All Good Things…

June 1st, 2011

By Dorothy Jean Weaver

Greetings, friends!

This is just a brief and final note to let you know that we have now arrived home, safely and with deep gratitude, from our Middle East sojourn in Israel/Palestine.

Last Friday morning, May 27, we enjoyed a final retreat and a closing Communion Service together at our lodgings on the Mount of Beatitudes, overlooking the Sea of Galilee. It was a special gift to have time alone for personal reflection and journaling and then to regather for a time of shared reflections around the circle. And it was likewise a special gift to share the bread and cup with each other in our final worship service together. Following our morning of “retreat,” we had a wonderful lunch of St. Peter’s Fish (aka tilapia) in the dining room of our guest house, in place of the sandwiches which had been “Plan A” for that meal. I noted to the group that Jesus had turned water into wine, while Tony, our inimitable tour guide, through his interventions with the travel agency on our behalf, had turned sandwiches into St. Peter’s Fish! (He liked that little joke.)

From the Mount of Beatitudes we headed south and west to Caesarea Maritima, the amazing sea harbor built by Herod the Great and the site where Paul was held in custody for several years and from which he set off by ship for Rome. Here we paid a short visit to the aquaduct (and the beach!), then visited the archaeological site. And from Caesarea we headed on south to Netanya on the coast and the Blue Bay, a hotel situated directly on the shore of the Mediterranean. It was a striking setting for our last few hours in the Holy Land. And the sound of the waves was delightful background music throughout our short stay. But our time was very brief. At 12:00 midnight we rolled out of bed, ever-so-unwillingly, to drag our bags down to the reception, drink early-morning beverages, and wait for our bus driver to show up and open the bus for our trip to Tel Aviv and Ben Gurion International Airport.

We were on the road by 1:00 AM and at the airport prior to 2:00 AM, in advance of our 5:30 AM flight to Frankfurt and our onward flight to Washington Dulles. It took several hours before we had all cleared security and checked in for our flight. And then it was all over except for the long, long, long flight home and the 31-hour day (24 + 7) which replaced for us the seven hours that we had lost on the trip east some 3 1/2 weeks earlier.

And now we are home, in body and in spirit. But our trip will continue to live with us in coming days and weeks and on into the future, as we reflect on all that we have encountered and experienced. Our worlds will never be quite the same again. And that is the gift–and the ongoing challenge–of travel and encounter with new worlds and new people.

Thanks to all of you for your participation in our journey as you have read our daily blogs and prayed for us along the way! We are deeply grateful for your gifts of interest and support as we have traveled. And if any of you have been intrigued by our travel experiences and would love to join such a travel group in future (2013), please feel free to be in touch. We would love to hear from you.

A Day in and around the Sea of Galilee

May 25th, 2011

By Steve Carpenter

What a beautiful place we are staying–a guest house overlooking the beautiful Sea of Galilee!

We began our day with a walk down the Mount of Beatitudes, along a path through the fields pondering some of Jesus’ parables en route to a cave where he may have retreated to pray. We reached the chapel of the Primacy of Peter located on the site where Jesus restored Peter by asking him three times “Do you love me more than these?” Kevin led us in a reflective exercise as we pondered Jesus’ words for each of our lives.

From there we traveled a short distance to Capernaum, the village which Jesus called home during his active ministry as recorded in the Gospels.
It was exciting to be in the place where Jesus and Peter lived and ministered. We saw the ruins of Peter’s house with a Byzantine Church built above it. From Capernaum we made a quick stop at Chorazin (Korazim) National Park, one of the three cities Jesus condemned in Matthew 11:21 and Luke 10:13 There we saw the remains of a Jewish Synagogue. Kursi National Park was next on our itinerary. There we saw the ruins of a Byzantine Church built in the fifth century C.E. on the probable site of Jesus’ healing of the demoniac. You’ll remember Jesus cast the demons out and they entered a herd of pigs which ran into the lake and drowned. The church floor is an intricate mosaic design which have been amazingly preserved. It is the largest known Byzantine Church in the Holy Land.

We continued on our way, circumnavigating the entire Sea of Galilee, with a brief stop at the Jordan River baptismal site on southern end of the lake. Many are baptized there, although it is most likely that Jesus himself was baptized by John further to the south. The Church of Multiplication (Heptapegon) was our next stop in the city of Tiberius. This is the place where Jesus feed the five thousand with five loaves and two fishes. There is a beautiful church built over the rock where many believe Jesus placed the bread, blessed it and gave it to the people.

Our final stop was the Church of the Beatitudes, located on the Mount of Beatitudes on the same grounds where we are staying. What a wonderful experience to reflect on what Robert called “the most radical sermon ever preached.” As most of you know, the Beatitudes are especially important to Mennonites. There we reflected them (Matthew 5-7) before ending our day with Vespers led by Robert. He included a very unusual Arabic song called “The Drink Sent Down” which includes the thought provoking line “We proudly wore our borrowed clothes before we saw our naked secret.” Such are the sites we visit and the mysteries we ponder on our pilgrimage through the Holy Land.

p.s. Yesterday we left Nazareth, stopping in the ancient Roman city of Sepphoris where Jesus may have worked. There we sat in an ancient 4,000 seat amphitheater and saw the beautiful “Mona Lisa of Galilee” mosaic.
From there, we explored and had lunch at the 700 member Lavi (Lion) Kibbutz, an impressive complex begun in tents in 1949 which now boasts a beautiful hotel, farm, and furniture factory. After a drive to Galilee we climbed the cliffs of Arbel where we saw a spectacular view of the sea below. We not only saw the Sea, we sailed upon it and Sue conducted a brief memorial service for her late husband James F. Harding and scattered his ashes on the water.

Jesus’ family sites and Nazareth Village

May 25th, 2011

By Carl and Becky Van Stavern

Greetings from Nazareth.

We had a wonderful day touring Nazareth today. Following a short bus ride down the hill from our guest house our first stop was at Mary’s Well, which is housed in the Greek Orthodox Church of the Annunciation. As always, our tour guide provided us with an interesting background story with appropriate scriptural support.

We then walked through the Old City Market area to visit the Greek Catholic Synagogue Church, which is representative of a synagogue where Jesus may have read the scroll to his hometown crowd as recorded in Luke 4. Monroe Yoder shared this powerful passage with us and then we sang to witness the beautiful acoustics of this site.

We journeyed on towards our next stop, the (Roman Catholic) Church of the Annunciation, which contains the house of Mary. This church also has many beautiful frescoes of the Immaculate Conception as interpreted and represented from various cultures of the world, including the one from the USA, which according to our guide utilized some of the remnants recovered from the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.

Our next stop was just a short journey up the hill to Church of St. Joseph, also known as the Carpenter’s Church, which according to tradition, was built on the site of where the Holy Family lived.

Following a break for lunch and some free time to visits some of the shops, we finished out our day visiting Nazareth Village, which is a re-creation of a first century village. Following our tour of Nazareth Village, we had a time of prayer and reflection at the synagogue that had been constructed at the Village. We finished our time at the village by partaking of a wonderful first century meal.

Our day was rounded out by hearing one of the English guests at the guest house read the story of Jesus’ birth as it had been written by some English elementary students from the middle of England in that area’s particular accent.

Tomorrow, we head further north for our first glimpse of the Sea of Galilee.

Paying attention to Jesus

May 25th, 2011

By Jared and Elizabeth Stoltzfus

Greetings from Nazareth. We had another wonderful day here in the Holy Land.

We began our day with a trip down the hill to Christ Episcopal Church. We had a very gracious priest who tried to make us feel a little more at home by adding English to an otherwise Arabic service. Following the service we enjoyed a time of fellowship with the members there. One thing that we were all happy about was the awesome selections of sweets to go along with our Arabic coffee. From the church, we walked to downtown Nazareth for lunch.

After lunch, we boarded the bus and headed towards Mt. Tabor, the Mt of Transfiguration. We got off the bus about half way up the mountain and boarded taxis that were better able to handle the narrow switch-back roads. After the quick, and sometimes scary, drive to the top we entered the grounds of  the Franciscan monastery that houses the church of the Transfiguration. We had a wonderful time of reflection where we pondered the question what does it mean to listen to Jesus. (Read the text in Matthew 17).

It is hard to listen to Jesus, and only Jesus. There are millions of voices crying out to us demanding our attention and our loyalty. So what do we do. How do we pay attention, and listen, to Jesus and not the other voices that cry out to us. So what does it mean?

This is one of the many questions we were left with during this trip. We have only a few days left, and there is so much swirling in my mind. So many questions, anger, and frustration. So what does it look like in the midst of all of that to listen to Jesus. I will spend a lot more time beyond the three weeks in Israel pondering this questions.

Nazareth, Nassar Family and Home Stays

May 25th, 2011

By Adam Blagg and Todd Christensen

Greetings from Nazareth!

It has been a busy few days as we have moved from Bethlehem, to Jerusalem and now Nazareth.  Our last evening in Bethlehem was spent at different locations as we divided into groups and stayed with home stay hosts.  The next day was spent in Jerusalem with visits to a scale model of Jerusalem, replicating the time of Jesus, prior to the destruction of the city in 70AD, and a visit to Yad Vashem, the Isreali Holocaust Museum.  We spent the night at the guest house in Jerusalem and left Jerusalem this morning.  We began our trip north towards Galilee with a stop in Taybeh, the only remaining Christian town in Israel.  After a filling meal, we continued on to Nazareth.

On Thursday we had a completely different experience than any other, we headed out early to the Nassar family farm, also known as Tent of Nations.  This family farm has been owned and operated by the Nassar family since 1916 and is under constant threat of confiscation by the encroaching Israeli settlements.  Instead of the typical farmhouse you might find in the Shenandoah Valley, the Nassar family made use of several caves for living quarters and these same caves still have their uses today as meeting places for guests.  Our goal that day was to not only learn about the plight of the Nassar family and others like them, but also to provide some help.  We spent the morning hours harvesting wheat by hand, and practiced the art of tying sheaves. As the noon hour approached we loaded the sheaves onto a wagon and brought them to an area for storage.  Our work group was lively as songs and applicable bible stories were shared among the workers.  Our time on the farm concluded with a wonderful home cooked meal and a passionate narrative of the issues facing the farm and how people from many places about the world have helped them in their fight to remain viable.

Each home stay visit had a unique experience but we wanted to share a few comments about our visit.  Abdullah Awwad and his family were our hosts and as we entered his car for the trip to Beit Sahour, he informed us we were going to be staying at his little version of paradise.  He was not exaggerating.  The home offered a wonderful view of the town including the Moab Moutains and a few high buildings in Amman, Jordan.  The yard was terraced and every space was filled with flora.  Grape vines, fig, date, pomegranate and plum trees, mint, tomatoes, dill, apples, and a variety of flowers too numerous to mention, were put to good use.  We had homemade plum and pomegranate juice when we arrived and were served homemade wine with the evening meal.  The hospitality of our host was simply astounding and culminated the next morning as we watched the sun rise over the Moab Mountains and then were served a delicious breakfast.

Our journey continues tomorrow with a time of worship in Nazareth and then a visit to Mount Tabor.  Our time thus far has been blessed by the people we have had the opportunity to meet, and the wonderful places we have visited.

A story for Reta’s Grandchildren

May 18th, 2011

By Reta Finger

I am writing this blog for Wednesday, May 18, 2011 for our People, Places, Prayers tour of Palestine and Israel. I will be writing the story of our day especially for my three grandchildren—Evan (12), Matthew (10), and Maxine (8).

This morning we left as usual in our big bus and drove south to the desert of Israel. If you like the colors of brown, tan, and beige, you’ll love the desert! It is very rocky—most rocks are called chalk. Our guide Tony says they are about 65 million years old, like the dinosaurs. It is rather soft, sedimentary rock, which means that this area was once covered by a sea. Not any more!

We first headed to Masada. Try to find it on GoogleMaps. It is called a “World Heritage Site,” which means it is so important in the history of the world that everyone should come and see it! I really wish you could have been there with me.

There are several stories connected with Masada. The first is that it was a palace of King Herod. Wicked King Herod. The one the Wise Men came to when they were looking for baby Jesus as King of the Jews. The one who killed all the boy babies in Bethlehem after he found out the Wise Men had tricked him.

King Herod was also a great builder—well, I’m sure he didn’t do it himself, but got servants to do the hard work. So he built this palace, which even had a swimming pool. Herod also liked the Romans and would suck up to them. So he built Roman baths. You go in one room and take off your clothes, and then you jump in hot water in another room and then into lukewarm water, and then into cold water to cool off. Something like that. Herod was king from 37 BCE to 4 BCE. Jesus was probably about two years old when Herod died.

The second story happened around 72-73 CE, right at the end of the Jewish War with the Romans. I wonder, Evan, if you studied about this war when you learned about the Greeks and Romans in school this year. The Romans finally destroyed Jerusalem, the capital, and knocked down the whole temple that King Herod had also built. But some Jewish soldiers escaped with their families and lived at Masada for perhaps two more years.

Ask Daddy about this. When he was 10 or 11 we watched the movie on TV called “Masada.” The Romans were down below and were building a battering ram to break down the walls of Masada and kill all the Jews or carry them off into slavery. But the Jews had lots of food and water up there because Herod had saved up a lot of grain and other foods from years earlier. So it took a very long time for the Romans to break through—but when they did, they found that everyone had killed each other so the Romans wouldn’t kill them. (Except there were a couple women who had hidden in a cistern, so they could tell the story later.)

All that sounds very gory and heroic, but our tour guide didn’t believe the story. He said some of those soldiers (called Sicarii) were found in Egypt later, so they must have escaped. The story can be found in Josephus, who is a Jewish author who changed sides during the Jewish-Roman War and went over to the Romans. I had read some years ago that some people are not sure his story was exactly true.

We left Masada and went to an oasis in the desert—a place where water gives life to palm trees and other green plants. And the first thing we saw was a huge pen full of camels! So we all took a camel ride! Have any of you ridden a camel at a zoo? The camels were hooked together, five at a time, one right after each other. So all 17 of us rode on a camel, mostly two on each camel. It was fun! And just imagine—there are other grammies and grandpas on this trip besides me–and we all climbed on a camel! I hope someone took pictures to prove it, because I didn’t.

This is a place where Bedouins live and care for the camels and show tourists how Bedouins used to live. Today they mostly live in little tin shacks and take care of their flocks of sheep and goats and are quite poor. But they used to live in tents and move around more. We went inside one tent and had cups of tea while the Bedouin guide told us about their life. He has THREE wives and 13 children! He said each of his wives has her own tent with her own children. I am glad your dad is not a Bedouin!

They served us a wonderful lunch of different vegetables and pita bread and rice and three kinds of meat. I am eating too much on this trip because the food is very good.

Then we stopped at another historical site at Beersheva. Look it up on the map. It is mentioned in the book of Genesis in the Bible. There is a very deep well called Abraham’s Well. There are several important stories about wells in Genesis because when you live in the desert, you will soon die without water, so a well is the most important thing to have.

In the evening we had a visitor who is working hard at bringing together people who do not like each other very much. I don’t know how much you know about Israel and the Jews—and about Palestine and the Arabs, both Muslim and Christian. It is a very long story and a sad one, since the Israelis run things over here and make life as hard as possible for the Palestinians.

So our speaker is trying to help people realize that maybe people on the other side aren’t their enemies. I’m sure you know about the ways in which African-Americans in our country have been discriminated against. It is the same here, only it seems worse here, at least in the sense that many people cannot easily leave the towns in which they live, so they are trapped. Many Palestinians are not even allowed to drive on some of the roads that Israelis drive on. I’ll tell you more and show you pictures when I come visit this summer.

The People in Places, People and Prayers

May 16th, 2011

By Monroe J. Yoder

The day began with a bright cheery morning with lively breakfast conversations. At 9:15 we met Tony at the bus and traveled to West Jerusalem to meet with a representative of the Israeli Committee Against Home Demolition (ICHAD). After a brief introduction we toured East Jerusalem. He demonstrated the land “grab”, the deceptive practices of the Israeli government, and the affect on Palestinian households, limiting the rights of Palestinians.

After lunch we met with MCC program directors Ryan and Ingrid Beiler and MCC volunteer Rachelle Friesen. They gave us an understanding of how MCC’s program is extended through local indigenous organizations that work in Development, Sustainability, and Peace and Justice issues. Ms Friesen is assigned to Wi’am Palestinian Resolution Center. Their reporting gave us Wall Art greater understanding of how the system robs the Palestinian people of dignity and success.

Next we met with Zoughbi Zoughbi who is the founder and director of the Palestinian Conflict Resolution Center. He acknowledged his training at EMU’s Summer Peace Building Training and STAR programs. This is the basis for his approach and is committed to living and teaching a nonviolent method of solving conflicts. Their property adjoins the separation barrier i.e. Wall where many have contributed messages included two from our group, Chris Carpenter and Robert Russo (see photo).

We are safe

May 16th, 2011

By Dorothy Jean Weaver

We are safe, well, and still happy to be here, even as the “real world”
encroaches in ways that we could not have predicted.

Our latest EMS blog comes from Bethlehem on an evening when we are aware of unrest and violence in many places within this region, both within Israel/Palestine and on its borders: Jerusalem (at least yesterday), Kalandia just north of Jerusalem, Rafah on the Gaza border with Egypt, Majdal Shams in the Golan Heights just across from Syria, Maroun el Ras on the Lebanese border . . . .

And this morning we learned that there was a “closure” on Bethlehem itself today (at least for its own residents), to prohibit folks from Bethlehem from heading out to Jerusalem or elsewhere . . . .  (Our day today was a “Bethlehem day,” with a worship service at Christmas Lutheran this morning and a visit to a Bethlehem shopkeeper’s shop this afternoon; so we were not affected in any way by this closure (which would most likely not have had implications for us as tourists in all events).

But in the midst of all of this emerging violence, we have found ourselves safe and not endangered in our daily journeys about the countryside.  Rest assured as well that in coming days we will be taking counsel, the very best there is, from the local folks associated with our program: our tour guide and any others likewise connected to our program.  We trust these folks deeply; and we will continue to seek out their wisdom in coming days.

We thank you for your prayers that have supported us thus far on our journey.  And we welcome your ongoing prayers, not only for us and our safety but for the peace of the entire region and the safety of the many, many people in cities, towns, and villages in this region that are now experiencing a significant surge in violence.

Just a few little notes from our day today . . . .  This morning we were blessed by the worship service at Christmas Lutheran.  Reverend Mitri was not there, since he is currently on a trip to the US.  But his colleague from the Lutheran Church in Beit Sahour, Reverend Imad Haddad, was there in his place, leading the service.  Afterward we stood around at the coffee hour and visited with folks from the congregation and with other visitors like ourselves.

Today noon a few of us had the special privilege of sharing a delicious meal of maklouba in the home of Majdi, our shopkeeper friend, while others found lunch in eateries down on Manger Square.  Then we spent some time “enriching the local economy” in Majdi’s shop.

And this evening, before the dinner hour, we had a lively time at “Evening Prayers” comparing current Middle Eastern cultural patterns with the stories of the New Testament and noting how Jesus and Paul challenged the Middle Eastern cultures of their own day.

Tomorrow is a “People” day, filled with “People to People Conversations”
in Jerusalem and Bethlehem . . . .

Blessings to you all!  And know that we all–we here in Israel/Palestine and you in many other places–are being held in God’s gracious care as we move forward from day to day.

Not Just Another Day

May 15th, 2011

By Chris Carpenter

Each day here brings new adventures and today we experienced some more “firsts”. This was the first time we spent the entire day away from the Jerusalem & Bethlehem areas. We traveled south to Jericho, one of the oldest cities in the world, on a recently opened road built over the original Roman route. We headed into the Judean desert & had our first glimpse of bedouin camps.

Our first stop was St. George’s Monastery, where we viewed desert cave dwellings originating in the 4th -5th centuries. As we departed the bus, eager donkey handlers greeted us & tried to persuade us to ride the donkeys down the path & up the steep hill to the monastery. In the 23rd Psalm, King David referred to this area, the Wadi Qelt, as the “valley of the shadow of death”.

As we continued on, the skies darkened and we got to experience the latter rains–the few rains before the 6 month dry season begins.  We stopped briefly to view the Mount of Temptation & ate lunch at one of our first touristy places thus far. We loved the name The Temptation Restaurant.

In the city of Jericho we viewed an ancient sycamore tree & read the story of Zacchaeus climbing the tree to see Jesus as he passed by him. Tony our guide explained the meaning of the name Zacchaeus, “pure in heart” & made reference to the Beatitude “Blessed are the pure in heart for they shall see God”.

Finally after much anticipation we reached the Dead Sea. What a surreal experience to float with no effort required! A few of us availed ourselves of the opportunity to apply the black mud as a skin conditioning treatment.

On our drive back to our guesthouse in Bethlehem, we were reminded of the increased tensions right now due to the Palestinian day of mourning
(Nakba) over the commemoration of the founding of  Israel, May 15. We are the fortunate ones as the only effect on us is a few minor inconveniences as we travel.

One thing I know. Tomorrow will not be just another day either.


May 13th, 2011

By Sue Harding

Greetings after one whole week in the Holy Land!

It is another bright sunny day, but cool, not as windy as yesterday.  A cool day for a long, 6-hour pilgrimage.

On our way to checkpoint to enter Jerusalem we said the Lord’s prayer in English and Greek, as security was on high alert due to the 2-day commemoration of Al Nakba, day of disaster, when the Palestinians were removed from their homeland and thrown into refugee camps following the May 9 Israeli Independence Day.  We passed through a desolate no man’s land between Bethlehem and Jerusalem in a valley with terraced, rocky and steep hillsides.

Israeli military and police had closed both Damascus Gate and Herod’s Gate with barricades so we take an alternate route to get to top of Mount of Olives to begin our pilgrimage today.  We first visited the Church of Our Father (Pater Noster) where the Lord’s Prayer is displayed in over 150 languages. The Pater Noster church is one of 4 places in Holy Land under French control because France sided with the Turks against Russia.

From there we made our way down steep roads to the basilica Dominus Flevit (the Lord Wept) with 4 large tear bottles around the dome and a mosaic of a mother hen on the altar recalling Jesus weeping over Jerusalem.

Continuing down a very steep road we came to the Garden of Gethsemane where we saw the rock of agony, olive trees dating back to time of Christ and an olive oil press representing Jesus under pressure to accept the will of God and where an angel comforted Him. The windows in the Church of All Nations are alabaster, letting in very little light, since the betrayal and arrest of Jesus all took place in the dark of the night.

We finally entered the old city through Lion’s Gate, walked through the Muslim Quarter  to St. Anne’s Church and  Pool of Bethesda surrounded by 5 porticos by the sheep gate, we ate our lunch of pita, cheese, tomatoes, hummus, nutella, chocolate, honey-sesame seed cake and loquats in the courtyard surrounded by hungry feral kittens and cats.  We then entered St. Anne’s, honoring the mother of Virgin Mary, to sing the doxology in 4 part harmony. Then we enjoyed time for individual reflection and exploration around the Pool of Bethesda.

The next stop on our pilgrimage was the Garden Tomb where we each climbed in  to see where the Lord may have been laid. In the beautiful gardens we celebrated Communion with our Lord while we enjoyed the singing birds, wafting breezes, and prayed for our journey.  It was so peaceful, in spite of the helicopters flying over and tense feelings of military alertness, listening to people from all over the world singing favorite hymns in their own tongues to remember Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins.  The Garden Tomb offers a powerful ministry and witness to the world, and oasis of peace and refreshment in the midst of turnoil and strife.

Today we walked where Jesus walked, and felt His presence there.

Pray for peace in Jerusalem, Palestine and the Middle East.