What a special group of students! We have one more week together before we send them to their next home-away-from-home for the semester.
Our flight to Tel Aviv is smooth, which is what we want. Caesarea Maritime is our first stop in Israel. We watch a cheesy but informative video, telling us of the different ruling powers throughout time; I appreciate this video on each tour and catch more facts every single time. As we overlook the sea at Herod's Palace, my husband reflects upon the fact that Paul stays at Philip's house. The last time Philip saw Paul might have been at Stephen's stoning, although both were in and out of Caesarea and Jerusalem. We ponder about the conversations they might have had across the supper table.
We make our way to Nazareth, passing bougainvillea, citrus trees, olive trees, and a few evergreens. Architecture similar to the Greeks is used. Most of the roofs are flat, not pitched for snowmelt. The Church of the Annunciation is our goal. This church has gifts from different countries all over the world - sculptures lining the outdoor portico and lining the inside of the nave of the modern church, atop an older one, still atop where tradition holds that Mary grew up as a girl.
Our day ends having supper with the Church of Christ in Nazareth. The church body here has known Harding people for a long time, and we appreciate being among friends. Traditional Arabic food was tasty! Our brothers and sisters in Christ are praising God together with us. We have family across the globe.
The Italians have created a beautiful park on the supposed site of the Mount of Beatitudes. We hear different languages surrounding us, also worshipping our Creator. I think it's a little piece of heaven. Under some sycamore trees, we find benches and recite Jesus's sermon from Matthew 5-7 together and share in our own worship. The group hikes down a mountainside in a more rustic and private setting and its quieter than it was in the crowded park. Heaven must be some sort of combination of the two - languages colliding, beautiful florals, seaside background, greenery, peaceful water, and shared friendships all worshipping God and bringing glory to His name.
Boats are in the Sea of Galilee, so we catch a ride and have some peaceful time on the water. We end with a few songs and some reflection time in the Gospels. The ancient boat museum is next to the water which houses the 2,000-year-old boat recently found and displayed now beautifully surrounded by lit turquoise stones, reminding me of the waves of the Sea.
Lunch is St. Peter's fish, which is a traditional food on the Sea of Galilee. The restaurant provides a beach for swimming in the Sea of Galilee right beside the village of Magdala, the residence of Mary. Ryan, a son of our faculty family, chooses to be baptized in the Sea. His brothers and sisters in Christ surround him with prayer, song, and celebration.
Capernaum is our last site of the day. We see an octagon church. We know that Peter's mother-in-law is healed here. We also know that Jesus raises a twelve-year-old girl, referring to her as Talitha, which means "pure one." He also heals a lady who has bled for twelve years, and we know that this is a sign of uncleanliness among the Jews. Along with these stories, we discuss Peter's later vision in which a sheet is holding unclean animals. This sheet isn't really a sheet; we learn that it is a prayer shawl called a "tallit" that the Jews use to enter into their prayer time. Similar to the little girl's name, it means pure and unblemished. It is a holy thing to the Jewish people. Unclean animals on such a special piece of cloth would have been especially offensive. Jesus's healing of the bleeding woman and raising a dead girl and Peter's vision of the animals on a prayer shawl are all stories that turn the religion of the time on its heel. Mixing holiness with uncleanliness is unheard of and Jesus is consciously shifting thinking here. It's a big concept to contemplate.
After our tour, we meet in the hotel synagogue and read from Exodus 25:8. We learn about the traditional way to open the synagogue cabinet, the finger pointer (because the scroll is too holy to touch). We also are shown a white prayer shawl with the tassels on the edge. We learn of many traditions and discuss the moon city of Jericho which we will visit soon, the moon people, and the change of people and practices over time. I pray that this Israel adventure will change each of us and remain with us throughout our lives.
It's Shane's birthday, so we celebrate him as we begin our third day together in Israel. We rode past pomegranate, olive, and date palm trees on the way to the edge of the Jordan River, where we compare the gospel accounts of Jesus's baptism. Private reflection time is beside the waters of the Jordan. Some read; some pray; some ponder.
We drive to worship with the church in Nazareth and share a special time together. We are all encouraged by the service and the visit afterwards where we were recipients of sweet treats and joyous fellowship.
On the way to the oldest city in the world, Jericho, we pass corn on the left and think we are in Arkansas. Then we shift our view to the right and remember that we are most definitely not. Date palms, heavy with fruit ready to be harvested, dominate. We also see pelican birds, migrating their way south to Africa. We are told that we share this particular vertical highway with the birds from Asia. Vineyards appear before we arrive. The Gilgal kibbutz is on our right. We remember when His people crossed the Jordan and put the twelve stones in a circle.
We eat at a tourist stop in Jericho. People from all over are here. We learn about the nearby Monastery of Temptation; the monastic life started here.
Jerusalem greets us right after we emerge from a tunnel on the drive. It's as if we go from dry, barren land to a hustling city in the blink of an eye. The bus pulls over, and we take our first group photo in Jerusalem with the Dome of the Rock in the background.
We walk from a panoramic view of the old city walls down the Mt. of Beatitudes to the Garden of Gethsemane. Gethsemane is really two Hebrew words meaning oil press. We stop just at the entrance to a beautiful park of olive and cypress trees and read from Luke 22 and Matthew 26 of the story when Jesus prays in the Garden. We flip to Mark 10:38-39 where the text refers to "drinking the cup," which to Jews means to share one's fate. This anguish and sweat like drops of blood was a fate in which one didn't want to participate - not even the human side of Jesus. Matthew 26:39 states that He prayed that the "cup" be taken from Him but He knew that the Father's will would be done time and time again. Isaiah 51:17 also talks about the cup - this time the cup of the Lord's wrath. This idea of the cup is one with which we are usually unfamiliar. After asking the disciples to stay awake and pray, He was arrested. We split up into small groups and have time to meditate on the occurrences in this special place.
Mud mask girls' night ended our Sunday together. Our time together was beautiful, spiritual, edifying, uplifting, questioning, searching, and loving. I delight in these girls' company and am cherishing our last days in Israel together.
The City of David sits atop Hezekiah's tunnels which were carved as water tunnels in ancient times. Today there is a wet tunnel and a dry one that people can go through. Our students are adventurous and trail through the spaces that are sometimes too short in which to stand up straight.
The Old City of Jerusalem is our destination for the remainder of the day. At the Western Wall we approach respectfully and back away from the wall and the people praying after we have our time there. We not only witness but are drawn into a bar mitzvah celebration by what we think is an extroverted uncle. The market center/heart of Jerusalem is the perfect spot for lunch and shopping.
The Temple Mount is where Abraham almost sacrificed Isaac, where the Jewish temple once stood, and where Muhammad ascended. Now on that spot is the Dome of the Rock.
St. Anne's Church and pools of Bethesda are nearby. We love the acoustics there, so we enter the church and sing Amazing Grace and a couple of other songs. Another group comes in to listen, and we share the gift of song. Our guide David sang a solo called "Hallelujah." Still in the Old City, we wander down the Via Dolorosa's stations of the cross and make our way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. Along with the crowds, we see the possible sites of Jesus's crucifixion and resurrection. Thank goodness Jesus is in our hearts and not trapped in a physical place.
A large portion of the group goes on an evening jog with a Harding friend named Yossi to the Old City and sees the Dome of the Rock and the Western Wall lit at night. Also seen is the possible site of both the Passover supper that Jesus shared with his apostles the night He was arrested and of the Holy Spirit coming on the believers on the Day of Pentecost. Yossi is a renaissance man and gives a flute recital onsite.
At the supper table, we process what we've experienced today and why we believe what we believe. We wonder what we'd believe had we been born elsewhere and give our parents thanks for the inherited faith that has been passed through the generations we know and love back home. Our world view is expanding and developing. We are thankful for the exposure to different thoughts, different ways of loving our Father God, and ways of living. We commit to working on Christian unity in our own circles of everyday life when we return home.
Zedekiah's Cave, which is also called King Solomon's Quarries, is under the Old City and was used for all of King Solomon's builds. King Solomon, the greatest builder of the Biblical period, is said to be the patron of the Freemasons. This type of limestone which hardens with the passage of time was used to build many Jerusalem monuments and the Temple Mount area.
The Israeli Museum has a mosaic which we study to understand the map/happenings of the city. Next we ascend for the best view of a model built of the Old City of Jerusalem that is outside of the museum. Then we go inside to see the Dead Sea scrolls that were found in the nearby caves.
In Bethlehem we learn a bit about the politics of the time from our new Palestinian friend who guides us in this area (Israeli citizens are not allowed to guide in this territory). Bethlehem means "house of meat" in Arabic but "house of bread" in Hebrew. Jesus is called the bread of life; there seems to be no coincidences in the Bible. King David was born here, as well, and we remember that Joseph and Mary were making their way here to their homeland for the census. We make our way to the valley to visit the Shepherds' Fields. We enter the church that was built in the 1950s near the field and sing "I Am a Sheep." Groups of people stop to listen. We enter a manmade cave that was similar to one that the shepherds might have used when they were guarding their flocks. Dr. Matlock leads our thoughts around Micah 5:1-2 in this place. We then sing a couple of songs together. Dr. Ganus tells us of a missionary who began the settlement called Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. He then asks us, "Where is Bethlehem? Yes, it's here. But it's where Christ dwells. We are temples. It's wherever we go."
The Church of the Nativity is the oldest standing church in the Holy Land and is from 600 A.D. There is evidence that Jesus was born on the ground in this place. When Persian soldiers came to destroy the Church of the Nativity, they saw a fresco of the three wise men who came from the east; this fresco saved the church. We take a look inside the crowded church and also inside the neighboring mosque, noticing the vast difference in decor (elaborate vs. plain).
Back at the hotel, we enjoy another girls' time by sharing a "hill" that God conquered for us. I love these girls and guys. They really look out for each other and have become a family. What a sweet group!
We make our way into the Judean desert and stop at the lower Jordan River. There are people in white robes baptizing themselves in the water. We dip our feet in as our eyes take in the reeds, palms, and eucalyptus trees.
Camel rides are next on the list today. Seeing everyone's faces as the camel fully stands up high is always my favorite photo-opportunity. The camels we rode were trained to be nice to tourists. But we saw a pack of camels with their herder on the side of the road today. The desert drive is pretty in its own way. The soft blue of the sky above the light brown of the desert hills is certainly dry, but the colors are soothing.
Qumran is where the Dead Sea scrolls were found in 1947. We watch a quick video about the men living in the desert who wrote these scrolls before they hid them in caves. They used what they thought were the purest of tools and special utensils to copy the texts and to live and to cleanse themselves as holy out in the desert. These guys could have influenced John the Baptist. They lived as monks alone in the desert before the days of the monasteries. After lunch of falafel, schnitzel, or shawarma, we shop 'till we drop at a store with Ahava skin products from the Dead Sea and other Israeli goodies.
Everyone is geared up for the Dead Sea swim! Excitement is in the air as we make our way down to the water. We fish down under our toes for just the right mud to put on our skin. We have body mud masks! After sitting back and floating for a while, careful not to splash our friends, we shower off and head back to the hotel.
We had a meeting at the hotel on our last night in Israel. Silas put together a slide show for the first half of the semester. A few tears were shed because we know that we will miss this crew, but we are looking forward to our most special day tomorrow!
The Garden Tomb is our first stop of our last day together in Israel. We make our way over to where people think Golgotha (Aramaic) might be. Calvary (English, Latin based word) refers to the same place. The words mean "place of the skull." Below is a busy place of transport. This would not have been "on a hill far away." It was brutal, and the Romans would have wanted their power and boldness known. It was right outside the Old City walls because death wasn't holy, so crucifixion spots had to be outside the walls. But they were close enough to be known - and feared.
There is a garden (original word in the Greek Biblical text meant garden for agriculture); there is archeological evidence that this particular place was used for a vineyard two thousand years ago. In 1924, archeologists uncovered an ancient wine press resembling that of the first century. There is also an ancient cistern on the property. The tomb is nearby, discovered in 1867. It belonged to a wealthy family because it has two chambers and three places for bodies. First chamber is known as the preparation room, called the mourning chamber. Then the body was transferred to the chamber to the right. Silence prevails as we take turns entering the small space.
It's my favorite place. After some quiet individual reflection time about Jesus's sacrifice for all of us, we meet to share communion and song. We hear other nationalities sing in their languages and are so incredibly thankful that Jesus died for us all.
The Jerusalem Prayer Center is our last stop of the day. Most people are familiar with the story of the inspiration for the hymn "It is Well with My Soul." Horatio Spafford was the writer of the words. A native of Chicago, he and his wife had more children after their tragic losses. They decided to move to the Old City in Jerusalem with a couple of other families to live as missionaries. The community grew and the surrounding people came to call this group the American Colony. The Spaffords' house today is officially called the Jerusalem Prayer Center. Run by American families on a rotation of a handful of years, they are welcoming always to our group. When we arrive, after a picnic lunch, we gather downstairs in a room where the host tells the story of the Spafford family and the continued work of the American Colony. There is a prayer center upstairs that has all sorts of stations for people to pray as best suits them. There is art paper, there are poems, there are scriptures, there's a rolling computer screen of His names in the Bible, etc. Everyone goes through the upstairs in silence. It is always very moving and a needed end to our emotional week in Israel.
It's been a roller coaster of a week in Israel. Every single time we go, I take a bit more of it away with me in my own heart. People with whom we come in contact in Israel always ask our group to pray for the people there. And we will continue to do so. What a special land and a special group of young people with whom we were able to share this experience! Thank you parents for sending them to us. We count it an honor to be a part of this special chapter in their lives.