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Shepherd’s Field / Bethlehem
Scripture Luke 2: 8-12

This year Christmas came early for me. I’ll really never look at the birth of Jesus the same again.
The experience of touching the silver star in the grotto of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem will always be in my memory. But I want to take you briefly to the nearby Shepherd’s field, a hilly, open area east of Bethlehem.
Honestly, I never thought a lot about the Shepherds that Christmas night until this trip. As I stood 2,500 feet above sea level and looked down on the city of Bethlehem, it all started to make sense. It was easy, for example, to imagine flocks of sheep grazing on the slopes.
I could also imagine just how startled the shepherds must have been when the angel of the Lord roused them from their routine sheep watching. “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news,” we all remember from the Gospel of Luke.
Today a Franciscan Chapel marks where the Angel appeared. The chapel was designed to look like the shepherds’ tent.
It reminds me how the lowly shepherds were chosen to spread the word of Jesus’ birth instead of royalty located less than six miles away in Jerusalem. It wouldn’t have taken the shepherds long – less than three football fields away – to walk to the birth site to see what they were told.
As Ref. Sumner so often did throughout our stay, he added something special. At Shepherd’s field we sang O little Town of Bethlehem. For a brief moment it was Christmas in July.

Baptism site/experience
Scripture Luke 3: 21-22

This month, I had the wonderful opportunity to travel to Israel. If you asked me 5 years ago, I never would have thought I’d be telling you about this trip today. To start, I would like to say that fear for our safety, expressed by family and friends, could not have been more wrong. At no time did we ever feel unsafe, or even unwelcome. The people we met on our day tours, as well as the people we met as we wandered down the streets at night, could not have been more inviting and kind to us. In fact, two people invited me and my family to stay in their homes the next time we travel to Israel. Talk about hospitality!

As for our tour guide, Leo was amazing. He often used his catch phrase “Hubba Hubba” (which means HURRY UP; LET’S GO!), and he took every opportunity, each time we passed the soccer stadium near Tel Aviv, to point out the fact that the US soccer team lost to Israel in some tournament, 7-0. Leo had a vast knowledge of every sight we visited and provided insight on archaeological finds, combined with the personal experiences that can only come from growing up in such an amazing holy land.

Now for the real purpose of the trip: a walk through the Bible, and the chance to walk where Jesus walked. The tour included the manger in Bethlehem and a beautiful church marking the site where Jesus was born. We saw the upper room where the disciples were served the Last Supper. We say the dungeon where Jesus was held while imprisoned before He was crucified, and we sat in the garden surrounding the tomb, where He was laid to rest. These are only a few of the incredible places we visited, and each and every one touched my heart.

Two of my most memorable moments were the sense of peace and warmth that filled by body and soul after being immersed in the Jordan River by Reverend Sumner. They say that men aren’t supposed to cry, but I can assure you – tears were shed. Another favorite experience was the ability to cleanse my soul and leave all worries, doubts and sadness in the garden tomb as I exited. We were encouraged to leave everything in that tomb that was broken, and to start afresh. Words really can’t express the feelings you have when you encounter these sites, and different places impacted all of us differently. It was an emotional and spiritual journey that has changed my life, and I think the journey has changed the lives of many of my fellow travelers, as well.

For everyone who says “I want to take that trip someday,” I encourage you to make sure that someday comes soon. This trip will change your life for the better just by the experience, so do it now – because you’ll want to feel like I do as long as you can.

“Down to the River to Pray”

Sea of Galilee
Scripture Luke 8: 22-25

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Mount of Olives/ Gethsemane
Scripture Mark 14:26-28

Today I share my eyewitness insights and reflections based on the prevalence of the Mount of Olives in the Bible—mentioned 14 times—and the Garden of Gethsemane, the place where one of Jesus’ great agonies took place. My text is Mark 14: 26-28 that describes Jesus’ fateful journey there. He was most often coming from the east as he came from his home territory of the Galilee. Often we suspect that he stopped at the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus in Bethany. Then he would go over a rise, and he would be either in the Garden, or at the Mount of Olives. The Mount is historical because it was and is believed that the Messiah ascended into heaven from there, (Christians believe that according to Luke 50:24: 50-51) and Jews believe that the Messiah will return there. Thousands of graves are on that mountain, waiting for a Messiah. But off to a side is the Garden of Gethsemane, gethsemane meaning “Olive press.” Olives are a staple food in Israel, and olive oil enriches the lives of many across the world. We remember that Jesus was often looking for a place to get away from the crowds that surrounded him. This was not only such a place, but Jesus must have had a heavy heart when he went there with his disciples. People new to the Holy Land learned that olive tree roots continue to live, some for more than 2000 years. At least one of the trees there today was there in the time of Jesus. But there was a new insight our guide gave us: at the far corner of the garden there is a cave, and it had been there a long time. Some suspect that the disciples gathered at the mouth of the cave at the edge of the garden, about a distance from the main doors of our sanctuary to our front window.  Jesus, this time, was going to cross that span of olive trees alone, to a bolder that he knew was there. Then he prayed, during which time his voice would cry out, with his hopes to be spared the death that was awaiting him. Today we call it “being truly present.” That, it appears, is what Jesus wanted from his disciples. But they couldn’t do it. Sleep overcame them. Certainly no one but Jesus knew the gravity of that night. But our Holy Land travelers, having our time in the garden, and in the church of the Agony where it is believed the rock still is, had time to reflection on what Jesus was carrying: not a cross this time, but the knowledge of impending torture and death. Today as we see a crown of thorns, or a crucifix, think also about the mental anguish our Lord went through in that place, where his prayers were so fervent, that drops of blood dripped from his forehead to the stone below.

St. Peter of Gallinctu/ Garden Tomb
Scripture John 19:38-42

These are my reflections based on our visit to St. Peter of Gallicantu/ Garden Tomb from the Gospel of John Chapter 19:38-42.
I learned many new and wonderful things on this Pilgrimage. On the day we started to follow the steps of Jesus we visited the place that is said to be (/Ki-uh-fis) Caiaphas’ palace where Jesus spent his last night. I have read and grieved for all the torture Jesus went through however I did not know about him being lowered into a pit. We visited this pit below the Church that now stands there. Down into the caverns we went until we reached the pit that Jesus was lowered into. As I stared up at the hole in the ceiling, I imagined him being lowered into this dark cold and dreary dungeon I was overwhelmed with even more grief imagining him spending the night here and for what he went through for us! I broke down. Another pilgrim happened to see me weeping and told me later that she felt my soul touch hers.
Moving forward to the day we were to visit the Garden Tomb in which Jesus was laid I was trying to prepare myself for I thought it would be just as difficult to see. As I walked into the tomb my breath was taken away, but instead of feeling grief, I felt relief. I looked around at the empty tomb and a feeling of Peace just fell over me. I remember saying as I looked around “It is finished.” I was able to let go of all the grief and mourning I have done for many years focusing on all the torture that he endured. My grief was now replaced with Peace and the Amazing Love Jesus has for us. I now focus on the Joy of his resurrection and the sweetness of Jesus.

The Primacy of Peter
Scripture John 21:15-17

In our lives we search for peace. This site on the Sea of Galilee is a place of peace. The first time I visited this area I was struck with the sense that heaven had touched earth (called a thin place). It took my breath away. There is nothing grand here. There is a very small church and inside it is a huge rock called Mensa Christi. This spot is where Jesus met with the disciples for the final time after his resurrection. He saw Peter and some of the others fishing on the sea and Peter swam quickly to see his Master. They cooked fish and ate a final meal together.

Just days before, Peter had denied knowing Jesus on the night of the arrest – three times! I imagine that Peter was consumed with guilt and sorrow. Jesus took him aside and asked him three times, “Do you love me?” as recorded in John 21. Three times Jesus forgave Peter and charged him to go take care of his people. What a sense of peace must have come over Peter at that time. There is a statue depicting this event in a garden adjacent to the church.

This site is the only one where people can go and wade in the Sea of Galilee. I was particularly moved the time our daughter, Jenny, went with us while she was a seminary student. This time I got to share it with my son Matt, and his wife, Vicki. It is such a joy to stand in that water where Jesus walked and ministered to so many. There are also several large rocks in the shape of hearts – no one knows if there are natural or were carved – but they have so much meaning to a pilgrim visiting the area.

This time there was a mass being offered in Spanish in the garden and the singing fell over us. There is a sense of calm and peace at the Primacy of St. Peter, contrasted with the busyness of Jerusalem and other places we visited. Our guide, Leo, shared my love of this as a favorite place on our journey.

Nebi Samuel
Scripture 1 Samuel 25:1a

Honestly, picking 1 thing to talk about when we had 8 straight days of travelling from one living testimony to the next was pretty tough, but, in the end, picking this one sums up not only the trip, but, our mission, in my opinion.
Samuel is considered a great prophet by the Jewish, Christian, and Muslim churches. Seeing his tomb in Arimathea (yes, THAT Arimathea!) was awe inspiring because we could SEE Nazareth and Bethlehem from there, and, on the other side of the building, we could SEE Jerusalem. Seeing that the distances are much closer together than we thought really has me itching to teach some of these stories soon so I can share just how close things are and how the walking times is measured in minutes and hours, not days.
As I’d mentioned, all three religions look to this prophet, so, guess what, there’s THREE churches at this site … a synagogue, mosque, and church. What amazes me most about this is that these three churches are thriving and all doing well, with the leaders and parishioners working together in harmony. While we were at the site we saw a bunch of kids learning the torah under the watchful eye of their rabbi.
I walked away from that site thinking that THIS is what harmony looks like and should be. I’ll close with an observation from our tour guide, Leo … he’d pointed out the 4 different “sections” of old Jerusalem a couple days before and mentioned that “when there’s peace in Jerusalem, there’ll be peace in the world.” …

Safety in Israel/Palestine
Scripture Deuteronomy 6: 4-6

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