Saturday, May 30, 2009


Last Monday night we had a special opportunity to go underground through the tunnels that run parallel to the entire western edge of the Temple Mount. Typically, when we talk about the western wall we are specifically referring to portion of the wall toward the southern end of the Temple Mount. This section of the wall has a large plaza associated with it that is open to the sky above. This is where we have gone numerous times to watch the prayer services of the Jews. But, during the last twenty years there is another portion of the wall that has been uncovered. People call it the Western Wall Tunnels or the Rabbinic Tunnels.

The original excavators literally dug under the city of Jerusalem, underneath houses and businesses to reveal the entire length of the western wall. The excavators were faced with complicated engineering problems, such as maintaining the stability of the structures above them. The original explorers, back in the 1800s describe swimming through the cisterns with a candle to light the way. The modern excavators had to divert the sewage from the houses above them, which on occasion flushed down unexpectedly into the tunnels, which was serving as a general sewage system in many places. After much delicate and difficult work they they found enormous carved stones that are still preserved. There were also remains of the Herodian road which ran alongside the Temple Moun and ancient cisterns that originally were used as water sources. One spot along the wall is not completed. Some scholar speculate that this happened when Herod the Great died and the project was no longer funded, so the workers just picked up their tools and went home.

The biggest stone in the Western Wall is often called the Western Stone. I couldn't fit the whole stone into the picture, but if you look closely at the big stone on top of the smaller stones you can see it in the picture ("smaller stones" is a relative term since the stones on the bottom row weigh several tons apiece themselves). It is one of the heaviest objects ever lifted by human beings without powered machinery. Listen to this: the stone is about the size of a bus, around 40 feet long and about 12 feet wide. They estimate the weight at 570 tons! Think about this. The empty weight of the first 747-400 is about 200 tons, and its maximum takeoff weight (with luggage, people, and fuel) is about 450 tons. They have no idea how this stone was moved into place!!

People did not like the archaeologists digging under their homes, and they had all sorts of fears about their homes and businesses collapsing. One tragedy that has set the course for this site happened on September 24,1996. Prime Minister Netanyah ordered that a new exit be cut through from the Struthion Pool area to the Via Dolorosa nearby. Yasser Arafat commented on the event, alleging the real aim was to make the Temple Mount collapse. This sparked riots in which around 80 people were killed. Normally there is a soldier located at this exit to protect people when they exit the tunnels in the Muslim quarter. Since our tour took place at 10 pm when it was dark and at a time more prone to radical Palestinians harassing people who exit the tunnels we had to retrace our steps and go out the entrance.

There is still excavating and exploration going on with these walls, and new discoveries and insights into the Temple Mount area are being made. It was cool to be down under the city of Jerusalem so late at night, but I didn't get to sleep until about 12:30 pm that night and our bus left Jerusalem at 7 am the next morning so the first day on the road was a killer, and there are no coffee shops out in the desert. So, we just had to tough it out until we finally found a place to grab a Coke at lunch time.

Friday, May 29, 2009


Since I am mentioned in the following post by my friend Norm Langston (pastor from Portland, Oregon and also wifeless on the trip) I am just going to copy his post here. By the way, it's easier to tell people that I'm from "near Des Moines" than to say I'm from Adel, Iowa. That's particularly true for the natives here in Jerusalem who have not even heard of Iowa (I have to tell them I'm from "near Chicago!"). The pictures are my own, and my pictures are probably not going to exactly match Norm's commentary below. The point is that there is a round disk rolled back from the tomb and there is an empty bench in the tomb which should remind you of someone else's tomb who turned out to be a whole lot more important than Herod. Anyway, Norm has a blog at in which he is commenting on his version of the trip. And I borrowed his title for this entry too because it was so good. So, with full credit given to Norm, here is what he wrote,

"We had a free afternoon on Monday. Tom, a pastor from Des Moines, and I hiked across the Hinnom Valley with the goal of finding the tomb of Herod's family. Although Herod was buried at the Herodium, his family was not. We were interested because this is one of the few intact 1st Century tombs in Israel. Especially unusual is the fact that this tomb has a large stone that was rolled across its entrance to keep out scavengers. In this picture, can you see the top of the stone to the left of the entry arch?Allow me to make a suggestion: if you ever go "tomb exploring," take a flashlight. Since we expected this tomb to be sealed, we didn't. However, two pastors couldn't let a little darkness deter us, could we? So we climbed down the stairs, bent down to explore the first chamber, and got down as far as we had to--even on all fours--to grope our way through the other three chambers. Another interesting thing about this tomb is that it--like most Jewish tombs of this era--was designed to be used by multiple people. After a body was fully-decayed, the bones were placed in an ostuary, and the tomb was ready for the next corpse(s).There are two reasons our exploration was important to me. First, everything about this tomb corresponds well with what the New Testament reports about Jesus' death. It was good to see that with my own eyes.Second, it reminded me that many people have been buried in a tomb like this. Only one came out alive. Isn't that reason enough to want to get to know him better."
Norm didn't mention that we did solve the "flashlight problem." After a couple of pictures we figured out that we could put our digital cameras on the "Examine picture" mode, and there was enough light coming from the picture to see our way around the tomb if you held the camera within a couple feet from any object you were trying to look at.


Picture: At the western wall a few days ago

Today is a special holiday in Israel called Shavuot. The holiday began last evening and continues today. Friday is also the main day of prayer for Muslims. Consequently the old city has been packed with people and cars are parked wherever people can find a space. People are parking in alleys and on the sides of the hill wherever they can find a spot. There are also Jewish and Muslim pilgrims coming and going every which way. We went down to the Western Wall for a while last night to watch what was going on. We were a little bit late, so some of the crowd had already gone home. But I was able to go up to the front of the western wall and then turn north for a couple of hundred yards where the wall extends underneath the old city. The area under the old city is a combination library/community congregational meeting center. I am assuming that most of the books were copies of the Talmud, the historical rabbinic commentary on the Old Testament. One congregation was having a meeting in this underground area, so we tried not to disturb them. The men were singing a song together. Others were praying in their characteristic bob up and down kind of praying that many of them do. One person told me that they pray like that to keep their focus, so that their minds don't wander. That makes sense, but I haven't talked to a Jewish person about it yet. Some of my friends went down at 4 am this morning for a special worship time that the Jews hold at the western wall. My friends said that the whole area was packed with people and they had to stand way far at the back, about 200 yards away from the front area where the wall is located. Another friend said that he heard several rabbis from the United States at the ceremony. And that makes sense as Shavuot is one of the great gathering festivals of the Jews. You and I know this festival as The Feast of Pentecost. It was on this day nearly two thousand years ago that Peter preached a message of repentance and salvation (Acts 2), possibly on the steps just south of the temple mount (where I was standing the other day). Over 3000 new believers in Jesus the Messiah were added to the church that day, an influx from multiple nations of peoples who were in attendance at Shavuot. So, this is a very important holy day for us as Christians as well. The following press release comes from the government of Israel:

"Shavuot [Pentecost], one of Judaism's three pilgrimage festivals (along with Passover and Sukkot or Feast of Tabernacles), will take place this year between sunset on Thursday, May 28, and sunset on Friday, May 29. The Government Press Office (GPO) would like to offer the following as a brief summary: Shavuot marks the giving of the Torah (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy; Judaism's most basic Scripture) at Mt. Sinai, seven weeks after the exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt. Indeed, Shavuot literally means "weeks" and is celebrated exactly seven weeks after the first day of Passover, which marks the exodus itself. The celebration of Shavuot is specified in Exodus 34:22 and Deuteronomy 16:10. On Thursday night, May 28, after festive evening prayers and a festive meal, many people will follow the custom of staying awake all night and studying religious texts, and then saying morning prayers at the earliest permitted time-thus expressing the enthusiasm of the Jewish people to receive the Torah. Most synagogues and yeshivot [religious schools] will organize special classes and lectures throughout the night of Shavuot. In Jerusalem, there is a widespread custom of going to the Western Wall-which will be exceptionally crowded-for Shavuot morning (Friday) prayers, often accompanied by dancing and singing.

The Shavuot morning prayers are marked by special hymns and scriptural readings, including the Book of Ruth. Special memorial prayers for the departed are also said. Some communities maintain the custom of decorating their synagogues with green plants and flowers. This is in keeping with two traditions: that Mt. Sinai was a green mountain and that Shavuot is a day of judgment for fruit trees. On Shavuot, it is also customary to eat dairy dishes; there are many explanations for this custom.

In ancient times, Shavuot marked the end of the barley harvest, and the beginning of the wheat harvest. Jewish farmers brought their first fruits to the Temple in Jerusalem (Deuteronomy 26:1-11), where special offerings were brought (Numbers 28:26-31). In honor of Shavuot's status as the "Day of First Fruits" and the "Harvest Festival" (as it is referred to in Numbers 28:26 and Exodus 23:16, respectively), many kibbutzim and moshavim [collective settlements] also organize special celebrations revolving around these themes, including ceremonies in which new produce from the kibbutz or moshav is highlighted. (The Government Press Office, May 26, 2009)
And here is a modern version of the holiday (remember that there is a large segment of Israel that is more secular in orientation).....

Thursday, May 28, 2009


PICTURE: at Makktesh Ramon, a place in the Negev, south of Jerusalem. This place looks a little bit like the Grand Canyon.

The last few days we have been out on the road, down in the Negev. We have been to various places like Mizpe Ramon, Arad, Avdat, Qumran, En Gedi, and the Dead Sea. Some of these places you have probably never heard of, but they have important archaeological remains that give us insights into understanding biblical history and culture. If I have a chance I will write more tomorrow about some of the interesting visits and insights from the Negev.
One of the places we visited was BEERSHEBA.......

It sounds like an ancient fermented drink. Serve me up a “Beersheba” please! Beersheba is a town at the southern edge of the territory that the Lord gave to Israel, “from Dan to Beerhsheba” (Judges 20:1; 1 Sam. 3:20; et. al.). Beersheba was an administrative center where people came to trade. It was the primary city of south Israel. Beer Sheba actually can either be translated “The Well of Seven” or “The Well of the Oath.” It was here that Abraham dug a well and settled down (Gen. 21:22-34) after his long wanderings from Haran. “It was here that Abraham “called upon the name of the LORD, the Eternal God” (Gen. 21:33). I was thinking about this as I stood on the ruins of ancient Beersheba.

A couple of weeks ago I met a couple of computer programmers in Jerusalem. They told me this sad tale of being stuck in Beersheba for a few days with nothing to do. I suppose they meant that they had nothing to do in the evening, and that might have been true. Of course they were in the modern city of Beersheba, and we were out at the archaeological dig, which is only open during the day. So, they didn't even get to see what I would say is the most exciting part of Beersheba, the dig.
Beersheba was also the place where Isaac built an altar to the Lord (Gen. 26:15-23) and where Jacob received direction from the Lord to take his family to Egypt along with a promise that Israel would eventually return to the land (Gen. 46:1-7).

Centuries later the citizens of Beersheba encountered trouble because they had an altar that did not conform to the Lord's directions (Amos 5:5; 8:14). There have actually been worship centers which have been discovered in Beersheba (and nearby Arad). These worship centers may be the “high places” that are spoken of in Scripture, places where false worship took place, such as the worship of Asherah, a female deity, worshiped around something called an “Asherah Pole” which we don't really know what it looked like, since we don't have any archaeological finds that have been verified as an “Asherah Pole.” Why did people in Beersheba (along with Arad, Bethel, Gilgal, and other places) stray from their devotion to “the Eternal God” of Abraham their forefather? (see Amos 5:4,5; 8:14). Perhaps it is for the same reason that we sometimes stray: our hearts are “prone to wander” as the old hymn goes.

Unless we discipline ourselves in “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6) we will wander. The root of the word “disciple” is, of course, related to the word “discipline.” One who is a disciple of Jesus disciplines their life to conform to the life of Jesus. It's not that we live perfect lives, but that we are constantly perfecting ourselves. This is an authentic life, a real life, and not a caricature of a Christian who looks down on others. We only look at Jesus as our aim and to Jesus as our strength. To look to our right or left “at other people” is to be diverted from our discipline. The Lord has given us the gift of “the body of Christ” (1 Corinthians 12) as an encouragement to strive to become like Jesus. There are many “religious people” in Israel. Our aim is not to become more “religious.” Our aim is to become more filled with the life of Jesus in us and through us, both individually and corporately.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

22 little things

Picture: Jerusalem looking east from the Mount of Olives

  1. In Hebrew “Bethlehem” is spelled with two words, “Beit – Lechem” (House of Bread).

  2. I'm glad I didn't pay a taxi driver to take a visit to Bethlehem (The taxi drivers are very aggressive and when you are walking on the streets they yell out the window or stop you on the sidewalk and ask if they can take you to Bethlehem). The class trip wasn't worth it, and was the most disappointing place I've been.

  3. Out in the agricultural areas I've seen chickens, goats, sheep, peacocks, burros, camels, but no pigs. Think about it.

  4. The largest coin by size and weight is ½ argorot, with a beautiful picture of a harp on the back and a big ½ on the front side. It's worth about 12 cents.

  5. The Palestinians have the cutest children under 5 years old with their brown skin and dark eyes.

  6. The Orthodox Jews have the most unusual looking teenage boys, all dressed up in their long black suits, and the beginning of their curls on the sides of their heads.

  7. Some of the girls in the Israeli army would do better in a sorority and should definitely NOT be carrying a gun.

  8. They take their politics very seriously over here.

  9. There is a lot, a lot, did I say a lot of tension between the Israelis and the Palestinians.

  10. I'm not sure which is more annoying, the daily Islamic call to prayer over loud loudspeakers broadcast over the whole city or the Israeli youth singing Jewish songs at 2 am outside my window, the Sound and Light show across the street that goes on until very late every other night, the big iron door that slams and shakes our whole building, or the inconsiderate people who talk loudly out in the hallway late at night. There. I got that off of my chest.

  11. There are a lot of priests and nuns in black or brown robes running around the streets, either serving in the various churches or touring the sites.

  12. The best music I've heard here was the Master's College Chorale singing at a concert in Christ Church.

  13. The best museum I've been to was the Bible Land's Museum which displays various artifacts from every era and country mentioned in the Old Testament.

  14. The best food I've eaten was a pasta dish with bacon bits sprinkled in it (not a kosher restaurant!).

  15. The best coffee I've had is actually the hotel coffee at breakfast.

  16. I'm still doing my laundry in the bathtub with shampoo because it's easier than hauling it all somewhere.

  17. I sometimes eat an ice cream bar for my meal BECAUSE I CAN.

  18. I'm having fun and learning lots, but I do miss not having Kathleen with me.

  19. If Kathleen were here she could, and would, correct my grammar. And I would like it, really!

  20. Since I'm auditing the class I'm really glad that I don't have to take the exam this morning.

  21. The most meaningful times I've had in Jerusalem have been times of worship and reflecting on the Word of God because the Lord created us to worship him and to be in community with Him and his people, not to just look at rocks, though the rocks are interesting.

  22. God is everywhere, but the Lord is in Jerusalem in a special way because this is the place where he has most chosen to display His glory.


Picture: Damascus Gate Market, on the Palestinian side of the city.

This morning I worshipped with an Arabic congregation here in the old city Jerusalem that is associated with the Christian Missionary and Alliance denomination. I was going to give this post the title, "Worship in Other Tongues", but some of you might not get the joke. The church meets in a building that is right behind "The Church of the Holy Sepulchre", the place that is on the likely location of Jesus' crucifixion and nearby resurrection tomb. I was wondering if the tourists going into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre heard our worship time. It was very, very enthusiastic and joyous, even if I only understood the "Hallelujahs." If you have ever heard Arabian music you know that it has a very distinct beat: "1,2and, 3, 4and!" with a quick beat on the final "and" and with more emphasis on the final "and." Plus, the worship kept building and building beginning with prayer and music on a keyboard and one teenager on the bongos. Then, the worship leader started leading us in Arabic worship songs, always with that same beat. Next, the powerpoint guy hopped up on stage and started playing the drum set (his daughter took over the powerpoint duties). Next a guy stood up and started waving a flag. The keyboard guy added a bunch of trumpets and now everybody is excited. They stood and worshiped a really long time, but were very sincere. The closest parallel I have in my experience is when I've worshiped down in Mexico with the congregations there. One funny thing on my part. I was sitting next to a professor who teaches at a Christian university out in California, and I asked him what would be the theological symbolism of the Nokia telephone clip art they kept flashing on the screen. He leaned over and very dryly said, "I think it's a message to turn off your telephone." Anyway, we worshiped with some other students from Jerusalem University, two from Alaska, one from Australia, one from Canada, and about 15 pastors from Uganda who were in attendance at the service, plus about 100 in the Arabic congregation. The congregation was very indigineous, and I was glad to see the turnout. Fortunately the message was translated into English for us. Two and a half hours later we were out of there, and it was time for lunch and a nap on a day off. I spent the afternoon doing more reading on the family of Herod, and that's been the day.

Saturday, May 23, 2009


One of the places we visited today was "The Herodium", a combination palace and fortress for King Herod the Great. I may write more about it some time. For now, this picture is just for fun. Our class is composed of people of all ages: college students, seminary students preparing for pastoral ministry, young couples, and a variety of older middle age folks, most of whom are involved in pastoral ministry. There were several ancient pillars standing at the fortress as you can see in the picture. Some of the young college guys (and one gal) climbed up on the pillars and stood there for a picture. This kind of opportunity doesn't come along every day, so without thinking about it too long I climbed up the side of a pillar about 8 feet high, and the one I was standing on was about the second highest there in the courtyard. I'm the guy in the white shirt (look closely at the old guy hat). I scraped my belly a little bit on the way down, but I think the pillar got the worst of it, and I afterward I did feel bad about standing on an ancient irreplaceable piece of history. But not for too long... Herod deserved it.

Friday, May 22, 2009


Picture: Jericho Tower from 9000 BC

One of the greatest cities of the ancient world was a place we know as “Jericho” or in local lingo “Yericho.” Today we saw a tower that goes back at least 9000 BC. We know about Joshua and the children of Israel conquering Jericho, and what a herculean feat that was (Joshua 6). One of the conundrums of Jericho study when I was in seminary was whether or not there were people living in Jericho at the time of the Exodus. In other words there were people who doubt the Bible who criticized the biblical data and said that it conflicts with the archaeological evidence. But, in more recent reconsideration there has been new evidence that Jericho was indeed inhabited during the time of Joshua's conquest. I won't go into all of the technical details. I found an article that summarizes what our professor said at

Essentially, there are several key factors that help us date the destruction of Jericho at a time period consistent with Joshua's entry into the promised land including evidence of a sudden fire, pottery dating, and carbon 14 dating.

A few things struck me in Jericho. First was the ancient tower, one of the most ancient standing structures in all of archaeological research and making Jericho one of the oldest continuously inhabited towns in the ancient world. Secondly, the verdant greenery of the city was a complete contrast to the Judean wilderness northwest of the Jericho. There is a very ancient underground spring that brings water through the limestone all the way from northern Israel down to Jericho. And because of this enormous spring of water there are palm trees, flowers, and green shrubs growing everywhere in this city. Thirdly, I continue to be amazed by the different people I encounter in this part of the world. Today I visited a bit with a young man who has lived in San Jose, California for the last seventeen years. He is married and he now lives in the United States, but was back in Jericho visiting his childhood family, since he is originally from Jericho. He didn't tell me clearly, but since he is from Jericho I presume he is Muslim. What struck me is that the people of the world today are mobile. And it was another reminder to me that it's a small world.

Thursday, May 21, 2009


We were up on the Temple Mount today, a place where the first and second Jewish temples stood. The first temple was Solomon's Temple, erected around 960 BC, and destroyed by the Babylonians under King Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BC. Then the Jewish people were deported to Babylon until they were able to come back to the land and the second temple was completed around 516 BC. After that there was some further expasion of the hill on which the temple sits both by the Hasmoneans in the 2nd century BC and by King Herod around 19 BC. This second temple is sometimes referred to as Herods Temple, and was the temple that was standing in Jesus' time.

There are several theories regarding the precise location of the temple on top of this hill called the Temple Mount. Instead of rehashing all of the archaeological information and theory pros and cons I will let someone who is an expert answer these questions for those who are curious. I found a website that has some good links. The guy that does this website is a professor at "The Master's College" here in Jerusalem, which runs a Bible teaching program that is similar to the one I am taking at Jerusalem University. See the following site at for way better research information than I can provide.

One item of personal response is that the Muslims have fairly adamant opposition to archaeological research up on the temple mount. A part of that opposition has to do with Muslim/Jewish tension since many Jews long and pray for the day that the temple is restored up on the temple mount. And, since one of the theories places the ancient temples directly over the Muslim Dome of the Rock you can imagine how they would get a bit nervous when Jewish archaeologists show up with their pick axes, shovels, and measuring rods. But, on the other hand, in my western mind there is way too much in your face kind of tension here. From my viewpoint let's get out our scientific tools and get to work discovering the truth. It feels somewhat like a denial of truth to not allow research to progress. It's the same feeling I have when I interact with a Mormon. Their mind and will so committed to a certain world view that they stubbornly refuse to look at any other position.

Of course Christians never do this :). Seriously, the sinful nature is so deeply embedded within any one of us to the point that we can become strident, intransigent, and stubborn as the proverbial mule in our own ideas and positions. "Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up"(James 4:10). Stay humble. Keep learning and growing, and I will do the same.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


Picture: Exiting Hezekiah's Tunnel

David (and the Jebusites before him) located the ancient city of Jerusalem as close as they could get to the water source. Of course that's a smart move everywhere throughout history around the planet. Water has always been and still is a precious resource! I grew up in a small town located on the Turkey River. And I now live in a town located along a branch of the Boone River. In Jerusalem there are plenty of hills that are higher than the original Jerusalem site. Fo example, the Mount of Olives towers way higher than David's city. But ancient Jerusalem had the Gihon Spring, a water source that could easily support up to 2,500 people. That's where we went to visit and tour today.

The Gihon Spring runs through a water tunnel we call "Hezekiah's Tunnel", named after the Jewish King by that name.The most thrilling part of the day was hiking through Hezekiah's Tunnel, which is about 1760 feet long, (about a third of a mile or so). The water flowing through the tunnel varies from ankle high to crotch high and the height inside the tunnel is from 4 feet to 40 feet high and about 2 feet wide. The tunnel was built by King Hezekiah around 700 BC, about 2,700 years ago! The reason why it was built was to divert the water from the spring inside of the city gates, so that in a time when the city was under siege they would have an available water source to endure the siege. Hezekiah's men literally tunneled through the bedrock with ancient pick axes from each side until they met in the middle! An ancient inscription was found in which the workers wrote on the wall of the tunnel describing how they met each other in the middle. Read more about this in 2 Chronicles 32:2-4 and 2 Kings 20:20.

The tunnel ends at the Pool of Siloam where people could come and dip in their water buckets and haul the water to their homes. One of my favorite Bible stories is found in John 9 where a blind man is healed by Jesus, and Jesus tells him to “Go, wash in the Pool of Siloam” (John 9:7). When questioned hard by the Pharisees about the identity of Jesus and how such a thing could happen the blind man finally says in exasperation, “.... One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!”
Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost, but now am found, was blind but now I see!

So, we give witness to what we see, whether the facts of archaeological remains or the facts of changed lives. It all works together for the glory of God.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009


Today, as a part of the beginning of our class, we visited the Bethesda Pool. There is quite an extensive passage in John regarding a healing that took place at this location. This is from John 5:1-15....

1Some time later, Jesus went up to Jerusalem for a feast of the Jews. 2Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades. 3Here a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed. 5One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. 6When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, "Do you want to get well?"
7"Sir," the invalid replied, "I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me."
8Then Jesus said to him, "Get up! Pick up your mat and walk." 9At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked. The day on which this took place was a Sabbath, 10and so the Jews said to the man who had been healed, "It is the Sabbath; the law forbids you to carry your mat."
11But he replied, "The man who made me well said to me, 'Pick up your mat and walk.' "
12So they asked him, "Who is this fellow who told you to pick it up and walk?"
13The man who was healed had no idea who it was, for Jesus had slipped away into the crowd that was there.
14Later Jesus found him at the temple and said to him, "See, you are well again. Stop sinning or something worse may happen to you." 15The man went away and told the Jews that it was Jesus who had made him well.

What is unique about this site is that we have such good archaeological evidence that this was the site where this event took place. With most of the events in Jesus' life we can only give the approximate location (like on the Mount of Olives, which is a pretty good sized hill a mile or two wide). But, here the biblical text tells us exactly where this healing took place and we can walk right to the place in Jerusalem and locate the spot, which is very cool.

The picture might not look like much, but it is some of the remains of the Bethesda Pool, and also of a medieval church that was built over part of the pool.

We also began some study on the geography of Jerusalem, noting the altitudes, the lay of the land, and where the specific valleys and hilltops are located. Old City Jerusalem is surrounded by the Kidron Valley on the east, the Hinnom Valley on the west, and there is a smaller valley that runs right down the center of the city. Then, there are a couple of key locations for building and protecting a city between these valleys up on the hills. One location is the place where the Jebusites and David built the initial city of Jerusalem, right near the primary water source in the area, called the Gihon spring. That's where we're going tomorrow, including walking through Hezekiah's tunnel with flashlights in hand. I'm not big on getting wet, but it's one of those things you have to do when you visit here, and I will do it.

Monday, May 18, 2009


This is the traveler's way to do laundry. With a little shampoo and soaking in the bathtub you can get the stink out of your socks just like that!


Picture: Palestinian West Bank Border Guard Tower

Yes, the picture was taken by me, and No, it wasn't dangerous (well as far as I know). The tour guide did say at several points to be very discreet in pointing our cameras at the guard tower or they would yell at us over the loudspeakers, but the snipers probably wouldn't shoot! We did have one soldier stop us and ask what we were doing, but Fred, our tour guide, told us that this happens all the time to him.

Yesterday, at worship, I met an American college professor from Nashville, Tennessee who teaches ethics, and is here in Israel to study the Israel/Palestinian problems. He had been to several Arab Palestinian villages and described his visceral response as “anger.” Most of my trip has been, and will be, in Jewish Israel, from a Jewish perspective. So, after visiting with him, I decided that I should at least take an "Alternative Israel Tour" to have some further understanding of this large contemporary social problem in Israel. So, I booked a tour with “Fred”, who holds passports in Israel, Scotland, and the United States. I didn't even know that was possible, but apparently it is. Fred is a very colorful gentleman whose family roots are in Israel, but who grew up in Scotland, and spent some time in the United States during the 70s. He is one of the few Jews who is very active in promoting and protecting Palestinian human rights.

Of course, the United States is promoting a “two state solution” and Israel is obfuscating and biding its time, while continuing merrily on its own agenda and pathway. Here is what I saw, and I'm just telling you like it is. Israel is slowly and surely overwhelming the state of Israel with religious Jews who already outnumber the Arab/native population. At the same time they are squeezing the Arabs by progressively taking their land and confining them into extremely restricted zones.

Here are a few examples of what we saw. The picture is the border of the area between an Israeli governed zone, and a Palestinian governed zone. There are actually two completely different roadways, one for the Israeli Jews, and one for the Arab Palestinians, and these roadways are blocked from each other with high walls, barb wire, and guard towers. Essentially the Israelis are putting the Arabs on reservations, much like we did in the United States with our native American population. Only, Israel is a much smaller country than the United States, so the Arab populations are packed into confined ghettos and have little opportunity for integrated economic or social integration. Plus, these reservations are surrounded by the concrete walls and fencing. Furthermore, the Israeli government progressively bulldozes homes of Palestinians whenever the Israelis want to settle Jews into certain areas of the countries. These homes represent the entire life savings of these Palestinian families, and Israel offers them no financial remuneration. Fred described several documented home destructions that he has watched. His organization tries to protest and document these home destructions, but Israel has a master plan that creeps forward with strong force. He also showed us several very nice middle class Jewish neighborhoods that are funded by the Jewish government. So, our United States government funds the Jewish government, and since Israel is a fairly wealthy country, by world standards, they pass on their savings to the Jewish people of Israel by funding nice middle class housing.

I'm sure that Israel would say that the Palestinian fences are required to protect Israel from Palestinian suicide bombers and radicals, but the problem is not the fence itself. One fence from north to south along the west bank border could be built and that would suffice. The problem is the manner in which the fences are built, and the way in which the Arab population is treated. As I said, think of the Palestinian areas as island reservations of people crammed into a small geographical area, and then denied opportunity to enjoy the same standard of living as the majority Jewish population. Think of these islands of people as undesirables (from a Jewish perspective) who are imprisoned within their own country. This is my current understanding of the situation, and if anything changes I will adjust my viewpoint. As my family knows, I like to look at all sides of a situation (as much as possible from a Christian world view) and particularly on political issues I don't like just accepting the standard line.

Tomorrow I start the class. I received the syllabus today. We are digging into the geographical, archaeological, and historical background of Jerusalem (some of which I've already done myself, so hopefully not too much of a repeat). Then it's off to places further afield.

Sunday, May 17, 2009


I picked up a book from the Jerusalem University library the other day with the title,
“FABRICATING JESUS – How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospels” by Craig Evans. If you like reading books that present a scholar's research in down to earth language this is the book for you. Craig Evans is an evangelical New Testament scholar, professor, and author who dissects the rash of recent books purporting to present “new ideas” about the historical Jesus. Of course you have heard of “The DaVinci Code”, but there are others as well that deceived people actually take seriously such as “The Dead Sea Scrolls Deception” and “Holy Blood Holy Grail.” There is one recent book, “The Pagan Christ” that suggests Jesus never existed at all.

Those of you who have read Dan Brown's “Davinci Code” will recognize Craig Evan's teasing echo of Brown's book in the opening pages of “Fabricating Jesus.” Evans writes,

  • “The Gospel of Thomas” - in comparison with the New Testament Gospels – is late, not early; secondary, not authentic. Contrary to what a few scholars maintain, the “Gospel of Thomas” originated in Syria and probably no earlier than the end of the second century.”

  • “The Gospel of Peter”, which describes a talking cross, is late and incredible. In fact, the fragmentary document that we have may not be the “Gospel of Peter” at all. The document that we have may date to the fourth or fifth century.

  • The “secret” version of the Gospel of Mark, allegedly found in the Mar Saba Monastery, is a modern hoax. Analysis of the hand-writing betrays the tell-tale signs of forgery.

  • The distinctive conclusions of the Jesus Seminar are rejected by most scholars in North America and Europe.

  • There is absolutely no credible evidence that Jesus had a wife or a child.

  • The evidence is compelling that the New Testament Gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John – are our best sources for understanding the historical Jesus, The New Testament Gospels are based on eyewitness testimony and truthfully and accurately relate the teaching, life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

  • Jesus was not a Cynic; in all probability he never encountered a Cynic.

  • No killer monks (albino or otherwise) number among the membership of Opus Dei.

  • All descriptions of documents, literature and archaeology in this book are accurate.”

Even if you don't understand all of what Craig Evans is writing about you can appreciate the fact that there are scholars like him who do the hard work of crashing the weak foundations of silly ideas about Jesus, like the suggestion that he married Mary Magdalene and had a child with her, or that these “other sources” give us an accurate rendition of the life of Jesus. While I appreciated my time the other day at the Israel museum Dead Sea Scrolls display I didn't find any hidden truths about Jesus. Rather, we can take such documents for what they purport to be, the documents of a particular community as it seeks to live out its communal life. In the case of the Dead Sea Scrolls this is the Qumran community that had some areas and ideas in common with the New Testament, but certainly nothing that undermines our faith or causes us to throw everything out the window.

The picture is Christ Church, where I have been worshiping on Sundays.

Saturday, May 16, 2009


My legs are getting really tired from all of the trekking I've been doing, so I decided to take it a little easy today. Right across the street from my hotel is this gigantic fortress called “The Citadel” or “David's Tower.” It has nothing to do with David. This is one of those historical mistakes of history where something is given a name that sticks, and you can't get rid of the name later when the true facts come out. So, I refuse to call it “David's Tower.” If it's not his tower then I'm not going to remember it as his tower. Actually, it would be better named “The Hasmonean Tower” or “Herod's Tower.”

This fortress stands on a strategic hill that is the highest spot in all directions. So, the Hasmonean kings, around 150 BC, built a wall and watchtowers. When Herod came to power he added three massive towers in 37-34 BC. He did this both to defend the city and to guard his nearby royal palace. He named these three towers after his “beloved family and friends.” I put that in quotation marks because if you do any research on Herod you know he was one of the most wicked kings in history, and he actually named one of the towers after his second wife, Miriam, WHOM HE PREVIOUSLY HAD EXECUTED, and whose tomb was nearby. He named the other two towers after Phasael, a brother who committed suicide, an Hippicus, one of his friends. The only tower that still stands today is Phasael, and the view is absolutely beautiful.

There is a whole subsequent history to the Citadel that corresponds with the history of the whole city. It was conquered and rebuilt several times, and bears the archeological remains of that history. For me, the tower was an illustration of the awesome power and wealth that impacted the ancient world, but also the fact that even the most powerful people come and go. "All men are like grass, and all their glory is like the flowers of the field. The grass withers and the flowers fail, because the breath of the Lord blows on them. Surely the people are grass. The grass withers and the flower fall, but the word of our God stands forever" (Isaiah 40:6-8).

Friday, May 15, 2009


We could only really communicate with hand gestures. He didn't speak any English and I don't speak any Arabic except "Salaam Alaykim.... Alaykim Esalaam" which is basically the same as Hebrew "Shalom" I think, if I correctly recall my Islam course from twenty years ago. But, he understood that I wanted to take his picture, and he struck this regal pose for me. This was taken at Damascus Gate.


This is one of my favorite "everyday life" kinds of pictures I've taken so far.... three old guys sitting at one of the gates of the city (Damascus Gate), one blowing smoke from his cig, and the other two watching life go by. I actually took three or four really good pictures at Damascus Gate today.


Towards the end of the 19th century British general Charles Gordon caused a dispute among archeologists when he argued that this skull shaped hill was the place of Jesus crucifixion. “They brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means the place of the Skull)” (Mark 15:22). As you can see from the picture the hill does look like a skull. It is in a stone quarry, and there were some ancient tombs that were dug up. The problem is that the scholars tell us that the tombs go all the way back to around BC and they are in an entirely different configuration from those in use in Jesus' time. And, I don't know. I guess you have to rely on the experts.

This is a whole lot more pleasant place to visit than the other proposed site of Jesus death and resurrection (The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is usually crowded with tourists and filled with smells and robes). The Garden Tomb has been developed by the British into a lovely garden spot and the guides greet you in their pleasant English accent that invites you to enjoy the garden, which is exactly what I did. My legs were tired so I sat and meditated on some Scripture passages including, “God made him who had no sin to became sin for us so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21)... the great exchange. And one of my favorites: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). One of the things I've discovered here is that people have very strong religious opinions, especially the Muslims. I knew this from my study of Islam, but I have been reminded of how much they like to discuss religious things through a couple of conversations. Unfortunately, without actually having the time to sit down with a Bible or look at extended academic points both conversations ended with “My Koran says....” versus “My Bible says...”

I have also found that the ordinary tourist is very open to spiritual discussions after they get to know you. Maybe it's because they are in Jerusalem and it opens you up your spiritual side. Maybe it's because you can sometimes discuss things for a little while with a total stranger because he won't hold you accountable for what you discover since you will never see him again. Especially, in both cases of a couple of fairly deep spiritual conversations with two guys I will identify as spiritual seekers they were very interested in conversations after I let on that I am studying here as a pastor. One of the guys had several questions about different approaches to understanding Jesus and how that works out in finding a church. The other guy had lots of questions about end times stuff, which isn't really my forte, but of course I know enough about what the Bible says to have a conversation with someone who is trying to figure it out. As I say, I guess when you are in Jerusalem you start thinking about end of the world scenarios, so that's what we talked about. I didn't really want to get into premillenialism and amillenialism with him. I've always liked what one of my professors used to say. He would say that he was a panmillenialist... it will all pan out in the end. Anyway, I tried to direct this guy back to the book of John, and just encouraged him to start reading that first before he tries to figure out how the world will end.


Just to prove my point.

Thursday, May 14, 2009


When I study the Old Testament I generally do individual word studies as it is very difficult to keep up with Hebrew grammar. I learned enough Hebrew grammar in seminary to figure it out if my life depended on it, but the process is so slow that when I study for a message I concentrate more on the individual words, unless there is a key thought in the text that requires me to investigate the grammar further.

It has been fun here to recognize and read various Hebrew words on road signs and billboards. The only problem is that modern Hebrew does not have the vowels inserted in the words, kind of like if I were to spell the word “covenant” with just the consonants “cvnnt.” After a while you could get used to it, but it would take some practice. Ancient Hebrews did not insert the vowels when writing Hebrew. They just knew where the vowels were at, and what the sounds were like. So, modern Hebrew is really a return to an ancient practice. Fortunately for those of us who study biblical Hebrew there were a group of scribes in the middle ages who inserted the vowels for us. These look like little chicken scratches under the consonants, but are very helpful in reading. I asked a Jew about this, and he said that when the students are learning the Hebrew language in elementary school the vowels are inserted, but as they become more proficient they learn to read and write without the vowels.

One of the good things here in Israel is that due to the many transplanted Americans and the universal language of most educated people worldwide, namely English, all of the road signs, and many other significant signs are both in English and Hebrew. Today I came across a sign for one of my favorite Hebrew words, a word that many of us have heard before, the Hebrew word “hesed”, a special word that refers to God's loving kindness. The word was used in reference to a local synagogue, a very appropriate word to name a synagogue I guess.

My Psalm reading today was from Psalm 25 including Psalm 25:6, “Remember, O LORD, your great mercy and love for they are from of old.” In this ancient place I am remembering and meditating on God's “mercy and love” which is indeed great.


I don't know if there is any relationship between these three groups: Cats, Soldiers, and Orthodox Jews, but Jerusalem has lots of each of them. The cats are running around the streets, apparently free to roam and eat mice wherever they please. The soldiers also walk wherever they please or at least wherever their commander tells them to go. I've seen many, many soldiers either by themselves or alone, and most of them have a gun in their hand. The gun is no different than their purse or book bag. They sling it over their shoulder, and where they go the gun goes with them. At the museum today they had a window for people to check in their guns before they went inside. We have coat checks. The Israelis have gun checks. Actually the Israelis have very nice rooms to check your coats or bags as well. And this is the first place I have seen a gun check room. The comparison to carrying a purse is not so far off track. All Israeli young people have to serve two years in the military, and there are both male and female soldiers. My son, David, recently wrote a paper advocating some form of post high school mandatory service for all young people in the United States (not necessarily in the military, but in some sort of civic duty). I like the idea. I think it would be beneficial to our country and to our young people. The Orthodox Jews catch my attention because we just don't have them in Iowa, and they stand out in their black and white clothes with their heads always covered.
Addendum: Yes, I took this photo, and in fact all of the photos I've used in Israel. I told the soldier I liked his gun, and asked if I could take his picture. He was willing, so there we have it.


Cats....No, not the play, which I did see one time on Broadway many years ago, and I think it freaked my kids out when they were young. Well, think about it. You have people with painted bodies slinking around the aisles of a theater, purring, and snarling. That freaks you out.

Nor am I referring to the cats of Egypt who had God like status as the goddess "Bast." Of course you've probably heard the joke about the difference between dog theology and cat theology. When dogs think of their human owner they think, “You are God. Thank you for feeding me.” When cats think of their human owner they think, “I am God. Feed me.” According to a Wikipedia article; "As a revered animal and one very important to Egyptian society and religion, the cat was afforded the same mummification after death as humans. Mummified cats were given in offering to Bast; in 1888, an Egyptian farmer accidentally uncovered a large tomb containing tens of thousands of mummified cats and kittens. This discovery outside the town of Beni Hasan contained around eighty thousand cat mummies, dating back to 1000-2000 BC.

The reason I bring up cats is because they are all over Jerusalem. Everywhere you go there are cats slinking about. I guess they are for rodent control. But I am not joking.

There was an article in the local Jerusalem Post newspaper today: CAT SCAMS PET SCAN.... “For three days, Rambam Medical Center imaging technology experts couldn't understand why their positron-emission tomography (PET)/ computerized tomography (CT) scanner was malfunctioning. When technicians arrived and opened it, they found a purring cat inside. The feline apparently turned off an internal switch and delayed the examination of dozens of patients.”

I found a pride of cats (I know there are lion prides, how about cats?) at a local park. They were sunning themselves and climbing all over an older gentleman. I'm not sure if he comes to the park to feed them, or if he owned the cats (technically I guess no one owns a cat). Anyway, I thought it was a good picture and an opportunity to comment on one of three things I find ubiquitous in Jerusalem that we don't have in Adel, Iowa.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009


“And I will give them in my house and within my walls a memorial (in Hebrew 'Yad Vashem' = a place of remembrance and a name)... that shall not be cut off” (Isaiah 56:5). This is the Bible verse from which the name of the famous Holocaust museum is taken. The verse is taken out of context, but that's another story. Never the less most of us are aware that six million Jews were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators during the time of the second world war. Yad Vashem is the museum that serves as a combination memorial, research institute, and museum for the masses who come to remember and learn about this terrible tragedy of human history. You are not allowed to take pictures inside of the museum, so I only took a few pictures. I was glad to find the memorial to Oskar and Emilie Schindler, who were among those who risked their lives to help Jewish people escape. This is, of course, the star of the move, "Schindler's List", which I may have to watch again when I get back to the states.

I found Yad Vashem simultaneously revolting and fascinating. It is revolting because it is hard to believe what people can do to one another, man's inhumanity to man. But, it is fascinating that the story is able to be told from fragments of survivor's testimonies, rare pictures, and artifacts found on the killing fields.

The museum has an unusual architecture that is hard to describe. You travel down a horizontal tube that is shaped in a triangular shape, and as you traverse the tube you travel through time from the mid 1930s to mid 1940s, in an audiovisual experience that immerses you into the lives of Nazis and Jews in Germany and the surrounding nations. This is a very emotional experience, and not for the faint of heart. When you see the suffering of these people and the actual shoes that were left behind it's very shocking.

Lessons I am reflecting on...

  • Be aware of what is happening in the world. Even today there are places of severe repression and extermination of peoples such as what has happened in Darfur, Sudan during the last decade. Most of us have little day to day concern for people on the other side of the planet who are suffering severely under evil regimes.

  • Remember that ideas have consequences. A part of the theology of the Christian church in 1930 Germany was that the Jews were to blame for the death of Jesus. Along this was an inherent racial prejudice against the Jewish people. Hitler played on these anti-Semitic feelings to develop into hatred against the Jews.

  • You never know were hate will lead you. Hitler didn't announce the extermination of the Jews on his first day in office. It was a gradual introduction of more and more extreme measures. That so many ordinary German citizens would be complicit in such crimes is what boggles my mind. With my German heritage I naturally ask the question, “What would I have done if I were living there?”

  • Protect the liberties of all people through a commitment to the American constitution. We are only one dictator away from a Hitler. All it takes is for people to allow themselves to become dependent on a politician or a political party over and above our commitment to the constitutional process and we are right where Germany ended up. If you suspend or abrogate laws without due process under the constitution, then you ultimately allow "might is right" to rule the day and anything is possible.

  • Deal with your feelings of hatred, superiority, prejudice toward others. We are sinful (“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God”). Jesus said that hatred is what leads to murder (Matthew 5:21-26), so settle your angry feelings quickly and completely.
For more in depth information on Yad Vashem go to or for a short summary article go to wikipedia and type in Yad Vashem in the search engine.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009


One of the things I struggled with in seminary was evaluating ancient culture by merely looking at archeological finds in books. I found it hard to connect the object with the culture. In other words, it's one thing to see a picture in a book; it's something completely different to see the archeological objects in person. I went to the Bible Lands museum today, which is a museum that collects artifacts and studies such things from a Jewish perspective. I studied artifacts from the Mesopotamians, Egyptians, Philistines, Aramaeans, Hittites, Phoenicians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans. There were things I've seen in books that I actually had opportunity to personally see today. And it makes all the difference in the world in connecting the dots. It's not that you can't do it to a certain extent from a book. But, it's really amazing to stand in front of a granite statue of an Egyptian princess that is taller and wider than you are.

Israel has always been a small country at the crossroads of history. They were impacted, influenced, pushed back and forth by the surrounding nations. And, while they were God's people they absorbed customs and culture from the people around them, for better or worse. Understanding these customs helps us to understand Scripture better. The better we understand what God was saying to the original recipients of Scripture the better we understand what he is saying to us. We can more easily strip away that which is only culture and that which is God's principle for us to apply today.

Two areas I found especially interesting were the areas on the use of seals on documents and the development of language. First, beginning around 5000 BC there were stamp seals made of clay or stone. They functioned much like our signature functions today: they identified the owner of an object. As time went on another kind of seal was developed, a kind of round seal, that looks like a little barrel (as small as the tip of your finger). The outside of the seal carried some kind of information, like someone's name or title. Of course, I had read about seals before, but one thing I didn't understand was that they were used by people at all levels of society. The material a seal was made out of corresponded to his wealth and status.

In the Bible seals were used to endorse a law (Is. 8:16) or a covenant (Neh. 9:38). When Daniel was thrown in the lion's den Kind Darius sealed the stone cover with his ring and with the rings of his assistants (Dan. 6:17). In the New Testament the tomb of Jesus was secured with a seal (Mt. 27:66). And, when we trust in the Lord Jesus Christ as Savior Ephesians 1:13-14 says that when we respond to the good news of Jesus we are “marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit” (Ephesians 1:14).


For various reasons I decided to walk a bit further today than I had originally planned. But, I like walking, and Kathleen's hip injury has reminded me to enjoy it while I can. So, I walked and I'm sure that I stood out as a crazy American to the locals. I was asked by four or five taxi drivers if I wanted a ride somewhere. I guess they figure Americans are too fat, lazy, or in a hurry to walk. But, I like a good walk, especially somewhere that I have never been before. A walk helps me to slow down and learn my surroundings. When I walk I am surprised by how much of life I miss when I am just driving around. Of course, in the United States I am usually in more of a hurry, and it's not quite as interesting as a new place like I'm in here in Israel.

For example, if I had been driving today I would have missed two beautiful parks that I walked through. The first one had a quiet stream of water flowing through it with different rock formations throughout. The second one is called the Valley of the Cross because there is a monastery at the bottom called “The Monastery of the Cross.” The monastery was a bit south of where I was going or I would have gone over to explore it further. My guess is that 99 percent of Americans who come to Israel never get near this park or the monastery. The Valley of the Cross looked to me more like what I think the Garden of Gethsemane would have looked like in Jesus' time. The current Garden of Gethsemane is surrounded by buildings and churches. But, the Valley of the Cross is a large area of limestone, olive trees, flowers, and birds. In fact, in area about one mile square the monastery is the only building standing there. And, this is extremely unusual in a compact city like Jerusalem where good property is valuable and converted to housing or industry.

Addendum: I got slightly lost for a minute or two, so I thought I would ask a soldier who was sitting on a bench. She didn't have a clue. I'm going to give her the benefit of doubt, thinking that maybe she was not a local, but someone who was brought into town to help with the security for the pope. I went back to looking at my map, compared where I was at a crossroads and made sure I was heading away from the sun (west), and in 30 seconds I was back on track. That confirmed my belief that if you have a good map you can always figure out how to get where you need to go. Of course these days, if you want to spend the money you buy a GPS. Then, you never know where you are, but you always know how to get there.

Monday, May 11, 2009


I spent most of the day looking at old rocks, which I expect to do quite a bit more of once I start the program at the University. I was down at Jerusalem Archeological Park, which is at the south end of the Temple Mount, right next to the Western Wall. Excavations have been going on here since 1968, an have uncovered remains dating back to both the first an second temples. Here you can see things like a street from the time of Jesus, the 50 ton cornerstones that are at the base of the temple mount, and the rubble left on the street from 70 AD, when the Romans demolished and burned Jerusalem to the ground. The rubble lays right where it fell when an arch supporting the walkway up to the temple gave way and fell to the ground. Then I saw the homes of some priests and wealthy people that were destroyed in the fire. Archeologists found the charred arm of a little girl in one of the homes.

Then, this evening I went for a walk across the street from the old city. Less than a hundred yards from all of this old stuff is an ultra modern mall, that is very similar to Jordan Creek in West Des Moines. The shops are brand new, and the people walking around are young and hip. I grabbed a coffee and a brownie in the coffee shop and walked around for a bit. Then, on my way back there were about 75 Roman Catholic youth from Poland who were doing a very spiritual dance and song right outside the coffee shop. What was really fun was that as I was watching suddenly a couple of the waitresses from the coffee shop joined in the dance and had the most joyous looks on their faces as they were whirling and stepping with the youth from Poland. There always seems to be something surprising happening here, and this was it for today.


One of big events in the news of Israel is the arrival of the Pope in Jerusalem. All week long I have been seeing preparations in the old city for his arrival. For example, down in the Kidron Valley a gigantic platform stage was erected, seating set up in cordoned sections interspersed with imported olive trees and tons of gravel so that people in robes don't have to walk on the dirty grimy floor of the Kidron Valley. Actually they've cleaned up everything around the city. One of our tour guides said that the city is not usually this clean, but they are giving it the spit and shine for the Pope.

The pope will actually be fairly close to where I am staying at the Gloria Hotel. My hotel is on Latin Patriarchate Street, and about 100 yards east of the hotel is the Latin Patriarchate, which is the Jerusalem headquarters for the Roman Catholic Church. He will also be at the Notre Dame Center, and I'm not really sure what it is, but it sure looks impressive. I think it's some kind of upclass hostel for Roman Catholic pilgrims, with meeting rooms attached, but I will need to do more research on that one.

The pope's arrival is somewhat controversial for complicated reasons that I haven't entirely grasped yet. I think that some are of the opinion that the Roman Catholic Church could have done more to stop the Holocaust. There is also some significant Roman Catholic personage who was involved in the persecution of the Jewish people, and the Jews want the pope to denounce him, but he has not done so.

Since the pope is arriving there are thousands of soldiers lining the streets around the old city, a blimp bouncing around in the sky overhead, and the roads are blocked with buses parked sideways across the width of the roadways. I guess that this is to stop someone from driving up in a car or truck with a bomb or trying to ram the popes automobile. It is a really massive operation, hard to describe how many soldiers I've talked to today as I've gone here and there. I went up high on one precipice to see the view, and I had a soldier follow and check for bombs in the flower pots! When he didn't find any bombs he visited with me a bit which was fine. I respect and appreciate soldiers, and I just took it that he was doing his duty to keep an eye on me. People are not allowed to drive up here to the old city and there are certain roadways blocked to pedestrian traffic as well. Some people are upset because they have to take an alternative route around anywhere the pope is going. I understand why it's necessary. There

I'm not one to be in awe of famous people, so I'm simultaneously amused and stimulated by the whole thing. Whether it was Barack Obama, the Pope, Dan Brown, or Paula Abdul, I would enjoy meeting any of them, but they're all just people who have arrived where they are because they have talents or gifts in their respective careers (I'm not sure I should call the pope's ministry a career, but you know what I mean). The execution of excellence is what I admire and find inspiring, even if I disagree with each of them in various ways in their life philosophy, theology, or lifestyle, it's still possible to appreciate someone's talent and enjoy, respect and appreciate them.

Sunday, May 10, 2009


Most people suggest that if you are in old Jerusalem city you should take a taxi to the Mount of Olives, but I'm cheap, trying to get in shape for lots of hiking during my program, and I didn't have an appointment to keep, so I decided to walk there.

The Mount of Olives is east of Jerusalem on top of a significantly high hill, so it took some work. I started off from my hotel at the southwest side and walked on top of the walls of the city again starting from Jaffa Gate, this time heading in a different direction, clockwise around the city, traversing the western and northern walls, and ending at the eastern wall. From the eastern wall I headed out St. Stephen's Gate eastward toward the Mount.

From the old city heading east you descend into the Kidron Valley. As you approach the east side of the valley the first significant monument you see is the Church of All Nations, also known as the Church of the Agony because it is in tradition built over the rock in the Garden of Gethsemane on which Jesus prayed the night before he was arrested. In what remains of the Garden of Gethsemane there are a few olive trees, some very ancient. One thing I learned about the olive tree is that it is the only tree which you can not count the age by the rings of the tree because it rots from the inside out, and really old trees are hollow on the inside. There were a few really old olive trees next to the church, and from these trees there were younger trees that were literally growing from the inside of the older trees, kind of like a snake shedding its skin, only in this case it is a very, very slow process, a slow, but continual process. So, while the trees in this garden weren't literally there at the time of Jesus the roots were there and the trees would still be in the same spots as when Jesus was there.

After the Garden of Gethsemane and briefly peeking inside the church I made my way on a steep climb up the Mount of Olives. About halfway up the hill an Arab had a burro that you could hop on and ride the rest of the way up, but I'm not that old yet. On top of the Mount I had a conversation with Abraham, a Muslim who lived for a while in North Carolina. He wanted to sell me a picture of Jerusalem, but I wasn't buying. The crowd was thin at this point so we chatted for a while. He wasn't very interested in the gospel, but he was interested in telling me all about himself and in pointing out a few of the sites for me. I'm sure he just wanted to sell me something, but it was still good to visit with him.

There are some fantastic views of the old city from the Mount of Olives looking back westward. (see the picture above). Otherwise I didn't see that much up there. There isn't really much for archaeological remains on the Mount of Olives. Basically there are a number of churches commemorating various events of Jesus' time on the Mount of Olives. Scholars tell us that by the 6th century AD there were at least 24 churches built on the mount surrounded by monasteries filled with monks and nuns.

So, I headed back down the Mount making my way around the multitude of tombs on the side of the mountain. There are in fact thousands upon thousands of tombs up and down the mount and in the valley below because another name for the Kidron Valley is the Valley of Jehoshaphat which means “Yahweh Judges” in Hebrew. “Shaphat” is the Hebrew word for judge, and the first part of the word is God's name. In Joel 3 we read, “In those days and at that time, when I restore the fortunes of Judah and Jerusalem, I will gather all nations and bring them down to the Valley of Jehoshaphat. There I will enter into judgment against them concerning my inheritance, my people Israel, for they scattered my people among the nations and divided up my land” (Joel 3:1,2). One of the largest tombs in the valley is the Tomb of Beni Hezir, a wealthy Jewish priestly family, and was built about the 2nd century B.C..

After viewing this massive tomb I headed back up out of the Kidron Valley westward toward Jerusalem. Instead of following the road I decided to try a shortcut directly up a really steep hill. I did fine with the hill, but there were unfortunately slippery rocks punctuated here and there by a variety of local fauna and flora. The interesting thing was that I saw several different kinds of weeds and flowers that I had never seen before in our part of the world. One was a nasty cactus like kind of green plant, and I stayed a long ways away from that one. Unfortunately I managed to rub my legs against some kind of itch weed that had me scratching the whole rest of the way back. I jumped in the shower when I got back to the hotel room, washed off whatever oil was on my leg, and I was off again.


On Sunday morning I worshiped at Christ Church which is just around the corner from my hotel. This is the local evangelical Protestant church, and gathers a wide variety of Christians. The church is actually associated with the Anglican Church (Episcopalian in the U.S.), and many Episcopalian churches have a liberal bent, but this one started as a mission to share the gospel with the Jewish people, and retains that founding thrust. The original name of the Anglican missionary society was “The London Society for Promoting Christianity amongst the Jews”, not exactly a marketing tool kind of name. But, in 1809, when the mission society was started, they didn't worry about such things. Its founders included prominent evangelical leaders from England such as William Wilberforce, Charles Simeon, and a Jewish Christian Joseph Frey. In 1838 Britain opened the first consulate in Jerusalem, and the ruling Turks would only allow Christ Church to be built within the British Consular residence, which is why it sits right inside the Jaffa Gate of the old city.

The music during the worship service was very similar to what we do, one hymn, “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing” and a series of more contemporary Christian songs. This was the must emotionally moving time for me since I have been here, being able to sing songs to my Lord here in Jerusalem. And the singing was robust, good participation from the congregation, and good leadership from the worship team. The preacher was good. With his British accent he reminded me of a young John Stott, author of many books including “The Cross.” And when I thought of John Stott I thought of hearing him in Urbana, Illinois on the University of Illinois campus where I was attending a missions conference, Urbana 79.

Urbana 79 was the place where the Lord helped me overcome my fear of becoming a pastor. Up until that time one of my great fears, and one of the reasons I resisted going into the ministry was because it always seemed to me growing up that the people sitting in the congregation I attended were rather passive in responding to the biblical message of the gospel. At Urbana 79 I meditated much on Isaiah 55:10, 11 - “As the rain and the snow come down from heaven, and do not return to t without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.” At that time I decided that if the Lord was calling me to become a pastor or a missionary it was not my job to worry about the results. My job was, and is, to simply be faithful to what Scripture teaches, to proclaim what it says, and to leave the results with God. It works better that way anyway.

The worship service was good, but the liturgy was too long and the preaching was merely long (I won't say too long because I don't want to implicate myself). The main problem for me was that instead of ending with a song they added on a communion service. I know some people like communion every week, but this confirmed my belief that, (for my personal tastes) it is an add on at the end of the service that primarily lengthens the service, and I continue to retain the belief that it is a better use of worship time to make communion a special occasional event rather than doing it every week. If you think differently that is fine and we can be brothers and sisters. We each have our own inclinations, which is why there are so many different kinds of churches to choose from! But, other than that very minor thing, the worship service was a spiritual highlight of the trip so far.

Saturday, May 9, 2009


My sleep cycle is all messed up, so I woke up at 3 a.m., local time (or maybe it was just my 3 a.m. potty break). So, after four or five hours of sleep, I couldn't get back to sleep. Since it was still early in the evening back in the U.S. I gave Kathleen a call. Since I couldn't sleep I decided to do something unique. I read in a guidebook that the Church of the Holy Sepulchre opens at 5 a.m., so why not get down there as soon as possible and beat the crowds?

This is the church where a shrine dedicated to the tomb of Jesus was originally built in the 4th century. Plus, there is a shrine to Golgotha, Hebrew for “Place of the Skull” or in Latin “Calvary.” Archeological excavations indicate that this is a quite possible site of the Crucifixion since it was outside of the first century city walls, and it was a quarry in which there were found rock hewn tombs in the first century. So, maybe, although we don't really know for sure.

It was still a little dark when I started walking from my hotel to the church. So, that made me a little nervous, but I figured that any robbers had gone to bed by 5 a.m.. I did meet a group of about ten college age students entering the hotel at 5 a.m., and it was quite obvious that they had spent the night on the local club circuit, and were not going to join me on the trip to the holy sepulchre. Fortunately there were some orthodox Jews walking ahead of me on their way to the western wall for early morning prayers, so I was not completely alone.

Once we got closer to the church I split paths with the Jews, and I was again walking alone. About 50 yards from the church entrance I heard a rooster crow, which was kind of eerie. I thought of Peter denying Jesus three times (Matthew 26:75), and my own sins (“All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). When I entered the church I wasn't exactly sure where to go, but I saw a couple of older women sitting in front of what looked like the shrine, so I sat and started reading Psalm 22. Remember Jesus' quotation of that psalm as he drew his last breaths: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? (Mt. 27:46). Of course there are other predictions in Psalm 22 as well, but this was what stayed with my mind and heart for the rest of the morning, to think of what Jesus did for me and you.

So, we sat outside of the shrine for a little while until a Roman Catholic priest entered the outer shrine, which is a little worship area about 10 feet by 10 feet. They did some kind of ritual inside of the shrine that I couldn't see or hear because there is one doorway in to the interior and I was sitting at the wrong angle to see inside the door. By this time there was the head priest, and a couple of assistant priests inside of the tomb. Outside of the tomb were a couple of nuns and a few old women and me (who gets up at 5 am to go to church?). When one of the priests motioned to come in I figured I might as well be a participant. This is why I was here. The priest led in a Catholic mass, speaking in Latin the whole time. I know very little Latin, though I picked up a word here and there, and there are some cognate words that overlap with Greek, Spanish, and English. So, most of the time I thought about different Scripture (Psalm 22, 1 John 1:9... “If we confess our sins he is faithful and just to forgive us....”). When the priest came to “Santos, Santos, Santos” which I'm pretty sure means “Holy, Holy, Holy...” I thought of Isaiah's vision in the temple (Isaiah 6) and the heavenly temple that the apostle John envisioned (Rev. 4:8 - “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord Almighty, who was, and is, and is to come.”). Then the priest and the people said, “Hallelujah” AND THAT'S JUST WHAT I THOUGHT, “Hallelujah” because Jesus is not in that tomb. And “hallelujah” because “he who had no sin became sin for us so that in him we might have the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). It's taken care of. It's done. And now “we have” his righteousness. It's not that we don't sin, but our sin is covered. For most of the time I just followed the service. I've been to enough Roman Catholic worship services to know you just follow along and do what everybody else is doing. When they did the sign of the cross I did the sign of the cross. When they were kneeling I knelt. When we passed the handshake of peace I smiled at the old ladies and passed the peace. When I couldn't understand the service I just prayed quietly myself.

I passed on taking communion because I know that I shouldn't do it, since I'm not Roman Catholic, and even more so because my theology won't let me. Even at the tomb of Jesus, it's fairly clear to me that Jesus and Paul were speaking of the wine and bread as a symbol that points to the reality beyond the symbol, and not that mere drink and food would become the blood and body of Jesus. Jesus spoke in metaphors, parables, and allegories all the time. And communion is a big object lesson. This was also my answer to Rick the computer programmer last night. He asked me if here in Jerusalem we are closer to God than when we are back home? My answer to him is that we are not any closer to God, but we have the opportunity to grow closer to God because the object lessons are larger here in Israel. I believe that it was Martin Luther, in the middle ages, who didn't like pilgrimages to Jerusalem because of this very reason. He wanted to make sure that people knew going on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem does not automatically make you any more like Jesus or closer to Jesus. It's what you do with it that counts.

After the worship service the priests came out of the inner inner shrine which is even smaller than the outer shrine, kind of like the ancient holy of holies. The inner inner shrine had space for three people to stand in front of an altar underneath which is a marble slab, supposedly over the spot of Jesus' tomb. Again, it seems highly unlikely to me that they have the exact spot, but it might be close, so who knows? Anyway, there were two people who ducked under this little door and entered inside the inner inner area. There was room for one more, and I was next in line, so again I thought, “Why not?” The two women started kissing the marble slab, but there is no way I was going to kiss it. People here are always kissing things. The Jews are kissing the western wall and in the churches people are kissing different shrines and rocks. They can kiss all the rocks they want. I'm not criticizing anybody else, but I am not kissing a rock. All I could think of was how many germs that marble slab accumulates in a day, and do they use Windex or disinfectant on it? I sure hope so.

So, we were in the inner, inner sanctum for about two minutes, when one of the priests started yelling at us, “Out, out.... the morning is for the mass.” I guess that one of the other groups (Armenians, Greek, Copts, who knows, wanted to get their mass started. I didn't feel too bad about it. I had worshiped and it seems to that the tomb belongs to the world, and not to one church or another. By the way, the different religious groups are always fighting over who has jurisdiction over different parts of the church, and sometimes fights break out between priests, monks, and worshipers. Then, the police have to sometimes intervene and calm down everyone's emotions. The fights were so contentious and ongoing that about 150 years ago (1852) a truce was declared, and these days there is no particular Christian group that has the keys to church. Instead, it is opened every morning at 5 am by a Muslim keeper of the keys! And in fact this job has been performed by a member of the same Muslim family for several generations. Things just work a bit differently over here, but it also reminds me that territorial power structure fights are some of the ugliest sins in the world.

After the priest yelled at us I walked out of the shrine and then looked around at the rest of the church before going back to the hotel for breakfast. Heading out of the church the rooster crowed again, so maybe they leave him around so that all pilgrims are reminded of our humble nature, and even going to church early in the morning doesn't overcome this fleshly nature or our troubling problems. After three cups of coffee I was off and going again.

Addendum: This picture is actually from the top of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre where the Ethiopian Christian and Coptic priests live. They are the poorest of the priests, and actually live on top of the church in little huts. Since they are so poor it is customary to leave a small offering for them when you pass through the chapel door, which is in the middle of the picture.