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The Stuffed Bear Question

Israel Holy Trip tour 2018 Day 6: Slow it down!

1I woke up just before 5:30 local time and stretched quietly after a good night’s deep sleep.  A rooster crowed boldly somewhere near the hotel.  The sun was creeping up over the horizon over Tay Beh.  A few cars dribble by, their lights still on, crawling sleepily through the narrow streets of this village.

I came down the steps and was greeted with genuine smiles by Elena and her workers as they silently but quickly moved through the tables in preparation for a Korean group that had to be fed at 6:30.  I am amazed at the hotel staff’s efficiency as they bustle about the kitchen and furniture; there is no wasted motion.

I poured myself some of the delicious Arabic coffee I have grown to love.  I viewed the olive grove outside the floor-to-wall windows in the front of the hotel.  The day has begun in Tay Beh.

I am reminded of the early start we had yesterday, and by that I mean the first visit we had as we began the day’s journey.  Dr. Don Hudson stopped our tour bus/van less than two blocks away.

“I have to show you something,” he said.  He directed us through the courtyard gates of the Christ the Redeemer Roman Catholic Church onto a bright blue-and-whitish colored courtyard with a historical stone cottage tucked in a corner.  “I’ve got to get the key,” he said.  “Be right back.”

We walked up to the entrance and looked at the rough-hewn house dated from somewhere in the midst of the first centuries.  Dr. Hudson returned with an elderly nun who gave us a wide toothy smile and opened the door.  We stepped through the doorway.  “This is the Parable House,” he said, waving his arm widely and showing us the stone walls, rustic fireplace, dusty amphorae and spackled ceiling.  “Think of the man lowered through the roof in the Capernaum story.  Look at the roof.  You are looking at the type of architecture, the type of construction that would be very similar to that home where the crippled man was lowered by his friends through the roof.  The top of this home is a patio, a porch-like top with tiles that could be removed, and his friends could claw through the roofing material to open a sufficient hole to lower the man down into a room like this.”

It put the picture right in the mind of every one of us yesterday.

That would be most of what we did through the day.

One of the great sites that many people miss, we are told, is the Herodian.  What a find!  This was an amazing example of Herod the Great’s eye for great architecture and magnificent structure. The acropolis is about seven miles south of Jerusalem and contained a personal mansion for him in one stone tower along with three other adjacent towers for his visiting dignitaries.  We strolled through the remains of his banquet hall, hot bath pools, Romanesque outdoor arched theater, and secret passages.  We viewed the mighty cisterns that held thousands of gallons of water that the historian Josephus said was collected in a very ingenious method.  There is a mausoleum within, and expert archaeologists have argued whether Herod was ever actually buried here.  Whatever the answer, we were nonetheless impressed by the massive manpower involved to make this imposing creation, mostly using slave labor.  This was the only work done by Herod that was named for himself.  Rising above the Judean desert, this is an imposing site.

It’s also a testimony to futility.  Whether Herod was buried here or not, his body lies nowhere.  If he indeed was interred here, later zealots may have taken and destroyed his corpse during the revolt of the 130 A.D. era.  Where was the permanence?  Like everything we have seen these past days of exploring, it is crumbling away.

We went to the amazing Azekah site, location of a formidable fortress in its day, with an array of thick walls and an intimidating height over the Valley of Elah.  As we stood at the top and viewed what very well may have been the battle scene of David against Goliath, we realized that this fortress of earth and stone was overtaken and scores may have died on the very pathways where we walked.

We climbed the steps to Lackish, a small distance from Azekah, and encountered another acropolis of earthen mounds and once-high stone walls.  Even the remains of the front gate still impress – the design was indeed made to protect against any attack.  The walls once rose above at such a height so as to withstand any quick assault.

The Assyrians saw this when approaching and realize that a full-scale frantic attack wouldn’t work.

So they took their time.

Remember this:  they took their time.

We followed Dr. Hudson and were introduced to a siege ramp – in fact, the largest siege ramp in the Middle East.

“They patiently and methodically built this ramp to be able to hold a siege engine – a special combination of battering ram and giant shield to march up and pound the wall until it split,” he said.

We climbed up and stood where the split occurred.  We stood at the spot where the wall crumbled.  The Assyrians, like time itself, patiently went about the task of destruction.

Time is the great god of this planet, I am being taught in this trip.  The great desire we see here is obviously for both power and even riches, but let’s not forget the great lust of mankind to complete the triumvirate: time.

Herod wanted time to reward him with a stamp of immortality.  The Azekah construction wanted to intimidate and thrive for the ages to come.  Lackish wanted, I believe,  to be around for a very, very long time.

None of them got their wish.  Time is no respecter of humanity.  Those who wish to negotiate on their own terms will find a fruitless – and often humiliating – end to their plans.

That’s why Jehovah stands out so powerfully at each stop.  This Eternal Father’s fingerprint is all over every site we see.  If there is no preparation for the eternal, where is the purpose of man’s life?  We are inclined to agree with Solomon: “Pointless.”

“Empty.”

Vanity.

You might find it odd for me to say that I find the best part of this trip is the meaningless of it all, but I mean it.

Don’t be confused; if you read between the lines, you will gather the treasure of each of these trips we take here:  you can find meaning in the meaningless.

Civilizations have come and gone and we walk through their remains and take them as if it is one condensed volume right at our feet.  We study these and would waste this week if we came back to the States and relegated our trips to trinkets and tales of new foods. We see, ever so clearly, of God’s direction to be aware that time can be defeated if one comes humbly to El Olam  – “the Everlasting God” – and seek His eternal Kingdom.

We have been students of epochs.  We are disciples of eras and periods.

The classroom has been the Middle East.

God has been gently teaching us.

That’s what makes the Holy Land trip so special.

Israel Holy Trip tour 2018 Day 5: the oldest construction in the world

1

Yesterday was fun and fulfilling.

Fun, because once more we ventured through Jerusalem and took in some historical sites –  the Roman Cardo was one of them.  This is a main road that was lined with impressive stone columns along its length, many which are still standing in the Old City. Originating at the northern Damascus Gate and running to the Zion Gate, the Cardo takes you back in time to where the thoroughfare was filled with shops and soldiers moving about the city.

It was also fun because I did my first haggling over some items I was trying to purchase.  I am not a haggler by nature, but this was a pretty enjoyable experience – even though I walked away from one seller and was poked and told that I was a “bad person.”

Yes, it was a great time.

It was also fulfilling because, well, you take in so much in the day.

There are times during the course of this trip that you lay your head back on the bus seat and close your eyes; you’ll be asleep in about ten seconds.  There are other times when you cannot put your camera down; you want to photograph every square centimeter of the surrounding view.  Still other times you want to stand and listen to Dr. Hudson and just take it all in, a bit at a time.

But it’s like, as Dr. Hudson says, like trying to drink from a fire hose.  It’s coming at you full force.  This happens every day of the trip.  We step back, look at each other and raise our eyebrows.  We breathe deeply and shake our heads. Then we say something stupid, like

Wow.

Yes, it happened again yesterday.

We went to the Jericho Wall.

This is Pre-Pottery Neolithic period, which is to say safely that this was a construction earlier than 8000 BC.  In other words, this is the oldest man-made wall in the world.

We walked up the pathway along the dirt road

This is the Jericho of Joshua and the falling wall.  This is the Jericho of Zaccheus.

This is where we realize the significance of the past ages.  We could picture in our mind’s eye the advancement of Joshua and the Israelites, so noted in the Biblical book of Joshua in chapter 6.  We try hard to imagine the soldiers and citizens looking over the ramparts and trying to figure out this strange group of invaders who are approaching.  I look about the sections of excavated hillside and see the different time periods, as pointed out by Dr. Hudson, and see the deep early constructions and try to visualize the toilers of the early ages creating the altar, storage areas and protective walls.  I think beyond the brutality of battle and try to imagine the people of the land sitting down and chatting about the events of the day – this Jesus is dining with the notorious Zaccheus the tax collector in his very house!

Where did it happen?  How many people tried to peek through the window?  What change overcame the city?

This is the conflict of trips such as these:  the discoveries you make are at the same time exciting and exhausting. Your whole concept of the Bible passages you read get re-organized. You can now visualize things in a whole fresh light.  That in itself makes it exciting but it also renovates your pre-conceived thoughts about such stories you have read and heard over the years.  It is the mental equivalent of boot camp – you are hard-exercising cerebral muscles that you had let go into “cruise control” for so many years in your concept of a Bible event.  This new effort is hard but also profitable; you leave each site with a new, deeper, and maybe a bit stronger mental and spiritual grasp.

The mounds are huge.  The place is dry and dusty.  I cannot remember when I have been so excited about a mound of dirt.  God is the God of dirt and civilizations and history and victory.  God’s fingerprint is on this place.

This is deep Biblical history and, yes, I got excited.  And a bit overwhelmed.

So did we all.

I want to tell you about a special site at Tay Beh – a 1600 year old church named St. George’s – but the hotel lobby is filling up and some elderly but eager tourists from another group want to sit and have coffee and chat.

I must go.

Israel Holy Trip tour 2018 Day 4: Feeling small in a big land

1This morning I stepped out into the hall of Tay Beh’s Golden Hotel and was greeted with a sweet, deep smell of citrus.  It was a gentle aroma carried along the corridor as I descended the steps into the main lobby and headed toward the breakfast area.  I was greeted by our host Elena and poured myself a small white handle-less porcelain cup of outrageously good Arabic coffee and sat down with another deep breath.

The one great regret that I have is that I cannot bring the aroma of Israel back with me.

The smell of this coffee.

The spices of the market in Jerusalem’s Christian quarter.

The scented candles of the Church of St. Anne’s.

The flower gardens of the Russian Orthodox Church of Mary Magdalene on the Mount of Olives.

I am impressed with the aromatic side of worship in the Holy Land.

Smell is a part of the human existence, and as with other our other senses, we can use them in the spiritual walk in our lives. Think of how our senses are incorporated: we hear the songs of praise and the Scripture teaching; we see the Word in front of us and study its message; we taste of the good foods in our celebratory feasts at church and festivals.  Smell is also a very deep part of the Holy Land life, I am discovering more and more each day here.  The whole experience of smells reminds me that the different churches and cultures thank and honor the Lord with more than music, recitation and architecture.  You see in many places the aromatic worship of the Most High within the realm of the congregation’s meeting place.  As I stood next to an elderly Russian hostess at an ornate sanctuary and tried my best to understand her broken English, I took in the scents of the spices and candles and realized that this was part of their joyous celebration of the Lord.

It was just a part of the deepening learning experience of being here on our fourth day of the trip.

Yesterday’s oppressive heat couldn’t dissuade our determination to learn of Jerusalem.  Dr. Hudson gestured towards the massive numbers of Jewish graves facing the Eastern Gate.  “They are positioned to face the Temple Mount – and the coming Messiah.”  He pointed out the curious numbers of rocks placed on top of the stone graves. “These are stones of remembrance,” he said, “of giving honor to those who have passed on.”

The Eastern Gate, also known as the Golden Gate, is shut by a massive stone blockage.  I tried to imagine that this location was the entryway of Jesus – on the back of a simple donkey – in a grand entrance beginning the Passover Week and in fulfillment of Zechariah 9:9’s call for the Messiah to enter on a lowly pack animal.   I also did my best to picture the future event that will see this very Gate shatter from the disruption of an earthquake that will throw the grave sites aside and form a new valley that bisects the Kidron Valley we are viewing.  The coming Lord will then answer the Zechariah 14 prophecy of descending onto the Mount of Olives and causing the catastrophic seismic event.  He will walk through the now-crumbled Eastern Gate and answer Ezekiel 44’s prophecy of the “opening” of the gate to welcome in the Prince of Eternity.

Our later visit to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was a second part of the reflection of this Christ.  Such magnificence in architecture is meant to honor the supreme sacrifice of Jesus for all of mankind, and yet this church should not be seen as the last of people’s pilgrimage; this is the gateway to the road of salvation.   I ascended the steps to the Golgotha scene and knelt under the altar to view a decorated opening over the top of the rock edifice.  I reached into the hole and felt the smooth rock.  Was this the exact place of the cross of Jesus?  We will never know here on earth, but does that really matter?  I enjoyed the sensation of reverence and the intensity of the moment, but touching a rock does not enhance my salvation or my daily walk with Jesus.  Walking into the site of what is purported to be the tomb of Jesus was exciting and fulfilling but I don’t need this as a necessary part of a pilgrimage.

Each evening I have been having live real-time classroom broadcasts (via Facebook Live) to my students back at Grace Christian Academy in Knoxville, Tennessee.  The teens will type in questions about my day’s experience. One question brought up was: What does this trip do for me?

There are so many things I could say.  I floated clumsily in the densely salted Dead Sea.  I felt the cold waters and moved past the reeds of the slow-moving Jordan  River.  I tasted the fresh dates and olives of Tay Beh’s gardens.

But what did this trip do for me?  Oh, that’s an easy answer…

It adds to my understanding.  It adds another dimension to my years of Biblical learning; I feel my grasp of the Scriptures growing in both the abstract and concrete aspects of comprehension.  I mean, I can see Jesus walking around the wilderness hillside we are  visiting.  As we stand next to the ruins I could feel the intensity of the Masada synagogue meeting where they decided to choose suicide rather than slavery to the encroaching Roman army.  I can measure out, actually and physically walk off the size of the huge cistern the held Masada’s water reserve.  I can also march through the secret Akko tunnels and take in the immensity of the work involved.

And most of all today, I can relate to the restlessness that John the Baptist felt when Jesus came to him for baptism.  Jacob, Ethan, Daniel, and Dennis requested that I baptize them in the Jordan River.  I am always stuck with a feeling of deep unworthiness whenever I am called to perform the baptism and today – in the Jordan River, mind you – I am humbled beyond words.

This week has been like that in many ways.

Israel is so intense in numerous aspects, with diverse and engaging peoples and buildings echo history.

I stand in the face of such massive history – just as I stood at the edge of Herod’s terrace and looked out over the vast Judean desert – and I feel now just as I did then.

I feel small.

And that’s a good perspective for me.

Israel Holy Trip tour 2018 Day 3: is this synagogue where the young Jesus studied?

1

We were awakened at our convent in Nazareth and after a short breakfast, Dr. Hudson took us to the top patio/porch of the Franciscan retreat center and showed us Nazareth with a lesson that was panoramic in more than what we heard.   We had an awe-inspiring view of the hillside of Nazareth.

Church towers, domes, minarets and steeples.  Dusty brick and bright white stonework.  Bells ringing.

This is historical Nazareth.

We swiveled our heads to take in the early morning view, trying to imagine the walkway that would have led Jesus up the hillside in that direction to Cana.   I tried to picture in my mind’s eye of the quiet Mary facing the messenger Gabriel who had stepped away from the throne of God Himself to come down and bring a message that would change the world.

We walked to the Church of the Anunciation, an imposing structure that is really a church-within-a church.  An early Byzantine church was built over the site that many believe to be Mary’s childhood home.  The more recent church was literally built over top of the Byzantine structure.  The place was large but quiet.

Then we went to the Synagogue Church.  “This” said Dr. Hudson, “is what many people say could have been the very synagogue where the young Jesus studied.”  A church was built next to the small stone synagogue.  We descended the steps and stopped.

We stopped.

And looked.

Everyone was quiet.

This could have been the place where the child Jesus studied the Torah.  This could be where He sat on a bench and recited passage from Isaiah and Daniel.  This place.

And this was just the start to the day.

Holy Land Trip: Day 2

1Oh, Israel…

My friends, I thought last year’s tour was great. This year’s is even better.

Trying to tell you what we’ve done today in one blog is like my trying to outrace a Tony Schumacher top fuel dragster on foot – I just don’t have the time or speed.  I’ll try my best to give you an overview, and what it meant to me personally today.

This is especially challenging since I am trying to type while our driver Bassan is weaving us through Cana.   I am flopping side to side and trying to keep my fingers on the laptop keyboard.

No complaints whatsoever.  Each minute is a new learning experience.  I mean this almost literally. What a day.

We entered the evening sweaty and suntanned, tired in the feet and yet energized and talkative about what we’ve seen and experienced.

How can I describe these days succinctly?  I am so afraid I’ll leave out an important detail.  We visited the gorgeous gardens of the Bahá’í World Centre in Haifa, walked through underground tunnels in Akko, and wondered at the deep and rich history of Meggido.  And we even squeezed in a lunch of shawarma in a sidewalk café at lunchtime.  And fed a quartet of kitties while we were dining.

Small note: we have run into cats at about every turn where we’ve gone.  They’re everywhere.  In fact, Ethan, Daniel and I witnessed a stray cat sneak into the Akko castle and wedge himself under a plexiglass window and romp around a museum display. It was hilarious.

On a more serious note:  the Megiddo visit was just short of stunning.  We trekked up the front pathway through the daunting remains of the fortress entryway and thick stone walls, wiping the sweat off of our faces in the 90 degree heat.  One could imagine how hot this was on a daily basis as the inhabitants labored in their farmland, wall building, water carrying and other outside labor.  This seems especially ironic when one could look out over the cool, wide, lush Jezreel Valley.

This is an area untainted by huge churches built over every significant site.  You can walk around and imagine life in this settlement.  The shock, though, is of the realization that this huge hill is completely made of continuous civilizations building on top of one another; it could be up to 25 civilizations each making the previous buildings their foundation stones.  I find it especially striking – like last year – that this will be the viewing point of the final battle of the ages – the Battle of Armageddon.  Overlooking the peaceful flat valley conflicts the mind; there will be incredible bloodshed here?

War dominates the themes of the morning.  Akko’s fortress is beyond any quick description.  The huge walls and the massive building blocks.  The deep halls and the underground tunnels.  The musty meeting rooms and the awe-inspiring arches and columns.  All built in the name of war.  All built by Crusaders who were in a religious conquest that was, sadly, spotted with tragedies and crimes that are hardly justified.  The construction of this huge complex can only be grasped by viewing one of our Classroom Travelers videos.  We walk around the wide rooms in order to get a perspective of the hugeness of the place.

We later stopped by Haifa, stopping at the top of Mount Carmel.  This is the land of Elijah and his showdown facing the priest of Baal.  This is the location of the sacrificial altars and the fire from Heaven.  One could imagine the people carrying jars of water from the beach of the Mediterranean as Elijah urges them to be quicker and to pour the water contents all over the wood of the altar.

We were on the move throughout the day and into the evening.  Sure, the food was fantastic, but that’s for another time and is not important to this blog.  We studied.  We questioned.  We learned.

Isn’t that what the Lord enjoys?  The Lord REMINDS US IN 2 Timothy 1:7 that He has given us a sound mind.  It seems to me more and more as our generations progress that this is overlooked.  We do understand the verse in its “power” and “love” context; after all, isn’t that what God is all about?  We often ignore the “sound mind” aspect and the need for learning and expanding our understanding.  I have urged the group to study and then to be ready to teach when we get back to the States.  There is a lot to learn and there is much to instruct.

I must run… we are nearing Magdala. There is another lesson ready for us.  Thank you, Lord, for this fantastic outdoor classroom experience.

 

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