Thursday, March 19, 2009

Day One - The Way to Jerusalem

Liberty University's Israel Tour 2009 as Experienced by One Student
Monday, March 9, 2009

Coming up from the airtram station at JFK from my connector flight and making my way through the throng of people, I am greeted by a loud "Elke!" - and, much to my surprise, pronounced properly ("Elka" for all you non-German pronouncing Americans). As I look up, I see Dr. Gary Yates, my Old Testament course professor, coming at me, saying hello and pointing me to a temporary station by our travel agency where I need to go pick up my travel information package. It is about 8:30 pm, and we are getting ready to set off on a ten day trip to Israel with about 180 other students from Liberty, constituting four big tour buses, plus another three busloads of Thomas Road Baptist Church attendees. Oy vey. I have never been on a trip to Israel with that many people, and I kind of dread the things to come.

Mercifully, I had a previous opportunity to meet Dr. Yates and his daughter Erin as well as Dr. Leo Percer, New Testament professor at Liberty University, and his wife Lisa on a trip to Lynchburg just prior to us leaving for Israel. So I know I will know at least four people on this trip - that's a start!

I am taking OBST592, Old Testament Survey II, on this trip as an "Israel Intensive", but am not quite sure what that will mean in practical application. Of course, Dr. Yates sent out a syllabus, but this is a new way of traveling to me. No time to think about this now as I get in line with Dr. Yates and Erin to get our luggage checked in. The wait is a lengthy one as the line, based on the number of travelers, is appropriately long. I suddenly understand why El Al wants passengers there three hours in advance. The line moves inch by inch, but due to the company, we have plenty to chat about. As soon as we reach the roped-off area where scrutiny gets serious and first document checks have occurred, we see a table being set up with "men in black" (Orthodox Jews in traditional garb) placing boxes and plates of cookies as well as drinks on it. They start speaking to passing people and giving them cookies. Tonight starts the Purim holiday, which is evident by some of the young Jewish men having put on make-up and wigs. As much as we want a cookie, too, it is not a good idea to get out of line at this point.

We finally make it up to the main check where a serious-faced young man introduces us to El Al's legendary security by asking us many questions. Dr. Yates immediately gets pulled out into a special area, and the young man comes to collect Erin as soon as he realizes she is Dr. Yates' daughter. With the attention on them, I manage to bypass the special "please open your suitcase" section and proceed straight to the check-in counter. I am totally delighted with this as I am usually the one getting pulled apart. I must have gloated a little too much (read the last blog for why).

Once we are all checked in, we stop by the Purim table and have a brief conversation with the young Israelis staffing it. Their English is limited, but we manage to gather that they are Lubavitcher and part of the Chabad movement. The Lubavitchers' last rebbe is Menachem Mendel Schneerson who is still revered after his death in 1994, and their objective is to convince Jewish people of the benefits of living an Orthodox life. According to Google, "(f)ollowing the initiative of the sixth Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson spurred on the movement to what has become known as shlichus ("serving as an emissary [performing outreach]") after becoming Rebbe in 1950–1951. As a result, Chabad shluchim ("emissaries", sing. shliach) have moved all over the world with the stated mission of persuading non-observant Jews to adopt Orthodox Jewish observance. They assist Jews with all their religious needs, as well as with physical assistance and spiritual guidance and teaching. The stated goal is to encourage Jews to learn more about their Jewish heritage and to practice Judaism."

Getting our first practice in speaking Hebrew, we repeat the blessing for our food (Hamantashen and some more snacks to take with us in a box). Dr. Yates even gets to wear the first kippah of the trip. Checking the time, we realize we need to go to our gate and board the plane. On the way into the plane, I run into Darren Keithley, whom I had "met" on Facebook before leaving. Once aboard the plane, I also meet Shari Kanehl, another Facebook buddy prior to our trip. Next to me are two other Liberty undergrads. We quickly settle into our seats in a very full plane, and off we go to our adventure! The Scriptures we have all studied so diligently are now begging to jump off their 2D pages and become 3D reality to us. God is ready to allow us some of the greatest insights of our lives.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Day Two - The Way to Jerusalem

Liberty University's Israel Tour 2009 as Experienced by One Student
Tuesday, March 10, 2009
(Click here for today's photos.)

We have arrived! Baruchim habaim!
Welcome to Israel and Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport.
Upon deplaning, we find our luggage, meet some of our travel mates and then wait for our departure to our evening destination, Ramot Resort Hotel on the Golan side of the Sea of Galilee, Kinneret in the Old Testament and in modern Hebrew. We are met by representatives of the Israeli side of our tour and are guided to transfer buses. On our bus, we meet Tzvika Mizrahi, who introduces himself and tells us to not get used to the bus or guide, as we may be on another bus tomorrow. Yossi is our driver for the evening. As it turns out, Tzvika and Yossi will be my guide and driver for the rest of the trip. Once everybody is onboard and our luggage is stored, we are off for our two hours plus trip to Lake Galilee. Already we have begun to make new friends!

The remainder of our trip to Lake Galilee is fairly quiet as many are getting sleepy after the long night flight. We stop for a quick break along the way and are able to also grab some drinks and snacks at the rest stop. The chocolate waffle cookies I buy are a big hit with the bus as they make the rounds. Mental note to self: get more of these along the way. I have come prepared with nuts and dried fruit to snack on, but sometimes, especially on a day like today, it is good to find chocolate close by. Upon arrival at the hotel, we get off the bus, are very efficiently provided with our room keys and are asked to go to dinner right away as it is getting late. What a nice surprise - the dining room is filled with fragrant food, and we all load up our plates and eat hungrily. Mental note to self: chocolate carbs are only temporarily gratifying.

It is safe to assume that not too many of the weary travelers have a mind to think about the spiritual impact of where they are tonight due to everyone's extreme tiredness, but I do take a moment to step out on my balcony, look over Lake Galilee with the lights of Tiberias on the other shore, take a deep breath and say "Thank You, Lord, for safe transport here and for yet another chance to walk where You have walked". For the eighth time now, I am in the Holy Land - and it is a beautiful place to put my head on my pillow and drift off to sleep. How blessed I am to not have to say "Next year in Jerusalem", but experience "This year in Jerusalem"! How many Jewish hearts must have fervently longed for this experience through dark centuries of the diaspora and persecution.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Day Three - The Way to Jerusalem

Liberty University's Israel Tour 2009 as Experienced by One Student
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
(Click here for today's photos.)

View from my room towards TiberiasThe first full day in Israel has begun. Although it is hard to get up that early since my body is still craving some East Coast time zone sleep, I am too excited to think about that much when my alarm goes off on my iPhone at 6:15 AM and abruptly ends my dreams. After a quick look from my balcony outside across the lake and a shower, I go to the breakfast room where most of my fellow travelers have already arrived. I find a seat at one of the tables after feasting my eyes on the plethora of offerings at the breakfast buffet. Sounds strange, but I was looking forward to having pink herring find its way onto my breakfast plate! And the soft cheeses, very similar to German Quark (which, by the way, you can make at home), and the bread! Wonderful. I love being in Israel. Have I mentioned that? Israel has become my favorite place in the world to travel to. I am almost ready to move here for at least a period of time. Well, enough about that.

Full from breakfast, we all grab our bags and head toward the buses. Since Dr. Yates, Erin and I are on the same bus (the Orange Bus!), we find two seat rows behind each other and settle in for a day around Lake Galilee. The bus is buzzing with conversations as everyone visits with old or meets new friends. Tzvika tells us on the mike that "Boker tov" is the Hebrew version of "Good morning" and that the appropriate answer is "Boker or", meaning "Morning light". I have taken some Hebrew but that is a new one to me. I know it is also okay to say "Boker tov" back, but I am tucking it away for extra learning. There are a few pages on the Internet that help with understanding some of these finer details; this one even talks about "Boker tov" vs. "Boker or".

As the bus starts rolling, Tzvika informs us that we will start our day with a joint worship service of all seven buses at the Mount of Beatitudes, that we will then be visiting several sites around the Sea of Galilee and that we will conclude our day with a baptism at Yardenit.

The Sea of GalileeWith the bus making its way around the lake, my thoughts drift to the many people who have come here across the decades of this century and the last to experience this land. What were their motivations? Was it checking a box, yep, have done that in my list of places to see, yep, saw the Sea of Galilee? Was it a pilgrimage to seek forgiveness from a God they only vaguely knew? Was it the desire to understand the historical Jesus better? Was it an attempt to learn ever more about the Lord they loved? With which set of expectations do people come to the land of Israel? Answers are many, I suppose, but for me this eighth trip to Israel is an experiment: can I experience sweet times with my Lord while traveling in a huge group like this? Is there even enough time anywhere, anytime to be by myself and in the presence of Him who saved me? I have been in Israel in the company of one to forty-one others, so this is by far the biggest group I have ever joined, and I have my doubts.

So I enter into this day anxiously awaiting an answer to the question whether it is possible to have one-on-one time with my God. At the same time, I am so excited to show new friends the land I love, the land where our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, Yeshua HaMashiach, walked, laughed, loved, worked, healed, taught, lived and died for us - and rose again in triumph on the third day. Already, I see first glimpses of learning in my fellow travelers as they look outside while the bus is rolling along the lake. It is simply the most amazing part of these trips: to see how others fall in love with this country, the place God chose for the people He loves and with whom we have been joined as grafted-in branches of the olive tree, according to Romans 11. My fervent prayer is that by the end of this trip, not only will my fellow travelers have fallen in love with Israel and ever more with their Savior Jesus, but they can say with Paul about their new Jewish friends: "Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved." As Isaiah said, "in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined." May those who have come on this trip with me understand more fully the beauty and wonder of Jesus coming to this blessed land by the time they leave.

Worship at the Mount of BeatitudesJumping off the bus at the Church of the Beatitudes, we find several other buses full of Liberty University and Thomas Road Baptist Church travelers unloading as well. This place can be a wonderfully meditative place on a quiet day. I have been here before when there were maybe ten people (and that included nuns and priests from the church) on the grounds. It won't be like this today, but that is okay. I am looking forward to the joint worship service. I love worship, and this will be no exception. Charles Billingsley from Thomas Road Baptist Church is part of the TRBC tour, so we have not just Michael John Clement on the Liberty University side to be a worship leader for our worship times, but Charles as well for the joint worship services. After everyone gets settled, we get started with the worship service. By the way, this is a first for me after all: I have never been down to this worship area as the nuns typically guard it ferociously against illegitimate entrants. Reverend Jonathan Falwell, whose entire family - wife and four kids - have joined him on this journey, addresses the group after a few worship songs. It is amazing how quickly one can go from busy tourist to meditative worshiper if the input, i.e. the Word of the living God, is there. Hallelujah! To imagine that Jesus must have given the Sermon on the Mount not far from here is once again an overwhelming thought.

The beautiful tree at the Church of the BeatitudesWith new thoughts and definitely not focusing on the many bodies anymore, I get up and walk around the grounds. It is that time of the spring again when the tree near the church has the most unique blossoms on it (click on the image to see them larger). I still do not know the type of tree, but I always think about Romans 1:18-20, where Paul writes: "For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse." Oh, if only the world understood this a little better. Man is so pompous in believing he knows it all. In a pensive mood, I walk back to the bus. Most people think mainly of the Beatitudes when they think about the Sermon on the Mount, but further into His sermon, Jesus also said: "Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell, and great was the fall of it." I feel very secure in my little human house. It is built on the only Rock that provides a steady footing.

A short bus ride later we arrive at Tabgha, the traditional site of the miraculous multiplication of the two fish and five loaves. Tzvika explains that the name Tabgha is an Arabic corruption of the Greek name Heptapegon, which means "Seven Springs". In the chapel, rebuilt after it was destroyed in the 7th century and maintained by the Deutscher Verein vom Heiligen Lande (German Association of the Holy Land - just had to add that ;-) ), a stone is visible with a small altar above it. A beautiful mosaic, which is a quite popular motif in anything touristy (cards, tiles, t-shirts, etc.), can be seen in front of the stone. This stone, by tradition, is where Jesus laid the fish and loaves to give thanks. Personally, it is hard for me to get a "visual" of this miracle while standing in a chapel, so I am, as always, grateful when we leave. The beautiful hillside around us is much more conducive to triggering a mental image in my head. What an amazing God we serve: feeding huge multitudes of people while fully knowing that most of them would turn their backs on Him as time took Jesus towards the cross.

The Synagogue at CapernaumUnlike Tabgha, our next stop is one of my favorite places for mentally floating back in time to when Jesus was actually walking on the dusty paths there: Capernaum, or Kfar Nahum, the town where He spent most of His time while in the Galilee. The synagogue there is a fourth century structure, but its foundation still has stones from the time of Jesus. I love sitting there on a quiet day (again, not today...) and just reading the Scriptures. This is one of the places where I always pray for a time warp. The other is standing on the shore of the Sea of Galilee at night. How I wish for just 24 hours that I could be there during that moment in HIStory. After a quick "can you find the Star of David" game with Dr. Yates and Erin (learned that there are actually two on this trip - always knew of only one), we head back toward the bus. Beautiful bougainvillea is waving gently in the breeze on our way out - what a beautiful and peaceful place.

We have seen so much already and yet it is only time for lunch! Hard to believe. Our buses take us back to Tiberias where we are vomited out (love that word, the Romans called an exit of an arena, theater or coliseum "vomitorium") of our buses. Decks Restaurant awaits us where the menu option is pretty much grilled Saint Peter's Fish (Tilapia). The appetizers are very yummy, and even the least fish-loving but hungry traveler gives the Saint Peter's Fish a shot. Some are even brave enough to eat the eye balls after being told that true Christians eat the eyeballs, too. Yeah, okay, no. After our lunch, a music group does a dance for us in some strange looking costumes to the song "Standing on Holy Ground". Let's just say, it will never be the same again when I hear that song. All I remember is the forced smiles on the undoubtedly Jewish dancers when the refrain of "Let us praise Jesus now" plays and they fold their hands as if in prayer. I call that forced worship, or idol worship, to quote what the Jewish anti-missionaries would call Christianity.

Dr. Caner teaching on the Sea of GalileeFinally, we are told to "Look to the seaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa....!", and as we all turn, we see our boat on which we will take a ride on the Sea of Galilee approaching with two man holding red flares at its bow. We quickly move onto the boat once it is docked. On past trips, we have been on small wooden boats that seem to convey a more original look and feel to sailing out on the lake, but this is more like a mini cruise ship. It is pretty packed by the time we leave. Once out on the water - and quite frankly not terribly far out - we stop and have another worship time. Michael John Clement leads worship and Dr. Ergun Caner, the seminary president, preaches this time. Again, I can't help but compare this worship time to the ones in recent years when each person had a moment just to themselves on a much smaller wooden vessel to pray and look back toward the shore where Jesus taught and laughed and worked. I am feeling a sense of letdown for the first time. This is always one of my favorite times in Israel. To sense the boat bobbing on the gentle waves, to feel the wood under my hands as I lean over the railing, to hear no sound but that of the waves because the engine has been cut and to worship with Daniel Carmel, the Fisherman from Galilee, a brother in the Lord, who was saved here while listening to Christian teaching on the lake and who is now a ship captain again on his own boat, is simply an unbelievable experience. I encourage you to click on the link and then on the "About" section to read his story. God is so amazing.

With our time of worship ending quickly, we dock and exit the boat, only to find a throng of giggling and waving Arab school children ready to board after we get off. With a friendly wave, we pass them and get on the bus for our ride to Yardenit for the baptism portion of our day. All the baptizees (is that a word?) go to get changed into sparkling but relatively short white robes. Quite honestly, that makes for some genuinely amusing visions of my fellow travelers, especially the guys with their furry legs sticking out below the white cloth. Yardenit is an interesting place. I was baptized there in 2005, but we only had six people getting baptized, not 200 or however many there were from our group. I stand in awe of the logistics the management at Yardenit has mastered. Benny Hinn comes here to baptize from time to time, and I can only imagine they must have a lot more white robes (including one with a stand-up collar for Rev. Hinn).

Erin and Dr. Gary YatesRev. Falwell and Charles Billingsley are baptizing on the right; Dr. Caner, Dr. Percer and Dr. Yates on the left, off we go! I am able to find a great spot on a rock right above where we are baptizing, so I get to take some up-close, albeit not always exactly focused photos due to deteriorating light conditions. Dr. Yates starts off on our side. He baptizes my fellow grad student Shari Kanehl from Phoenix (you just have to click on the link to see Dr. Yates' facial expression - I am sure he was thinking about keeping her under a little's a long story). Second is a special person for Dr. Yates to baptize: his daughter Erin. I have to admit that it warms my heart to watch this. How special for a father to be able to baptize his child! I am happy for the two of them and only wish Marilyn, Kallie and Brett were here as well. Dr. Percer follows in the family vein by baptizing his wife Lisa. These two are such lovebirds, and again, it is very special for me to witness this moment. Next follow a lot of baptisms and a lot of photos being taken. For Dr. Yates and Dr. Percer, who didn't come as prepared as Dr. Caner with his waders on, the water of the Jordan on an afternoon turning into evening in March is a very cold place to be. By the end, Dr. Yates is literally shaking...!

Dr. Yates getting baptizedMy personal favorite moment comes at the end when all those still sitting on the rock to take photos demand that Drs. Percer and Yates get baptized by Dr. Caner as well. That is truly a great moment because I know (and he won't admit to it anymore) that Dr. Yates had wanted to get baptized in the Jordan before we ever came on this trip. I learn later that Lisa Percer had also wanted for her husband to get baptized in the Jordan. I am also personally grateful that Dr. Caner didn't hold my professors under water too long! With everyone getting changed, I make a quick stop to fill a bottle with Jordan water for my friend Elke back in the States who so wishes she could have made this trip with me again. Erin, who is already changed, and I head into the gift shop where I purchase some wonderful date honey. Back on the bus, Tzvika asks us about our interest in seeing a diamond factory on the way back. Sure, nothing else to do for evening entertainment! After a quick stop with an educational video and motivated sales people, we climb on the last shuttle bus going back (did we really stay that long?), only to stop a few blocks down the road to pick up Rev. Falwell and his son who have missed their own bus. We give them a lift back to their hotel in Tiberas and then head back to our hotel on the flanks of the Golan Heights. A wonderful dinner awaits us again, which we all feel we worked for today. After a largely unsuccessful attempt to connect to the wireless network in the hotel, I fall into bed exhaustedly, but only after stepping out onto my balcony, smelling the clean cool air and looking out over the dark Sea of Galilee to the sparkling lights of Tiberias on the other side and imaging I will spend my day walking with the Lord tomorrow, listening to His teaching and being fed by His love.