Our time in Israel is quickly coming to an end. I could sense it too. The days were becoming longer, fuller and a certain urgency was tangible. With the agenda full and the importance of this place I surely did not want to miss out on anything and yet at the same time there was so much to process already. Here we go with our last few days in this beautiful country.
We visited the Israeli museum and gained perspective on the city. Within the museum walls are original scripts found on the Dead Sea Scrolls with descriptions of where and how they were found and what is written. There was also a trip to the market, where my five senses came to life. So much to take in. Lunch at a fish and chips stand, wandering through crooked streets and alleyways, stumbling upon a tiny coffee stand and watching the students navigate bartering, purchasing and enjoying treats of local fare. My very favorite things to do while exploring.
Lunch in the market!
To scale model of the city of Jerusalem
The bus traveled dirt roads and hills to take us to the Elah Valley, the site of David's memorable battle against Goliath. While sitting and reading through scripture of that fight I was reminded of David's faithfulness in the everyday. The way he developed his relationship with the Lord, daily through praise and worship. It was powerful being on this hill overlooking the valley, reading the story of what went down here. I could see David, small and mighty, Goliath too, full of ego and confident in his stature, almost certain of victory. And then in a way only the Lord could, the unexpected won.
Valley of Elah
One night we walked to the ancient citadel of Jerusalem, around the tower and into a viewing of the Tower of David Night Time Spectacular light show. And spectacular it was! The lights displayed within the courtyard of the Citadel depicted the history of Jerusalem over 4000 years. I sat mesmerized by the music and the craftsmanship of not only the ancient walls we were sitting within but the story being told on them.
We traveled to Bethlehem early one morning and as we did the stark contrast to what we were leaving behind was obvious. It is a Christian Arab town under the PLA and as we entered in I was unsure of what was waiting for us. There is the Church of the Nativity, originally built in the 4th century and then replaced with a larger more ornate church in the 6th century. Within this building are segregated areas belonging to various religious sects and just beyond the Greek Orthodox altar are steps leading to the Grotto of the Nativity, said to be the place where Mary gave birth to Jesus. Nearby is another chapel, where she supposedly laid Jesus after his birth. This tour was heady and filled with information, more than I could absorb. While useful and helpful in understanding context and geography my conclusion is that there is skepticism around exactly where the birth took place. And understandably so, none of us living today were present then. Moving on. We stopped at the Shepherd's field where angels could have appeared to the shepherds announcing Jesus' birth. There we paused and offered our own worship in the form of songs. The day continued in Bethlehem with a trip to an olive wood factory. We saw the master carvers at work and the pile of olive wood waiting to be turned into masterpieces. Their shop was filled with the most beautiful nativities. Side note, there is also a coffee shop in Bethlehem known as "Stars and Bucks", not to be confused with Starbucks as we know it and most definitely not the same.
At work in the olive wood factory.
Shepherd's Valley overlook.
City steps in Bethlehem.
Leaving Bethlehem we saw a different kind of scenery out our bus windows. Watch towers, barbed wire and military personnel in search of land mines. How surreal. I don't really have the words to accurately describe what I saw or what I was thinking as I took it all in.
Another stop on the itinerary was Golgotha, known as Skull Rock and the Garden Tomb. After gaining some perspective on location and our whereabouts I realized just how close in proximity we were to actual neighborhoods and city living while at these sites. Life has been built up around them. And yet here they are, withstanding the test of time. There we were. The supposed location of the tomb where Christ was buried and then rose. The grounds are beautiful, meticulously maintained and we sat and listened to a brief explanation about the mountain side, where a bus transit lot is adjacent. Once again modern life continued on as we heard these ancient stories. A line was formed to enter the tomb and even if it isn't the actual place where Christ was buried the real life viewing of it is otherworldly. Beyond the photo opportunities is a quaint chapel and there I sat, with our group, waiting to partake in the elements of communion. To celebrate our time in this sacred land together and worship our King who rose from the dead so we could have eternal life. It was beautiful.
We're almost there and yet there is still so much. We entered the Western Wall Tunnels and saw the largest single cut stone in the world, weighing in at 600 tons. Underground we continued witnessing Herod's grand design and impressive architectural conquests. On to Bethesda. The place where Jesus healed a paralytic, as told in John 5:1-15. A man that had been an invalid for thirty eight years, who sat waiting in the colonnades for potential healing. And when Jesus came to him, he asked, "do you want to be healed?", the man answered that he had no one to help him into the pool, and when the opportunity would arise someone always steps in front of him; Essentially leaving him without another way. Jesus told the man to get up and walk. And he did, immediately, leaving the area. Just like that. Maybe it was in the asking. Maybe in the believing. Whatever took place here was a miracle. And not the only one in this place. But this one, this one spoke volumes to me. The man asked. Jesus did not hesitate. He granted the man's request. Then the paralytic got up and walked. He did not have to worry about someone stepping in front of him. He didn't have to push or shove, fight or negotiate, plead or compromise in any way. He got up and walked. Right after asking. There is a lesson in there for me. Also, this was one of two miracles Jesus performed in Jerusalem. Interestingly enough, they both took place at the water, the one referenced above and the other at the Pool of Siloam, which we had seen at the outlet of Hezekiah's tunnel. St. Anne's Church, the church of Mary's mother, is located near the Pool of Bethesda and we walked in awestruck. The acoustics in this place were phenomenal. Our group formed a circle and began singing and my heart just couldn't contain itself. Pure and holy. On to the Holy Church of the Sepulcher, the more likely place that Jesus was buried due to excavations uncovering a rock quarry wall where tombs had been cut into during the first century AD. The grandness of this church caught me off guard. Up the steps there was a service taking place and priests walked the entry way with outstretched hands waiting to be kissed. I felt a certain heaviness in this place and I didn't spend too much time inside. We walked the Via Dolorosa, otherwise known as the "way of agony", a Catholic created path of the traditional Stations of the Cross. That lead us into the marketplace. We had time in the market to explore in small groups and once again barter and shop and take in the local fare. This area and market was a bit different as we were in the Muslim quarter. The negotiating did not come as easily and there was a noticeable shift. Not one to accept the first offer and most definitely not one to pay asking price in a street market I walked away empty handed quite a bit. Sometimes to my own detriment because I simply forgot the exchange rate or was being too stubborn to accept defeat. Which of course wasn't really defeat but a bruising in my prideful way. Yes, I am aware. I only hope I didn't offer too terrible an example for the young eyes watching me. I did walk away with a few treasures for the family and some ice-cream that I even attempted to bargain for. And in the end Thing 2 and I along with our buddy had quite the adventure. Lessons learned for certain and if nothing else I can laugh at myself now, and I did then too! What a contrast to the holy singing I mentioned not sentences before. Hmmm.
Western Wall tunnels.
Singing in St. Anne's Church.
Pool of Bethesda- five porticoes mentioned in the Gospel story (John 5:2)
Walking within the Western Walls.
Light streaming in the church.
Inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher
While we were within the Western Wall we visited the outside of it. The place where prayers are offered and pleadings are made for the glory and light to return. Men and women are separated in this place, and underground within the men's area is the foundation stone. On our side there are women and children, covered and not, tourists and not. There is wailing, which the wall is aptly named for, there are tiny pieces of paper tucked in between it's stones and backwards walking to exit the place. It is so much to digest. In one place. At a single time. On an isolated visit. The history, the conflict, the pain, it comes to a head for me here and I am about undone. I want to understand and yet there are some things that are not meant to be understood. Or at least that is what I tell myself in the moment.
The Western Wall
And with this brief description of our late afternoon Ramparts Walk we are just about at the end of our journey. Psalm 48 was referenced while we stood and waited to began our walk. In this particular Psalm God is touted as the defender of Jerusalem, His presence is glorified and His power praised because He is within this city, as was believed because of the Temple's presence here. Let it be so. We walked up and down the stairs, peeked in the lookouts and it struck me what a mighty city Jerusalem is. At the end of our walk we prayed and it was powerful. Hearing the hushed words of our group, pouring out hearts and crying out to the Lord for this city and her people. I wonder if there has ever been a more beautiful act of worship than offering thanksgiving to our Savior.
View from the Ramparts.
And now to our final meal together in Israel. We had a brief window of time to return to our hotel and shower before our trek home began. In a frenetic pace we divided boys and girls into single rooms, showered, packed and readied ourselves for the journey to our last meal at the table as a group and our flight home. Dinner was at a small restaurant off the beaten path, a hidden gem if you will. We even drove on the Road to Emmaeus and landed in Abu Gash, the very place that Samson would have been "hanging out", so many centuries ago. The tables were covered with platters of delicious food, local to the region and we devoured each and every bite, all while we laughed and shared a special memory of our time together with the entire group. I'm not much for speaking in front of large groups but this act of remembering and celebrating and sharing marked me. I relished this time hearing out loud what was significant about this time from everyone, including our tour guide, Aaron and our trip leaders. The students had been preparing a song for our extraordinary tour guide and bus driver and so when dinner was over, photos were taken and goodbyes exchanged they made a tunnel and sent Aaron and his family as well as Elie our bus driver off with fan fare, in the very best way! This group knows how to celebrate well! And from there it was karaoke on the bus all the way to the airport and laughter that filled the bus. Never, ever a dull moment.
The goodbye tunnel!
And with that we boarded our plane and headed back to the United States. First stop, Minneapolis. That was a sweet lay over for Thing 2 and I. We were able to say hello and give hugs to a few friends and then we waited for our next flight. After about 36 hours of travel time we landed in TN and were oh so happy about it. It was a remarkable ten days spent in Israel and I will be forever grateful to have shared that experience with Thing 2.
Us, worn out but still smiling in Nashy!