the times I ignore or fail to call on you in prayer.
Before returning back to Tantur, we shared a meal in the Old City in an Armenian café. The food just kept coming with the staples of fresh salad (chopped tomatoes and cucumbers), chicken and roasted lamb, baklava for desert all washed down with a local beer. What a great day. Reading the stories of Jesus in his last week in the actual location is revealing. God touched my heart this day.
In the evening, I returned to the roof of what is thought to be the “upper room” where Jesus celebrated his last supper with his disciples. 40 of us gathered to pray for Jerusalem: Jews, Muslims and Christians. Again I saw Jesus at work in this prayer for the holy city. As I am writing this, I am hearing the Imam praying at the mosque in Bethlehem. It reminds me to pray.
On Friday, we had a presentation on Islam that offered me insight on both history and practice.
Our Friday afternoon to Sunday was free time so we rented a car an drove back to Haifa to soak up some sun and the waves of the Mediterranean. The learning and discussions on issues like Palestinians and Israeli’s has been insightful and challenging. It felt good to drive away for one night. After we returned back to Tantur on Saturday eve I discovered I had left my glasses in the hotel. It was back to Haifa on Sunday to retrieve my glasses. (The Grace staff will not be too surprised about such an incident!). A part of our Sunday afternoon was spent as we walked along the Via Dolorosa (the way of the cross) in the Old City of Jerusalem. There are so many meaningful things to do in this city!
Monday was lecture time on Judaism and women in the Old Testament. In the afternoon, we studied the book of Ruth in small groups in a rabbinic style of asking probing questions. I discovered some fresh insights in our study. It was an early night as we had a full day of traveling on Tuesday.
Tuesday started early as we drove to the Dead Sea area. Our first stop was Masada, a desert fortress built by King Herod on top of a high mountain. I was glad that there was a cable car to ride up to the top. Around 70 AD a group of Jewish zealots captured Masada from a small Roman garrison. They held it for almost 3 years which ended with the Jews killing themselves just before the Romans were ready to breach the wall and the fortress. While the story is riveting, the fortress was extremely hot and the surrounding barren. It was off to refill my water bottle as soon as we descended.
Our next stop is the tourist spot of floating in the Dead Sea. The water was very warm and salty so Jody and I simply waded in the water and then rinsed off again. Others in our group took to floating.
Our real joy was our next stop at Ein Gedi – a spring fed nature park in the middle of the desert. Now was the time to cool off and get wet!
The final stop of the day was at another extremely hot desert spot called Qumran where the Dead Sea scrolls were found in 1947 by a Bedouin shepherd boy. Previously, the oldest version of the Old Testament parchments was dated about 1000 AD. These fragments which had been stored in clay pots in this arid location may have been a library of sorts of a Jewish religious group that some say John the Baptist had spent some time with called the Essenes. These fragments date back to almost the time of John the Baptist. This was an incredible find.
In the evening, we had our farewell party. It has been great month together and we have learned and experienced much together and made new friends.
This is Wednesday, July 31. Our last day in Israel. Jody and I had coffee with Pastor Carrie Ballenger in the Old City. Carrie served a Lutheran congregation in Capron and Bethany Church in Crystal Lake before accepting a position to serve in Jerusalem. It was great to reconnect with her. Next, we went to the Holocaust Museum which is sobering and an incredibly disturbing part of human history. Whew. I have no other words right now.
As we prepared to say good bye to Tantur, new friends and this place, Jody and I enjoyed one last cup of Joe and Chai. This marks the half-way point in our sabbatical. Its off to Greece! Grace – you continue to be in our thoughts and prayers.