Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Rocket Dodging

Ok, I SAID we were going to Beersheba today, but plans changed. After our visit to the site of Tel Arad in the Negev, we drove into the modern city of Arad and sipped cappucino (which turns out to be a Hebrew word, according to Yosse, our guide). Then back on the bus for a visit to a Bedouin camp where we rode camels for twenty minutes (2 riders per camel -- I rode behind Matt), learned a bit about the Bedouin culture, and then shared a meal under a tent.

As we were boarding the bus to go on to Beersheba, Yosse informed us that our plans were going to change. Seems that Hamas had managed to toss several Chinese made rockets into the city of Beersheba that morning, injuring no one, but closing down some schools, businesses, and the national park that was on our itenerary.

So we took a different route, stopping to visit the Bell Caves at Beit Guvrin, which were created by two hundred years of mining the chalky soil to use for cement and mortar. Jim Brown, one of our group, treated us to a Latin chant deep under the earth that echoed around long after he'd finished singing.

We also made a stop in the Valley of Elah where David once faced off with Goliath. Yosse demonstrated David's slingshot technique with a woven sling of his own. His first shot went arwy and almost took out a passing vehicle, missing only by inches.

We paused at a West Bank checkpoint near Bethlehem and enjoyed a spirited, lengthy, and loud argument in Hebrew between Yosse, our bus driver, and the soldier working the station. A few minutes later we were in Jerusalem and at our hotel.

Tomorrow, we visit Bethlehem and other sites in the Jerusalem area. I'll check in again tomorrow evening. Shalom.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Morning at the Dead Sea

Yesterday was a full day of travel, driving from Tiberius in the north, through the Jordan River Valley to the southern end of the Dead Sea. It was also a full day of touring, visiting three of the most spectacular archeological sites we will see: Bet Shean, Qumran, and Masada. I had seen each of these four times now, but I would gladly return to any of them tomorrow.

Today will hold some new experiences, however. We will visit Beersheba and Arad on our way to Jerusalem. This is as far south as we will travel and the closest we will be to the unrest in Gaza, about 30 miles. Our guide assures us that this is not a problem and the president of our travel agency is actually accompanying us on the trip with her husband and 13 year old grandson. She has been coming here several times a year since the 1960s and is quite familiar with the situation. So as long as she's ok with taking her grandson along, our group feels a level of comfort. Obviously we are a bunch of protective grandparents ourselves.

In Beersheba we will ride camels and have lunch with a family of Bedouins. (I have promised my grand-daughter a photo of Papa on a camel.) Then we will make the final leg of the journey to Bethlehem. For the next three days we will visit sites in and around the city. At the end of the day on Friday, we will head back to Tel Aviv to catch our flight home.

I'll report in from Jerusalem tomorrow. D.V.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Visiting Galilee

We hit the ground at full speed yesterday. By 7:30 AM we were on our tour bus with Yosse, our guide, headed for the ruins of the Roman city of Caesarea. This is one of my top five sites to visit in Israel, simply because of the multiple connections it has with the ministries of Philip, Peter, Paul, and Luke. See this month’s National Geographic for some great photos and drawings. We visited the Roman theater, the hippodrome, the ruins of Herod’s palace, and got back on the bus.

Continuing north on the ancient Via Maris, a road travelled over the centuries by traders and warriors from Egypt and Mesopotamia, we came to the excavations at Megiddo. This city was built and destroyed twenty-four times before being abandoned. We walked among the stables built by Solomon a thousand years before Jesus’ birth. From the top of Megiddo we took in the panorama of the mountains of Samaria, Mt, Gilboa, Mt. Tabor, the city of Nazareth, the valley of Jezreel, and Mt. Carmel.

Our next stop was for lunch in a Druse village. A traditional vegetarian meal of Mediterranean dishes was spread like a buffet on our tables. The waitress just kept bringing out more and more things.

After lunch we drove to the top of Mt. Carmel, where Elijah once faced off with the prophets of Baal. Then we pointed our bus toward Nazareth. There is not much to be seen there from the days of Jesus. We visited the Baptist church and school in Nazareth. We were routed around Cana because of a political protest taking place there. Eventually we arrived at our hotel in Tiberius.

I spent a miserable night with some kind of food poisoning. I’ll spare the details. But I was beat when we began this day, and it was a packed one.

Leaving the hotel at 7:45, we stopped at the Mt. of Beatitudes, the traditional site of Jesus’ teaching the Sermon on the Mount. We talked about the life Jesus calls us to, sang some hymns and prayed.

Our next stop was far to the north at Caesarea Philippi. Along the way our guide provided an overview of modern Israeli history. Again at Caesarea Philippi we had the opportunity to open the Bible and think about the meaning of discipleship at the spot where Jesus first began teaching us about the kind of cross-bearing disciples he was looking for.

We then retraced our steps all they way back to the Sea of Galilee and began circling it clockwise. We pulled over to read the story of Jesus’ casting the demons out of the Gadarene demoniac. Eventually we made our way to a kibbutz that provides means of St. Peter’s fish and a boat ride on the lake itself.

We visited Tabgha, the traditional site where Jesus fed the multitudes.
We continued our way around the lake, stopping to see a baptismal site used by Christians from all over the world who wish to be immersed in the Jordan River. Then on around to Capernaum, the city of Peter and Andrew, and the one Jesus adopted as his home. We read from John 6 the words Jesus once spoke there about the bread of life.

Finally, we stopped at a museum that displays a boat dating back to the time of Jesus. There I ran into a friend who teaches at Mary Hardin Baylor and Hannah, one of our guides from our trip back in 2005.

This is how the day is spent on a typical Matt Marsh led trip. You keep moving and cover a lot of ground. Now I’m back in my hotel room. It is almost 7 and time for dinner. I should have no difficulty sleeping tonight.

Perhaps I can think clearly enough tomorrow to offer a more reflective piece. Perhaps not.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Safe and Sound in Herzliya

Our entire group from UBC arrived safely at our hotel last night. Some traveled through New York, some through London, and some through Atlanta. By 9:00 PM local time (1:00 PM CST) we were all assembled, enjoying the hotel buffet.

I know some of you may be concerned by the current headlines. Know that we will not be going within 100 miles of all that activity. The president of our tour agency is actually with us and has her husband and grandson along. You can be sure we will stick to the safe spots. But pray for the people here. There is much suffering as a consequence of the violence.

It is 4:30 AM here and I have been awake since 2:30 due to jet lag. I'm about to make my first pot of coffee. I brought my own and a french press on this trip. I recall from last time that Israel doesn't do coffee shops.

Today we'll be heading for Caesarea, Mt. Carmel, Megiddo, and Tiberius. These are great sites and I'm looking forward to sharing them with our pilgrims. I'll post a report tonight.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Older Friends

Monday morning Melinda and I joined Matt Marsh, and thirty of my oldest friends (literally) for a trip to San Antonio via the farm in Floresville. Three bright, white rental vans took my favorite route – Hwy 90A through East Bernard, Eagle Lake, Halletsville, Shiner, and Gonzales – avoiding I-10 completely. The three hour and twenty minute trip took a bit longer, since we had to stop at Buc-ees in both Eagle Lake and Gonzales. Outside of Stockdale we left TX 97 to take Wilson County Road 401 for about ten miles. Ordinarily we’d have kept to the highway that would have taken us within a half mile of the farm. But the county road experience gives a first-time visitor the sense they have wandered far off into rural Texas. By the time they arrive at the farm they think they are in the middle of nowhere. In reality, Wal-Mart is only two miles away. I told them I did this so they couldn't find me when I am off at the farm.

Texas weather is predictably unpredictable, especially in December. For example, we had snow in Houston last Wednesday. Then it was eighty degrees on the weekend. We were watching the forecasts carefully and anticipating a “high in the upper 50s” day on Monday. Turned out to be a “high in the lower 40s” with a stiff wind. So we huddled in the back room of the farmhouse and ate our sandwiches.

After lunch we took off for San Antonio for a tour of the missions built by Francisans and their hunter-gatherer native converts in the 18th century. We’d done a preview personal tour of these spots during our Thanksgiving week visit. That day had been clear and sunny. Monday afternoon was cold, windy, and overcast. But the group was persistent. We visited Espada, San Juan, and San Jose. We sang carols under the dome at Concepcion, the chapel that still stands pretty much as it did two hundred fifty years ago. The docent there said that listening to us was the high point of his year.

Finally we arrived at our hotel, got a cup of coffee, and reassembled for a walk to the Rio Rio Cantina on the San Antonio Riverwalk. The wind chill factor was now twenty-six degrees. The Tex-Mex warmed us, though.

The next morning we had breakfast at the Guenther House, former home of Carl H. Guenther, founder of the Pioneer Flour Mills. Then we enjoyed a couple of hours touring the amazing McNay Art Museum. By noon we were back in the vans pointed toward Houston. One Buc-ee stop later and we were on I-10.

This was my first trip with our senior adults, and I hope it will not be my last. We had a great time, learned much, ate well, and laughed a lot. This will be one of the highlights of my 2008 Christmas.

I have known some of these friends for twenty-five years. They were my age now when I first met them. Many of them have worked hard teaching me what it means to be a pastor, straightening me out on an issue or two along the way. Most of them have been cheerleaders, supporters, and prayer-warriors on my behalf. They have provided the leadership and financial support of their church. And they are just plain fun people.

Thank God for older friends.