Today we are going into Bethlehem. Bethlehem is part of the Palestinian land. To enter Bethlehem from Jerusalem, we had to receive authorization first. Our first order of business was shopping for souvenirs. We went into a wood shop, where the business creates wooden crosses, nativity scenes, and other artifacts. Their operation was impressive.
We soon started our walk uphill towards the Church of the Nativity. This is the site at which Jesus was born. The Church of the Nativity stands in the shadows of a mosque and a shopping center. Inside was a long line of tourists here to pay homage to the birthplace of our Lord. I must admit, I did not quite enjoy this visit. The line was so long such that we could not stop to see, take pictures, much less reflect on the meaning of the incarnation.
We left to go for lunch in the middle of Bethlehem. Fish has been the most popular menu item for us. As with all our other meals, the lunch was delectable and palatable; finger licking good!
Our journey led us to the most anticipated visit – the visit to the wailing wall. The Wailing Wall is a small part of the old Jerusalem Western Wall. As I walked towards the wall, I was overcome by a great sense of the presence of the Lord. This is sacred ground. I saw many people leaning against the wall in various postures of prayer. Everywhere were many devout men wearing black hats, black clothes, and long beards. These pious Jews read the Torah while rocking forwards and backwards, reciting some inaudible words. The sounds were in sync with their movements. It was a beautiful, saintly sight.
I chose an open spot on the wall. I prayed, starting with confession. I had written various prayer requests on small pieces of paper. After I prayed for each person or situation, I would fold the little piece, and then insert it in a crevice in the limestone rock. I prayed for my relationship with God, my family, my friends, ministry, the corps, and many other things God brought to mind.
I did not want to leave. I was in the presence of God. Why leave this Holy moment? Why depart from such a powerful experience? Well, we had to leave. So, I reluctantly left, taking mental pictures of all my eyes could see. I want to keep this sensation, this sacrosanct event alive in my life forever. So help me God!
As we drove up into the City of Jerusalem, Commissioner Francis sang a heartwarming rendition of the song “Jerusalem.” My heart started to beat faster and faster as the view of the city came into sight. We got off the bus near the eastern wall of the old Jerusalem. We began our advent into the city through the Lions’ Gate. The little marbled street called “Straight Street” is filled with vendors selling various souvenirs and artifacts.
We arrived at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, located in the Christian quarter of the city. This is the place traditionally considered as the place where Jesus’ tomb is located. I admired the glamorous decor. The sweet scent of burning incense enhanced my desire to pray. I was a man conflicted, though. While I wanted to reflect on Christ’s work, I struggled with the appearance of worshipping the stones and idols.
We left to follow Christ’s road to the cross – the Via Dolorosa, stopping to pray at various Stations of the cross. It was disheartening to see how the whole area had now become Muslim. I reflected on our Lord’s suffering, carrying the wooden cross up the steep hill. How painful and difficult that must have been.
After completing walking the Via Dolorosa, we left the city through the Java gate. There we boarded the bus to head for lunch at the Olive Tree Restaurant. Lunch was delicious, comprising a rich selection of vegetables, then bread, rice, chicken, fish, and other meats.
From there, we headed up to the Mount of Olives. We paused to take a picture in front of the Mount of Olives Church. Behind us was the picturesque view of the City of Jerusalem. Towering of the ancient walls and buildings was the Temple Mount, with its bright, golden dome.
We started the steady, slow walk down the hill along the Palm Sunday street. This is where Jesus rode the donkey into Jerusalem. We stopped at the place where Jesus prayed for Jerusalem. A beautiful church sits on the site. The church is designed to look like a tear drop. It is called the Church of Dominus Flevit, situated on the upper western slope of the Mount of Olives. I was overcome by emotions as I reflected on our Lord weeping over Jerusalem.
We walked further down to the Garden of Gethsemane. There were old olive trees in a fenced area. We were greeted by a stunning church, whose architectural design left me speechless. The front was decorated in eye catching designs and icons. The windows had purples colors that formed a cross. The inside of the church was enchanting. The ceiling formed glamorous cross, while Jesus, the Shepherd watched down on His flock. I felt a chill down my spine. I was standing in the place where our Lord spent the night in prayer.
Rutendo and I started singing the hymn whose words go something like this: “In the garden Gethsemane, in Darkness a voice was heard. The voice of Jesus praying to His Father.” We both wept, as we considered the suffering our Lord endured to set us free. Salvation is free but not cheap. It cost God His son. It cost Jesus His life. We should never cheapen the work He did for our salvation. Thank you Jesus.
Step onto Israeli soil. Check! It was a bright, crisp morning. A cool, salty breeze blew around us as we got off the cruise ship to take our first steps onto the Israeli soil. I felt like I was stepping back in time – back to where it all began. A big sign read “Welcome to Haifa, Israel.” Yes, I was finally here. Praise God. Haifa is Israel’s 3rd largest city.
As the bus drove on the highway, the guide told us the hill we saw was Mt. Karmel. It was on this mountain the the Prophet Elijah challenged the 450 prophets of Baal. This is surreal. Am I really here?
From there, we drove past the Sea of Galilee. We arrived in Tabgha, at the Church of the Beatitudes. The church overlooks the Sea of Galilee. The slopes from the church down to the sea made a natural theater at which the multitudes sat to listen to Jesus as He taught the Sermon on the Mount. (Matthew 5-7) The breeze from the sea, and the curvature of the slopes created natural acoustics that carried the voice of Jesus to the audience. The manicured landscape welcomed the visitor to the church. Like many of the churches we have visited, this church was well adorned. I sat on the pew to pray and reflect.
From there, we drove a short distance to the shores of the Sea of Galilee. Before reaching the shores, we were greeted by an antic little church. Surrounding the church were big rocks. Inside the church, towards the front was a big rock that lay across the altar. This little church is the Church of the Primacy of St. Peter. This is said to be the rock at which Jesus said to Peter, “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church,and the gates of Hades[b] will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be[c] bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” (Matthew 16:18-19)
Outside the church was the Northern shore of the Sea of Galilee. After listening to the reading of the Scriptures, we went to touch the water. I sat on a rock, while reflecting on the ministry of Jesus. This is where He walked on water. This is where Jesus told the disciples to cast the net onto the deep end. On these shores, Jesus made a fish fry for breakfast for the disciples. I feel blessed, honored, and humbled to step my foot here. Praise God!
We had lunch on the dock at the Lunch the “Docks Restaurant” in Tiberius. The restaurant sits at the edge of the Galilee Lake. The glassy, blue water of the water glimmered in front of us. Most of us ordered the mouthwatering Peter’s fish, salad, and fries. The dessert was a plate of fresh, cool dates. Probably, the fish Jesus grilled for the disciples on that early morning tasted as good. I wondered.
To cap off the day, we went to the Jordan River. We witnessed various baptisms taking place. Many of the people being baptized have been baptized before. They are getting baptized as a sentimental and significant act of following the example of Jesus Christ.
The river was peaceful. Eucalyptus and other types of trees lined the banks of the river. The river was leaner yet cleaner than I had imagined. I paused to reflect on the evangelistic ministry of John the Baptist. He preached on these river banks. He preached repentance. He paved the way for the coming of Christ. His dedication led him to live in the desert eating locusts and honey. His attire was far from fashionable – camel skin!
I also pondered in the words of God at the baptism of Jesus. Earlier, John had pointed to Jesus while saying, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.” (John ) As John concluded baptizing Jesus, the heavens opened up. The Holy Spirit descended on Jesus like a dove. God the Father spoke, “This is my son, in whom I well pleased. Listen to Him.” There, at the Jordan River, we see the Trinity. God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit!
What does baptism mean to me? Who is Jesus to me? Do I let Him take away my sins? Do I listen to Him?
Before ending his 3rd Missionary journey, the Apostle Paul visited Rhodes. We learned that Rhodes is the place where the Colossus of Rhodes stood. This was once one of the wonders of the ancient world. It is said that the Apostle Paul probably saw remains of this statue during his visit.
Upon our arrival on the island of Rhodes, Greece, we rode the bus into the city of Rhodes. As the bus followed the meandering road up the hill, we were greeted by a picturesque, breathtaking sight of the Mediterranean Sea on one side, and the Aegean Sea on the other.
We disembarked inside the enclosure of the old city wall. The mid centuries’ imposing structures paid homage to the architectural prowess of the people of old.
These are ruins of the structures built by the Knights of Saint John. He knights also built various castles and other buildings during that time. It was in the middle of the city that Commissioner Don Bell gave his devotional. He shared the characteristics that made the Apostle Paul rise to the top of the leadership chain.
After lunch, we visited the ancient Acropolis of Lindos. The Apostle Paul is said to have landed here on one of his mission trips. One of the images of Greece I have always seen is various white houses on a hillside at the edge of the Mediterranean Sea. Lindos had such houses. As we climbed the steps up to the Acropolis, I paused and posed to take pictures of this beautiful setting. The rocks at the edge of the island seemed to embrace quiet, quaint and clear sea. Breathed in deep, to take it all in.
Though we had to leave in a huff and puff to catch our voyage out of Greece, I wanted to stay. My soul wanted to linger in this peaceful place. My mind wrestled to comprehend such beauty.
As has been our custom, Rutendo and I go for an early morning walk around the track. Today was special. We witnessed the most beautiful sunrise I have ever seen. In front of the cruise ship was a true portrait of the heavens. The sun was about to break forth over the eastern horizon. Fluffy orange and yellow clouds floated just above the horizon. The shape of the clouds was as if God’s hand had stroked gently with a cosmic brush across the great canvas of the sky.
As the cruise ship sailed more, I watched as the big orange ball begin to ascend so ever gracefully. The ascension was slow, as if the earth was grasping and holding onto the big orange ball about to float into the atmosphere. Some clouds streaked across the bottom half of the big orange ball, partially covering it.
Soon, the clouds parted, making way for the sun to rise majestically. Behold, a big orange ball hovered at the edge of the horizon and the sky. It announced the dawn of a new day. A day of new opportunities. A day of new mercies.
God is good. He paints a portrait of His new mercies every morning. In my hurried and busy life, I rarely stop to reflect on His goodness. I praise God I am on this study tour. I praise God, I received a great blessing watching the rising of the sun – the arrival of a new day. I was reminded of Lamentations 3:22-23, “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.”
Wow!! I know the Bible events are true. However, I have always had a disconnect between reality and what’s in the pages of the Bible. The ruins of the city of Ephesus brought the Bible alive. Our guide’s explanation of the city’s history and culture made the Bible stories real and vivid. It was like watching a 3D, maybe 4D movie. I, literally, walked where Paul and many of the church’s early fathers walked.
Though now in ruins, one could tell the architecture had been amazing. The streets and buildings were made of marble. The various columns, buildings and statues told of a successful era. My mind traveled back to 2,000. I wondered what it meant being a citizen of Ephesus in those days. Revelation 2:1-6, “To the angel[a] of the church in Ephesuswrite:
These are the words of him who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven golden lampstands. I know your deeds, your hard work and your perseverance. I know that you cannot tolerate wicked people, that you have testedthose who claim to be apostles but are not, and have found them false. You have persevered and have endured hardships for my name, and have not grown weary.
Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken the love you had at first. Consider how far you have fallen! Repent and do the things you did at first. If you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstandfrom its place. But you have this in your favor: You hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, which I also hate.”
I wondered what God would is saying to me today. Am I still in love with Jesus as before? Have I wandered away from the passion? What things have I allowed to pollute my faith? Am I compromising my faith to fit in? What do I need to repent of?
On our way back to the cruise ship, we witnessed the creation of magnificent masterpieces of handmade rugs. The host was gracious and yet proud of his family business. We were offered drinks, included a small potent cup of Turkish coffee. It was so strong it grows hairs on one’s chest. The rugs were beautiful, depicting various cultures and backgrounds of the stylists. I could have bought a few save for the exorbitant price tags.
We clocked 10,000 steps long before the end of the day. That took away my guilt as I dove into the steak and vegetables dinner meal. It was an early night for us. Tomorrow, we go to Rhodes, Greece.
I woke up sensing the bed move. I heard a low, rumbling sound. The air smelt fresh and salty. For a moment, I struggled to comprehend where I was. Then it dawned on me, I had just spent the night on a comfortable bed, in a “moving city” – the Celebrity Constellation! What an experience. God had taken this African boy on many an excursion. The gratitude to God deepens with each experience.
Rutendo and I had a delicious breakfast that included bacon, baked beans, eggs, grilled tomato, and strong coffee. How do they keep their food so fresh and tasty this far from land?! From the restaurant, we went to deck 11 to walk it all off. We walked briskly on the ship’s running/walking track. The ship was moving on, at about 20-22 nautical knots an hour (about 35m/hr). We walked towards our 10,000 steps a day goal.
Our first pilgrims meeting took place at 1:00 pm. Dr Birch taught on the subject entitled “How did we get the Bible?” His fascinating and informative lecture included the canon of the Old Testament, the Law, the Writings, up to the canon of the New Testament. The powerful lecture set a base, becoming the diving board from which we spring to commence our Study Tour in Ephesus, Turkey tomorrow.
Our bodies are still adjusting to the new time change, and schedule. A long afternoon nap was in order. For dinner, we had to dress up. I wore the grey suit I purchased a few weeks ago, for my University graduation. I walked down towards the restaurant with Rutendo by my side. She looked stunning and exquisite in her black dinner dress. Her face beamed. Her smile stole my heart all over again. There I noticed, she was more beautiful than I could remember. The hectic lives we live rob us of the gift of observation and reflection. The busyness which has become my routine, denies me the eyes nor time to appreciate her. There she was, looking as stunning as ever. I am in love.
Following the dinner, we were treated to a “Hollywood” night musical in the theater. The performers were right on cue, singing and dancing like the professionals they are. In particular, their rendition of six James Bond songs was magnificent. They won me over.
I look forward to the tour of Ephesus tomorrow. I am ready for God speak to me through this experience of Biblical proportions!