Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Day Nine - In Jerusalem and Home

Liberty University's Israel Tour 2009 as Experienced by One Student
Tuesday, March 17, 2009
(Click here for today's photos.)

Along the streets of the Old City of JerusalemWhereas I may have woken up exhilarated or just plain tired on some other mornings here in Israel, today I wake up with a sinking feeling. All the planning and preparation and anticipation of coming on this trip and the excitement of being here has had the complete brake action applied this morning as I open my eyes. It is our last day in Israel; tonight we begin our journey home. I know that today will be as difficult as on my past trips, and I promise myself that I will savor each moment fully. Packing isn't easy; as usual I have bought way too many things. My bag was full coming over, but it was full of presents for my friends here. Now it is full with, well, stuff. Great stuff (books, sweatshirts, t-shirts, kippot, olive oil...and other...bottles, new Leehee jewelry), but stuff nevertheless. I finally manage to close the zipper and start getting a bit nervous about the bag's weight, but not much I can do at this stage. Should have brought an extra bag...

Ecce Homo ArchAfter our final breakfast and closing out all outstanding bills, we get on the bus and say goodbye to the Grand Court Hotel, our home for the past three days. Tzvika had already told us yesterday that we would be walking a portion of the Via Dolorosa, the traditional path Jesus took on His way to the cross. The Via Dolorosa mostly runs through today's Muslim Quarter of the city, and we enter through Herod's Gate (or Flowers Gate) - admittedly a route I have never taken. The gates of Jerusalem are all unique. We stop at the second station of the Cross, the Ecce Homo Church ("Behold the Man!"). The Ecce Homo Arch, of which only part remains, was once thought to have been part of the gate structure of the Antonia Fortess, the place where Pontius Pilate would have presented Jesus to the crowd with the words "Behold the Man!"(Ecce Homo in Latin). This arch is now believed to originate from Emperor Hadrian's time during the second century CE. For us, the floor still visible in the church holds the biggest draw: there are games etched into the ancient stones that are believed to have been engraved there by Roman legionnaires. The stone pavement, or lithostratos, still visible, is said to date back to Jesus' time, although it may also be from a century later. We climb down to the Struthion Pool, which may have provided the Fortress Antonia with water during the Herodian days. Bagel from the Muslim QuarterSince we have to join the other buses at the Garden Tomb for a joint worship service, our visit to the Via Dolorosa is truly a brief one as we exit out through the Damascus Gate rather quickly, but not before I get a chance to buy one of the fabulous bagels with even more fabulous za'atar (dried rubbed herbs into which you dip your broken off morsels of the quite large bagel) in the Muslim Quarter. On the way out of the Muslim Quarter I see a couple of Israeli soldiers question a young Arab man. Just a short reminder that diligent observation is always happening here to ward off any possibility of trouble - something that I deeply appreciate. I have never felt unsafe here, and this sight just reinforces why in my head. Israeli eyes are always busy here.

The Garden TombWe cross the road and walk up Nablus Road to the Garden Tomb where the groups from the other buses are also just arriving. After my first touring trip to Israel, I had to have surgery, and my friend Mosher came here to pray for me. A Muslim man had understood how much this place meant to his Christian friend. I found that to be incredibly moving. It is indeed a special place; after the hustle and bustle and noise of Jerusalem's streets, this is a welcome respite. It is a beautiful garden just oozing tranquility, even when many people are here to visit. We wait until another group leaves and are told to take their seats. It turns out, we are right in front of the podium where Dr. Caner and Rev. Falwell will speak to us. As we wait for everyone else to settle in, I share my bagel with the others. I am so happy when someone else discovers one of the truly many delicious foods this country has to offer with its variety of cultures having come to make a home here.

Golgotha, the Place of the SkullThe worship service is again truly moving, and I feel so set free to worship God not through abiding by tight rules and regulations of the many religions present here in Jerusalem, but rather through free and heartfelt adoration as His child, set free from sin and bondage through the blood of Jesus Christ, spilled here in Jerusalem for me. I raise my hands in worship to my Abba Father who loves me so much. Communion cups and trays of bread are passed around, and we remember once again the price Jesus paid for our sins. If it had been only me, He would have gone to the cross just the same. It is a truth that sinks in deeply as I sit in the cool garden. "I come by the blood" - how often have I sung this beautiful song, but how very strongly I feel that "I dare not stand on my righteousness; my every hope rests on what Christ has done". We conclude our worship and slowly move to the rocky hillside, which is called Gordon's Calvary after Major-General Charles George Gordon, who found the unique looking side of a cliff, resembling the face of a skull (Golgotha). In the garden behind us, a tomb was found, which Gordon believed to possibly have been Jesus' tomb as He was laid into a new tomb. However, archeaologists now believe that this tomb actually dates back to several centuries prior to Jesus' day. Mrs. and Dr. Leo Percer in front of the Garden TombAfter listening to our guide tell us the story of Golgotha and the tomb and of Jesus Christ, His death, burial and resurrection and the hope we can have because of it, we make our way back to the tomb. It is a narrow door, but what a visual to see the empty tomb and a sign on the way out the door "He is not here, for He is risen." Amen! I am blessed to be here, even though today there are no other groups singing praises to our Lord and God in languages from around the globe. Last time I was here, you could hear German and Finnish in addition to English - truly a blessing as we see a portion of the prophetic statement, which Micah uttered centuries before the birth of Jesus Christ, come true before our eyes that "many nations shall come, and say: "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob, that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths."

The stairs Jesus may have walkedBack on the bus, we meditate on what our eyes have seen and our hearts have understood. We are preparing for our last stop in Jerusalem: St. Peter Gallicantu, a Roman Catholic church commemorating the crowing of the rooster after Peter denied Jesus three times, as Jesus had foretold. We are not here for the church as much as for what may have stood here in ancient past, and what is underneath it: this is believed to have been the house of Caiaphas, and below it, there are underground crypts. Tradition holds that Jesus was imprisoned here after his arrest while Peter denied knowing him three times in the courtyard outside. We walk down into the caves, and it is a somber thought to think what anguish Jesus must have felt during those moments. Reading Psalm 88 drives home the enormous emotional turmoil:
I am counted among those who go down to the pit; I am a man who has no strength,
like one set loose among the dead, like the slain that lie in the grave,
like those whom you remember no more, for they are cut off from your hand.
You have put me in the depths of the pit, in the regions dark and deep.
As we exit, we go down to the "Holy Stairs", as the sign says. These are ancient steps that may have been a staircase that provided a shortcut from the Garden of Gethsemane through the Kidron Valley the night of Jesus' arrest.

In front of the Church of the Holy SepulcherBack on the bus, Tzvika explains lunch options in the Jewish Quarter for us: falafel or shawarma. YES! Finally!!! I have been waiting for this all week. We find our way to the restaurant where we will stop for lunch and greedy old me orders some extra falafel balls, made from chickpeas, with my shawarma. I don't care at this point - just know that I will not leave Israel without having had both. I am definitely a happy camper after I indulge in my favorite Israeli foods. After lunch, we head out to do a little more shopping. Dr. Yates, Erin, Steven Smith and Joanne Russel join me. We purchase a couple more t-shirts in the Jewish Quarter. I also stop by my favorite shop in the Jewish Quarter (well, outside of the Blue and White Gallery, owned by Udi Merioz, a very gifted painter, which I will not visit on this trip due to budgetary constraints - I already own several paintings and prints from there). The shop I take the others to now is run by an older Yemenite Jewish man. He is a total sweetheart, and I enjoy showing people I come to Jerusalem with the beautiful and very simple mezuzot (plural of mezuzah) made from Jerusalem stone he sells at his shop. I can tell that tourist business is in full swing - the price has gone up 150% from when I bought my first mezuzah here in March 2005! Trust me, they are still a bargain for gift hunters. We continue on to the Muslim Quarter as Steven wants to buy some scarves for folks at home. After trying to teach my American friends some serious wheeling and dealing, we are able to buy ten beautiful scarves for $20. I can't remember exactly what we were quoted as the starting price, but suffice it to say, we pay probably a third of the starting price. As we exit, the shop owners compliments me on my bargaining skills. If only he knew how much honing they have had over the years in many countries! A look at my watch shows that we have another 30 minutes before we have to meet up again, and all of a sudden it dawns on me that we are only a few steps away from the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the traditional location of Jesus' crucifixion and resurrection. It is not on our itinerary, and so after a quick check for interest ("YES!"), we dash off through the narrow streets of the Muslim Quarter. In a few minutes, we have reached the church. What a fascinating place if you want to get an education in rote religion! The first time I was here, I was heartbroken. I apologize in advance for what I am about to say because I don't want to offend anyone reading this, but it was a turn-off to me to see women kissing a slab of stone, the Stone of Unction, on which Jesus by tradition was prepared for burial. Equally, it was a turn-off to witness Greek Orthodox priests yelling at us, shoving me and pulling my girlfriend's arm when we didn't immediately understand they needed us to move for a procession. This is not the love Jesus called us to. This is religion. Yet I still want everyone to see this church because it has by far the longest tradition (dating back to the very early church age) of being the place of Jesus' crucifixion and burial. It is a beautiful church; there is absolutely no doubt about that. We make our way up to the Catholic and Greek Orthodox chapels. the Greek Orthodox portion, easily discernible because of its lavish decorations, compared to the almost starkness of the Catholic side next to it, has the rock in a glassed case on which by tradition the cross stood, Golgotha.Eagles or RedskinsWe exit down the stairs, and I take my fellow visitors down to my favorite part here: the lower levels of this church, a very old part of it. To get to it, you go down a flight of crusader stairs, similar to the ones we saw at Mary's Tomb, but even wider. Down below are a number of little chapels. It is usually very quiet down here, which this is by far my favorite place. On the way up, I point out the many crosses the crusaders and people after them carved into the rock above our heads. We walk around to the actual tomb section, but there are too many people waiting in line to get in to make it in our allotted time slot. Looking at my watch, I decide we need to head back to the Jewish Quarter, if we want to be on time. On the way, Dr. Yates and I have a little contest which of our Hebrew t-shirts is cooler, the Eagles or the Redskins one, but Dr. Yates finally gives in and wears the clearly winning shirt while Elke does a victory dance all the while snapping incriminating photos of him wearing amazing color green.

Our time in Jerusalem is over, and I find it so hard to say goodbye to this city, which has become my second home. I know that living here is not easy, according to those who have come here from other countries, especially the US, but I would give anything to be able to live here for a few years at minimum. It is without any competition the most amazing place on this planet. Barry and Batya Segal have recorded a song about Jerusalem, and I want to share it with you as our bus rolls out of the city:

Beautiful view of Tel AvivTzvika has one more sightseeing surprise left for us: he will take us to the ancient port of Jaffa (or Joppa as Scripture readers would know it by), now a part of modern Tel Aviv. For Christians, the most significant mention of Joppa is in the book of Acts. This is the house where Peter stayed with Simon the Tanner when he had the vision on the roof of the house, telling him that God wanted His kingdom to include Gentiles and shortly thereafter Cornelius, the Roman centurion sought him out to learn about his God. Joppa is actually mentioned 14 times in Scripture - both in the Old and the New Testament. Tzvika sets us free to explore Joppa, and while some of the group enjoy the sunset on the Mediterranean with a spectacular view of Tel Aviv, others opt to stroll through the ancient narrow streets. Yours truly walks by a shop window and finds the coin she was flirting with buying in Jerusalem already (a Pontius Pilate coin, dated 29-30 CE, now how exciting is that for a believer in Jesus Christ?). It is in better shape than the one I saw in Jerusalem, and I wind up buying it for $210 less than the price offered to me in Jerusalem ("Final price, Madame.") Right. Final price happens in Joppa. To read about my beauty and see it (it's the one listed as having been minted in 29 CE), click here. I finalize my purchase and rush for the bus, only to find Joanne and Teresa sitting on a bench in front of the empty bus. Nobody else made it back yet, and here I was worried about being late!

Simon the Tanner's HouseOur final stop before heading to the airport is Mini Israel. I haven't been to this place before, and I am not sure I have missed anything. It is pretty hokey, to be honest. 350 or so miniatures of Israel greet us. I thought it would be showing more of the ancient sites, but instead a lot of the models are modern buildings, so I am less than excited once I observe the park. What is wonderful is the food, as I get to have one other thing I always like eating in Israel: Schnitzel. It is absolutely yummy, and they have done a great job preparing it. Unlike German Schnitzel, the Israeli Schnitzel is made from chicken or sometimes turkey. We enjoy one last load of hummus on our plates with our dinner. Stuffed, we lean back in our chairs and wonder how we will spend the rest of the evening until we have to leave for the airport. Next thing we know, music starts playing and a DJ encourages us to come and dance. This ought to be interesting. "Do Baptists dance?" Apparently they do, as pretty soon most of the students (and ultimately I, too!) are out on the dance floor. Even our guides are laughing, clapping, dancing and having fun. It is a blast!

Premier Mask Miracle Noir - wonderful product, but don't attempt to pass Israeli securityFinally, we have to say goodbye, and Yossi and Tzvika take us to Ben Gurion Airport. We get in line to check in and get our duty free papers stamped, when Yael, my tour guide back in 2005 and, like the Daas family, my friend ever since, comes up behind me. I am overjoyed that she finally made it to see me - she had wanted to meet us at Mini Israel already but was delayed as she had to pick up a group of her own at the Jordanian border. She rushed home and then drove to the airport to come see me. What a delight to see my friend Yael! We exchange family updates and gifts, but our reunion is cut short by a rapidly advancing line. One big hug later and with hugs and kisses sent home with her to her husband Yair, we part ways. I need to find a way to spend more time with my friends when I come back next year, oops, time (Honey, you didn't read this, right?). I missed out on seeing some other friends totally. Passing through security becomes quite a challenge due to the gift Yael just gave me. The facial mask she gave me contains a strange-looking black stone to take off the mask, which apparently looks like it could double for a plastic explosive, judged by the length of time it takes me to clear security...

After some last minute shopping at the many shops of Ben Gurion's departure hall, open in the middle of the night, we all meet up at the El Al departure gate. There is actually a working Internet connection here, and so we all eagerly boot up our laptops to send last minute e-mails. I even get to skype with my parents in Germany who are still awake. Finally, we get on the plane. I have an aisle seat, with Don Redden sitting next to me. At the window, a young Yeshiva student originally from Boston joins us. Unlike most Yeshiva students who would probably avoid me like the plague due to my gender, this young man is eager to chat and so I find out a lot of things about life as a Yeshiva student and his personal background. As the plane lifts off, I look out the window. It is dark outside, but in my mind's eye, I see everything I know is out there throughout the darkness. It is a beautiful country with beautiful people, rough on the outside, sweet on the inside. Native born Israelis are called Sabra - prickly pear cactus. How fitting for a people who have the American frontier mentality, but in a much fresher, unadulterated manner. They make do with what they have, and they get the job done without complaining. I love this land, and I love these people, and I pray that God in His mercy will allow me to see "Next year in Jerusalem" come to reality.

1 comment:

  1. I just love Israel..Planning to go on another pilgrimage to the Holly Land next year.. :) Had some incredible time last time I was there..Following in the footsteps of our lord Jesus Christ..