Friday, September 30, 2011

Reflections on My Trip to Israel - Day 7 of 10

In a massive restoration project for the land of Israel, since 1902 more than 280 million trees have been planted, and to help this project, in connection with the government of Israel, Pastor Peter Youngren has launched the Grace Biblical Forest.
Pastor Peter upholds that the planting of the Grace Biblical Forest “is a unique opportunity to be part of a deeply meaningful, prophetic fulfillment” (Isaiah 32), and he is planting 100,000 trees, many of which are fruit-bearing. To this end, Errol and I grasped the opportunity to leave a tree planted in Israel in our names. So we have a tree, basking in the sunshine of Israel and serving a worthwhile purpose in that land which means much to us.

We drove through the Jordan (Rift) Valley to Beit She’an, an ancient city that has existed since the time of King Saul and visited the remains of a Roman theatre (circa 1 AD) that has been excavated there. On that day it was blazing hot, and as usual, at every place we visited, I looked for two things: a cool, shady spot and a place to sit, but this time I did not find either of that, so I just had to deal with the heat as I admired the view.

I could just imagine the grandeur of Beit She’an and the Roman theatre in its hey day 6,000 years ago. The theatre boasted a semi-circular design cut into the hillside and seated 7,000 people in rows of limestone seats. In my imagination I could see the crowds and sporting events, and other entertainment of the day. In that place in particular, we were so close to ancient history, we could almost touch it.

There are still ongoing excavations taking place in Beit She’an. You can see the remains of the theatre in one of today’s pictures….who knows what else will be unearthed! If ever you go to Israel, Beit She’an should be a must-visit place on your list.

Another must-visit place on your list should be Nazareth Village, which is very interesting! This is a village scene created in Nazareth that shows the way the community looked in Jesus’ early years. It is a live scenario that really gave us the feel of first century living, with a show-and-tell atmosphere. Visit their website here

It is not as hectic Church of the Holy Sepulchre or the Church of the Nativity or even the Via Dolorosa, but it is a quiet, rural setting with shepherds and grazing sheep. However, there was much uphill climbing on rocky, rough terrain.

Imagine how it was in those days…no supermarkets, no refrigeration for food, no fast foods, and all work was manual with home-made equipment and carpentry tools, and every meal was prepared from scratch.

At Nazareth Village, men and women wore traditional first-century garb, moving around gracefully as they demonstrated how chores were done in those early days. They showed us how wool was spun, dyed and woven to make clothing. The cloths were dyed with onion skins for brown colours, and specific fruits for other colours.

They showed how garments were made, how wine was made, how grain was ground, how olives were pressed to extract oil, and how sheep were raised. It was a step into the past to catch a glimpse of how life was in Jesus’ boyhood days.

Another interesting stop on that day was at Cana of Galilee where Jesus did His first miracle of turning water into wine at a wedding. Frankly, I always wonder why Jesus bothered to turn water into wine for the guests at the wedding. He could have easily told them to go home because the wine had run out…

We saw Mary’s Well where tradition says that Mary, while fetching water from the well, received the announcement from the angel Gabriel that she would bring forth Jesus, our Saviour. The well is fed from a spring called Mary’s Spring. And though the place of the annunciation is not recorded in the Bible, the traditional account is very ancient.

Then there was baptism in the Jordan River. One can never imagine the feeling of being at the very river where Jesus was baptized and the Spirit descending like a dove upon Him. We might not know the exact spot of Jesus’ baptism, but we know it was the Jordan River, and knowing this does something to the believer’s soul. I lost count of how many were baptized by Pastor Peter Youngren in the Jordan on that day, but I know there were many. In some places the Jordan is just a mere stream but at the place for baptism it is a mighty river.

We spent that night at the Rimonim Hotel and were in time for the May 14th celebration of Israel’s 63 years as a nation. It was great to be in time for celebrating Israel’s national birthday with her. As I reflected on the occasion, I realized that Errol and I chose the right time to visit Israel: just at her national birthday. At a park near our hotel there was a lot of celebration going on. Partygoers had a great time in the park all night having fun, fireworks, singing and dancing.

That evening, after dinner, we had another dynamic teaching by Pastor Peter and eagerly looked forward to the next day when we would be going on a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Reflections on My Trip to Israel - Day 6 of 10

Day 6, Sunday, was our free day. We were not taken to visit sites anywhere and were told we could spend the day in any way we chose. I planned on reading, relaxing and catching up on my journalling and emails to home.

Our guide, Doron, had encouraged us to visit Ben Yehuda Street and do some shopping. He also told us how to get there by bus or taxi. He said some of the most expensive and beautiful merchandise in Jerusalem can be found on Ben Yehuda Street.

However, Errol and I did not go to Ben Yehuda Street, but later, when I heard from three women about beautiful fabrics they bought there, I wished I had made the effort to go shopping on Ben Yehuda Street. Carla, Sherry and Karen talked about the store owner knowing a lot about fabrics and accessories and they asked him how he knew so much about fabrics. He told them it was because his wife used to sew a lot and this is how he learned about it. She is no longer in the land of the living but left him a legacy of knowledge about the merchandise he sells.

I have an addiction for beautiful fabrics, and though I have a ton of fabrics at home in every design, colour and texture, a couple pieces more, especially from Israel, would not have hurt my inventory. Oh, how I wish I had gone to shop at Ben Yehuda Street!

Anyway, Ben Yehuda Street is on my list for my next visit to Israel, which I hope will be soon.

Errol and I were not the only ones who did not go to Ben Yehuda Street. We met with others and chatted with them about our past week and shared about what our pilgrimage to the Holy Land meant to us. As for me, it was the living reality of a long-time dream about 20 years in the making. I have always been attracted to the culture and language of Israel and it felt good to be in the land related to the Patriarchs and Prophets of old and where Jesus walked, taught and did His many healings and miracles.

We talked also about the Jerusalem Syndrome, which Pastor Peter Youngren told us about quite early in our pilgrimage, and had laughingly warned us not to catch the “disease.” The Jerusalem Syndrome is some sort of psychotic disorder, which many pilgrims experience on their visit to Israel. They imagine weird ideas about themselves relating to biblical characters and historical places, maybe it is because of being in the environment where so much biblical history took place. This does a spin in the human psyche of most individuals, weaving a fantasy in their minds causing them to think in an inadvertent way. For example, we heard of one man on Mount Carmel who thought he was Elijah re-visiting the area. This is just one small incident.

Jerusalem is a charismatic place, and I use the term “charismatic” in a loving way. As a pilgrim, being in that city takes a hold on you. It grows on you. Maybe it is because of one’s biblical knowledge and it gives the reality of being close to places God performed His mighty works, especially in Old Covenant times.

The pursuit of tracking events in ancient Jerusalem is a magnificent obsession and many pilgrims, including myself, can never seem to get enough of it. However, I did not catch the Jerusalem Syndrome but caught a cold because of not being dressed warmly enough early one morning.

Remember in my first post there is a photo of a man with a camel and he is carrying a stick? He was soliciting patrons to take a picture either standing next to the camel or sitting on it for a fee of $20.00. The thing is, in order to climb on the camel it had to kneel. The poor animal’s knees were sore from kneeling on asphalt and stone and I could not see how anyone would be a party in putting the animal through that distress. For this reason, even though it meant “bread and butter” for his owner’s table, I did not take a picture with the camel.

More about our pilgrimage next week...

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Reflections on My Trip to Israel - Day 5 of 10

This was our day to visit three of the most distinctive sites in Israel: Qumran, Masada and the Dead Sea. So right after breakfast we boarded our bus and headed to our destination, which meant driving through the Judean desert. Parts of the area are barren with much sand and rocks, yet other parts are irrigated with water and boast beautiful date palms and other lush greenery.

At last, we got to Qumran and our guide pointed out to us the exact cave where the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered by a Bedouin lad in 1947. The area is mountainous and bleak and said to be the place where the ancient Essenes lived. The Essenes were a strict Jewish sect of religious people that existed during the time of Christ. They practiced a simple lifestyle and celibacy was a part of it, and isolated themselves in the area where we stood.

Many scholars claim that the Essenes were the ones who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls.

One person from our bus was delighted to find a piece of pottery about the size of a loonie and vowed he would keep it as a souvenir. That set some of us on a search for broken pieces of pottery, but alas we found none, and soon it was time for us to leave that area.

After Qumran, we headed for Masada and the Dead Sea. Somehow I do not like the name “Dead Sea.” Couldn’t they have called it something else?

En route to Masada, we visited a gift shop that sold cosmetics made from black mud and other vital minerals from the Dead Sea. I might have bought something if I could have been assured it would take 20 years off my looks but could not be convinced, and did not buy any of the cosmetics but resorted to other gifts.

On that day, it was hot. I do not remember how many degrees the temperature was, but it was h-o-t, and being on top of a mountain, it seemed like we were closer to the sun and hotter than usual. Masada is a plateau atop a high mountain of stone and we ascended to its summit by cable cars, and though all around us were mountains and caves, bleak and quiet, yet it was b-e-a-u-t-i-f-u-l. I tell you, Israel is a beautiful place.

Doron, our guide, told us the history of Masada and the account of the 960 Jews who perished in self-inflicted mass murder/suicide rather than succumb to the Romans. I was much impressed by the way Doron told the story, bringing it to life. One could almost see the tragedy taking place and feel the emotions of the people in that place.

Doron is well-gifted with the magic of story-telling and kept us spell-bound as we listened. I had learnt about the tragedy of Masada at Bible college and never dreamt I would be standing there on Masada one day, hearing the story again in a detailed, picturesque manner and seeing the ruins of Herod’s palaces, bath houses, swimming pool, even a synagogue. It was truly a moving story and a magnificent sight. The history of Masada and the way Doron told it have left an indelible mark in my mind

Now, on to the Dead Sea. Years ago, whenever I heard of the Dead Sea, I often wondered why a sea should be called dead, but I’ve come to understand the reason. That sea is called dead because of the high content of salt in its water that prevents any fish or other aquatic creatures to live there. Those who know about seas and their levels tell us that the Dead Sea is the lowest point on earth, as a matter of fact its elevation is 417 feet below sea level.

Doron, our guide, told us that King David once hid from Saul in the area of the Dead Sea, called Ein Gedi, and in my analytical mind I began wondering, in every area my sight would focus: was it in this area that David hid? Or was it in that area where there are a lot of trees? Or could it be in that cave nearby, or behind the rocks?

A multitude of people trekked to the Dead Sea, some seeking to be more youthful, some to be more healthy and I am sure, some for the mere experience of floating in the water.
However, when they came out, I looked to see if any of them were more youthful but they all seemed the same as before they went into the water, nevertheless, I heard some individuals say they felt invigorated and that was good.

Somehow I was not impressed to go into the water but appreciated the stunning view from afar. But then again, I had my reasons: I am not a water buff, I am afraid of large bodies of water and besides that, I did not want to get my feet wet, so I did not go into the Dead Sea. Call me chicken if you want, I'll take that!

I understand the Dead Sea is shrinking. Maybe it would not be in existence in the next hundred years, so who knows, if you want to experience its legendary therapeutic waters, and float in a sea where you can never sink, you should hurry on to Israel and take some baths in Israel’s Dead Sea.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Reflections on My Trip to Israel - Day 4 of 10

After a sumptuous breakfast at our hotel, we boarded our bus and our first visit was to Yad Vashem, Israel’s memorial museum to the six million Jews who perished in the Nazi holocaust that begun in 1933. This place is an impressive collection of thousands of artifacts that relate to the times the Jews sojourned in Europe, for example, photographs, carrying cases and a host of memorabilia, also an eternal flame burning in memory of those who perished.

In memory of the tragedy of the holocaust, the museum has been given a name biblically which is Yad Vashem, derived from Isaiah 56:5.

In a trip to Israel, Yad Vashem is a distinctive place to visit. However, though some people, including myself were enthused with all the information given, yet for others it was too painful to withstand, and they walked away.

Yad Vashem is a sure testimony of Israel never to forget the Nazi holocaust and to pass that information to their future generations, just as they have done with the account of their journey from Egypt to the Promised Land in Old Testament times.

Then on we went to the Israel Museum in which there is a vast collection of arts, archaelogy and ancient scrolls and fragments of other writings. The museum has dedicated an entire wing called the Shrine of the Book to the housing of the Dead Sea scrolls found at Qumran in 1947 by a young Bedouin shepherd. To witness those ancient treasures somehow gave me the feeling of being present when they were created.

At the Israel Museum there is an outdoor scale model of the city of Jerusalem, showing houses, buildings and the Temple of Jerusalem as far back as AD 66. These models provide an accurate view of how Jerusalem looked in those times. Our tour guide mentioned that should there be any bit of new information coming in, the model is adjusted, but so far it is up to date and accurate with all information and traditions received. This work of art and skill is truly something to be seen.

I stand amazed to see how much Israel has accomplished in the mere 63 years the country has become a state. When I consider the Judean desert with its flourishing greenery in parts of it, aided by its intricate irrigation system and a museum filled with historical writings, massive excavations and the rebuilding of ancient structures, I have to agree with the Bible that Israel is truly blessed of the Almighty.

Then off we went to the Church of the Nativity (the place where tradition tells us that Jesus was born). However, before going there, our guide took us to a pastoral setting where there are caves, and we were told it was most likely such a place that Jesus was born. This was done so that we would get an idea of what the nativity cave looked like in those days.

The Church of the Nativity is a 6th century building which is said to be built over a cave.

This is a huge building, part of which is the church and part is a souvenir shop, selling holy oils, candles, religious pictures, olive wood carvings, etc. and to enter the part that is the church, pilgrims have to stoop low to walk through a doorway only 1.2 meters high that is cut in a stone wall. And as ususal, there was a noisy crowd of people, with flashing cameras and a lot of pushing and shoving to enter the church through the low doorway.

As one enters the church through the low doorway there is a grotto (cave) with a large silver star on its marble floor, marking the spot where Jesus is said to have been born. On the floor of the grotto there are the words “Hic de virgine Maria Jesus Christus natus est” meaning in Latin, “Here Jesus Christ was born to the Virgin Mary.”

As pilgrims entered the church, many could be seen, stooping low to kiss the star that marks the spot where Jesus was said to be born. In my mind’s eye, I imagined the cave as I had seen it at the previous pastoral setting and mentally placed it at that spot.

And as usual, with any Roman Catholic or Greek Orthodox church, the décor at the Church of the Nativity is very ornate, with beautiful hanging lamps, lighted candles and biblical pictures which all serve their purpose in creating a religious atmosphere. All this made me think “this would be a beautiful place to sit and meditate on the birth and life of Christ…if only there was time and opportunity to be quiet…” It would have been so much more meaningful and satisfying.

At the hotel, we ended the day with a great dinner and a wonderful teaching by Pastor Peter Youngren