Follow along with our trip as we ring in the New Year in the Holy Land! Come back to this page each day as we dive deeper into our faith origin. Over 30 people are along for this pilgrimage, so each post should provide a unique and varying perspective on this experience.
T-Minus 1 Week
December 19, 2019
Exactly one week from today we will be embarking on the the journey of a lifetime. 31 participants ranging from a 8th grader to let’s say more seasoned travelers will embark on an enlightening experience. A week out (and with Christmas in-between) I am sure they are all experiencing a variety of emotions, excitement, stress (on what to pack, how much money to bring, and preparing for Christmas), worry, uncertainty, hope, joy and so much more. Only 3 out of our group have traveled to the Holy Land before and even those of us who have gone before hold expectations for what this experience will entail.
Nine years ago, I felt many of these same emotions as I prepared to travel to the Holy Land with a class of seminary students. I felt nervous, anxious, uncertain all wrapped up with excitement and expectations for what the experience would entail. I could not have imagined the beauty that I would see in the lush green countryside along the Sea of Galilee, or the emotion that would come over me worshiping at the site of Jesus birth in the Church of Nativity at 5am. This experience is truly one of a kind to walk the footsteps of Jesus, to be in awe of the beautiful mosaics, and to spiritually illuminated in the reading of scripture on the Mount of the Beatitudes.
My hope and prayer for the 30 pilgrims that will travel with me is that this experience is unique and allows each of them the opportunity to grow in their faith while creating memories that will last a lifetime. For those of us who have traveled before, I hope that we see the sites through a new lens and we experience these places with fresh eyes to grow a little deeper in our relationship with God and the scriptures. I ask that you follow along with us on this journey, my hope is that we will be able to blog each day and go Facebook Live on the Middletown United Methodist Church Facebook page to allow those who could not physically travel with us to experience the sites, sounds and beauty along with us. I also ask that you hold our group in prayer not only for safety, but for each of the participants to fully envelop themselves and find the moment in which they see God and see the scriptures come to life in this place and in these moments.
1 Week! I truly cannot wait to travel with our group, and cannot wait to share this experience with each of you. I pray that you have a blessed Christmas and look forward to sharing with you over the next two weeks.
December 27, 2019
Our pilgrimage began as any good ones do: at the crack of dawn. 4:45 am was our meeting time at the ticketing counter of the Louisville airport on Thursday, December 26. We breezed through TSA and made it to our gate with enough time to spare so those with a caffeine reliance could stop at the Starbucks before departure. The initial flight from Louisville to Newark, NJ, took off around 6:15 and lasted just short of 2 hours. Then came the misery of boredom.
The eight-hour layover in Newark granted us time to explore the airport in depth. Between competing in “finger skating” (a free game on the airport iPads), hunting for the one and only Wendy’s in the airport, and spotting Martha Stewart at the little book shop, the time crawled by like TSA on Christmas Eve. However, this time also allowed us to begin bonding for the week ahead. We played games, joked around, and learned more about one another so we could use the time in Israel to grow together.
Our flight to Tel-Aviv departed around 4:00 pm eastern time. The ten-hour long flight (9 hours and 52 minutes, if we’re getting knit-picky) provided a plethora of movies, dinner (a choice of buttered chicken or spinach-stuffed red sauce manicotti), beverage service, snacks (pretzels early on, a turkey sandwich in the middle of the night), breakfast (a choice between eggs or french toast and a blueberry muffin with both), and many passengers fruitlessly sleeping in increments of 20 minutes.
After landing around 9:30 am in Tel-Aviv, 2:30 am back home, we pushed through the mob of travelers getting through customs. A fun fact about Israeli culture is the lack of lines! Many places, including customs, opt to mob and push through to the front of the pack rather than stand in organized lines leading to customs counters. Getting the whole group through customs took about an hour, but once we made in through, we claimed our luggage and made our way to the bus that will accommodate our group for the next week.
Our first stop of the day, since it was only 11 am when we hit the road, was the port city of Jaffa. We visited St. Peter’s Church, which is still beautifully decorated for Christmas. During the invasion of Napolean in the early 19th century AD, soldiers ill with the plague were housed in the basement chambers of the church until they were well enough to leave. A canon, as well as other statues of Napolean Bonaparte, stands in the front courtyard of the church in commemoration of the church’s involvement in this piece of history. We also walked down to the shore of the port used by King Soloman (who ruled from 970 to 931 BC). However, after King Herod came into power, the port in Jaffa no longer served as the Mediterranean port. Thirdly, we had the opportunity to walk up to the wishing bridge above the main road near the church. At the entrance of the bridge lies a beautiful marble mosaic labeling the bridge as the Wishing Bridge. It is believed that any wish made on the bridge, especially those involving true love and marriage, will come true. Despite the cold rain chilling us all to the bone, the quick stop in the city of Jaffa was well worth it. After another quick stop at an Elvis-themed burger restaurant, we made it to our hotel in Bethlehem.
The day was not over yet, though! Due to a schedule change, the special Israeli dinner was held that night! Those who opted beforehand to attend quickly showered and changed to go to the Shabbat dinner hosted by a Jewish family. Our hosts that evening were celebrating Shabbat, the new month, and Hannukah all in one night! They provided us with a delicious five-course meal (including homemade hummus, vegetable soup, and Challah bread), presentations of hand-washing rituals and traditional prayers, songs, and blessings, and wonderful conversation about Jewish culture and what Shabbat was all about. We learned about their lives, how they met, their personal faiths, and other basic information about the Jewish faith. Overall, the experience was extremely fulfilling and enriching.
We do want to pray for the Donohues (Dean, Leanne, and Elijah) whose luggage was lost in transit during their flight connection. Not only was their flight delayed several hours, keeping them from joining the group until just before the Israeli dinner, but they are also left with only their carry-on belongings and a loose promise of the return of their luggage in 2-3 days.
While the day was long and exhausting for us all, it was definitely a successful start to a wonderful and eye-opening week together in the Holy Land.
Until tomorrow, Shalom!
December 28, 2019
Day 2 began with breakfast at the hotel, a nice variety of cereals, eggs, pastries, vegetables, hummus, and fruit. It was an early start, and we were on the bus at 8 am. The bus ride took us through a number of narrow, winding streets—many not much wider than the bus—as we headed to the Shepherd’s Field. While on the bus, we learned that Saturday was a normal work day for the Palestinians here in Bethlehem, and normally during the year children go to school on Saturday.
We were also informed of the many ways that Palestinians and Israelis segregate themselves, from the identification on their license plates to the limited entry in places controlled by the other group.
On arriving at Shepherds field, we got off the bus and walked down to the church. Our tour guide Rula told us the acoustics were exceptional in the church and encouraged us to sing a few Christmas carols. Lily Pottlitzer and Elena Usher led us first in “Silent Night,” and after another carol, we were free to explore the caves and the surroundings. The views of Bethlehem and other nearby communities were exceptional. In fact, it seems that everywhere you turn in Bethlehem is another incredible view! It had rained the night before, and some of the fields and the caves were still muddy. That didn’t stop many in our group from exploring! We became new searchers in these very old caves that had borne witness to the angels’ declaration of Christ’s birth.
Our next stop was Herodion, the mountain enlarged by Herod the Great to expand his view of the surrounding area. After learning of Herod’s accomplishments and the different ways that people regarded him, we were acquainted with all the site contained, including the fortress up top and the small theatre site that ultimately holds his tomb. This visit also provided us with an opportunity to explore the archaeological excavations, and after a long and steep hike that had me missing my 25 year-old self, we understood some of the value of Herod’s work. The view from the top was spectacular, reaching as far as the Dead Sea, where our trip will take us tomorrow. We were also able to explore the water tunnels as we worked our way down. Our ride out of Herodion National Park treated us to a view of sheep as they were being herded by locals.
Our next stop was a store run by Christians in Bethlehem with an olive wood carving shop in the basement. We were treated to a tour of the wood shop before going upstairs to look for treasures and gifts to bring back. This was also one of the first places we experienced street vendors. Our guide had warned us of the local merchants who would accost us as we moved about the streets. She instructed us not to make eye contact. We got a chance to put this into practice as we left the store.
Lunch was a variety of what are called salads in Israel, an assortment of dishes made with cabbage, beets, potatoes, lettuce and olives served on small plates to share. After that we enjoyed chicken and rice, followed by baklava and Turkish coffee.
Our final stop was the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. Again we were impressed by the skill of our driver as he navigated Bethlehem traffic, making turns that looked impossible from our vantage point.
We finally arrived at The Church of the Nativity, prepared to spend 3 hours in line before reaching the place of Jesus’s birth. Rula, our guide, was very protective of our place in line and managed to get us there in an hour and a half.
We had little time at the site of the birth, which was marked by a 14 point silver star and a manger complete with the Baby Jesus. We were fortunate to have the babe there, because they only bring him out during the Christmas season. We then went into the Church of St. Catherine, where several holy caves were. The cave of Joseph was there, as well as the cave of Jerome, the hermit responsible for the Latin translation of the Bible known as the Vulgate. We ended our travels across from the Church of the Nativity at Bethlehem Square, which was fully decorated for the holiday season.
December 29, 2019
It’s a new day here in Israel and today was packed with exciting times and experiences that allowed the Bible to come alive in each of our minds. Our day started to a wake up call at 6:30 this morning (earlier than my school days!) and a breakfast of hummus, pita bread, roasted potatoes, and croissants. We loaded the bus ready for whatever Rula had in store for us.
We started this morning by traveling through the Israeli checkpoint and no mans land to reach the Jordan river, while there we were able to experience the holiness of the water that Jesus was baptized in. Pastor Gary created a special moment for each member as he blessed us each with the water upon our foreheads. While we were there a group of Orthodox Christians came to have a full immersion baptism in the river, this was incredible to watch as you were able to see the awe that crosses each person’s face as they surfaced from the water.
We’ve all had the song of Zacchaeus sung to us at some point in our church journey, today we saw the last of the Sycamore trees that resides in the city of Jericho and that is over 2000 years old. Beside the tree were venders that were offering the traditional headdresses that are worn by the locals, they were able to rope in the Geoghegan boys who each got one, we’ll have to see if they can remember how to put them on.
After exploring the area around the tree we stopped to visit a local store that created unique handmade glassware. The artistry found in each piece was incredible, for some of you back home, you will certainly be getting a beautiful gift. The secret behind the glassware has resided in the same family for generations and surely will for years to come. Since we were located so close to the Dead Sea they had many products with all the minerals found there, Elle volunteered for a mud mask and we were all shocked when he was able to take it off with a magnet! As the salesmen said “Back to baby skin!” While at the store we had a buffet style lunch that included foods such as cucumber and tomato salad, taziki dressing, beef and tomato kabobs (Dean’s favorite) and a Israeli style pizza made with pita bread. Right outside the store we met someone very interesting, a camel named Sam! Everyone was so excited to meet and ride Sam and the pictures were incredible, you can find them on the Instagram page mumcyouthky.
The Dead Sea scrolls were found by accident in 2007 by a shepherd boy who had lost one of his goats in the caves. The scrolls include the whole bible excluding the book of Esther and were written by the Essenes, a breakaway Jewish sect. We were able to see the remains of their compound in the valley by the Dead Sea. It was amazing to see the technological advancements that were inside the camp including aqueducts and massive cisterns to hold the water that flowed from the surrounding mountains down into their desert valley.
Our final stop of the day was to the lowest point on Earth, the Dead Sea! This experience was definitely one for the books, as we were able to recline on the water and watch everyone slather themselves in mud. Definitely not something you see adults doing everyday! I can say that you will definitely need a long shower after being exposed to the high level of salt.
Can’t wait to share the rest of our experiences here in Israel with all of you waiting back home, hope everyone is having a wonderful break,
*If you are a cat person I do recommend traveling here, there are cats everywhere! Also a thank you to all who sent their prayers, the Donahue luggage situation has been resolved and they couldn’t have been happier to be reunited with their clean clothes!
December 30, 2019
We started this day off bright and early at 5:30 am and began our two hour journey to Galilee. Somewhere along the road we stopped at a larger than average rest stop where we saw about half of the Israeli army (fully armed with ARs). A few of us decided to get a little adventurous and try a coke & coffee combo which was unanimously enjoyed. As we got further north in Israel the landscape began to get a little less sandy and a little more green. One thing that surprised me was the expansive fields of bananas that were being grown near the mount of beatitudes on the edge of the Sea of Galilee. Banana Fun fact: they wrap the bananas in a blue material during the growing process in order to control the exposure to heat by the sun’s rays. I don’t know all the science behind the blue stuff but the bananas that we had for breakfast at the Angel hotel this morning were top notch.
Our first few stops were along the Northwest side of the Sea of Galilee. These included Tabgha and Capernaum where we witnessed the beauty of several old churches. My personal favorite was the Church of the primacy of Peter. It was built on top of the very rock where Jesus made breakfast for his disciples on the edge of the water. The feeling of being where Jesus lived was truly unreal. Capernaum which is known as the town of Jesus had a special feeling and the ruins of Peter’s house showed me how much different their lives were than mine.
After visiting those sites we ate lunch at a restaurant known for the fish of peter(tilapia with a head and tail), which several of us including me were slightly disappointed with especially when they charged us $20 a person for a meal worth much less. If they had yelp over here i would not give them a very good review at all but it was an interesting experience. We finished the day with a serene boat ride on the Sea of Galilee with a wonderful devotion by the one and only Dean Donohue that moved us all. Shortly after a rather serious devotion our boat driver got a little crazy and led us in a wild dance that gave us all a laugh. I can’t really say anything about our next hotel because i wrote this on the bus ride on the way to it in Jerusalem but I’m sure it will be nice.
Today was overall a great day and I hope everyone back home had an equally good one! Until tomorrow.
December 31, 2019
So today was amazing! I didn’t think it could get better than the Sea of Galilee but I was wrong. Today we entered into the old city of Jerusalem and walked the Via Delarosa, the stations of the cross; this was the path that Jesus took from condemnation to crucifixion and beyond. This led us to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, where we saw the location of the cross that Jesus was crucified on and then got to kneel in the tomb of Jesus. There are no words to describe the peace and humbleness that is brought to your soul in that sacred place.(Goosebumps) & we got to walk on the ACTUAL stone street that Jesus walked on 2000 years ago on his way to Calvery. We visited the church of St. Anne who was Mary’s mother, St. Peter in Gallicantu, where Peter denied Jesus 3 times, stood in the pit where Jesus was held after being condemned the first time While Ethan read from Psalms 88. This is the only psalm that has no hope and ends in darkness, so appropriate. The final site visited in Old City was a recreation of the Upper Room where the last supper was held. It’s in a church which was built during the Crusades, later used for Muslim mosque and is now under Jewish authority. Christians may visit anytime, but may only worship/sing there two times a year: Holy Thursday and Pentecost.
At the top of the steps of the promenade overlooking Jerusalem and the Mount of Olives, Lilly gave a wonderful devotion challenging us to take what we have learned here in Israel and use it in our daily lives to encourage others in their faith journey. This was near the site of Peter’s betrayal of Jesus – and during Lilly’s devotion a cock crowed several times.
After all of this we had free time to mix & mingle with the locals in the Old City market (So cool!) Today was everything I had imagined and more! If you ever come, just be ready to haggle! 😂
Peace be with you.
January 1, 2020
The final day of our trip was full of activities. After a short bus ride, we visited a Jewish cemetery. This was significant because it was built into the mount of olives. We talked about revelations and why Jews believe who Jesus was. With a short walk downhill, we headed to our next destination.
The top of mount olives was one of the best views we have seen so far. We talked about Muslim, Jewish, and Christian history in Jerusalem. The architecture that was around us was breathtaking. The church at the top of mount olives was built to show the significance of Jesus weeping over Jerusalem. Our next stop was highly anticipated all week.
The garden of Gethsemane was overwhelming. Surrounding the beautifully designed church were 2000 year old olive trees. They were believed to be the same trees around Jesus when he prayed intensely to God on His last day. Finally we went to our last stop.
The debate of which tomb location was driving conversation between all age groups. We visited the garden tomb where Jesus was believed by many to be his burial site. The landscapes provided a nice atmosphere for worship. We took communion for the trip, and prayed along the holy grounds we visited.