My amazing pilgrimage to the Holy Land began on a bright spring Sunday morning while attending services at Morton Memorial United Methodist Church. As I walked into the service that morning I noted a brochure on the inside table announcing a Holy Land Pilgrimage, which would be hosted by our minister The Rev. Amanda Diamond and a Catholic Priest from Kentucky, Fr. Frank Ruff.
As I went to be seated by my mom, Jean Pirtle, I nudged her and pointed to the brochure and silently mouthed, “We should go.” She immediately shot me the look that probably many of you have experienced if you have committed a “No No” in church (such as talking) and I put the brochure in my purse. Several days later I rediscovered the paper and mom and I discussed the possibility of our making such a trip. We agreed there were two things holding us back; my bad knees and the fact that much walking and climbing of hills and stairs would be required, and her age, 85 years young. After much encouragement from our pastor and my ever-positive husband, we decided that we could do this. Thus began a pilgrimage that would change not only my relationship with my mother, but bring us both closer to our Lord and change my life forever.
On August 26 my mom and I along with 20 other pilgrims, ranging in age from 31-85, from various parts of Tennessee and Kentucky met with Pastor Amanda and Fr. Frank to set off from Nashville for our journey to Israel. The flight from Nashville to Atlanta to JFK to Tel Aviv is not for the faint of heart. Total travel time was approximately 14 hours and over 6,500 miles but the group’s excitement could not be deterred by the long journey. Upon our late afternoon arrival in Tel Aviv, we were met by our guide, Nader, a Christian Arab and our bus driver, Muhammad, a devoted Muslim. These two very different men were raised together inside the old city gates of Jerusalem and were lifelong friends. Nader proved to be a wealth of knowledge and will forever be my friend for it was he who stopped traffic to enable my mom and me to hobble across the busy city streets and who came to my rescue after nearly suffering a heat stroke at the Dead Sea. After a short drive from Tel Aviv we arrived at Caesarea where we spent our first night in Israel.
The meal that night was filled with excited chatter even after our long trip, everyone anxious for our journey to begin. Each morning on our nine days in Israel we would gather together for Morning Prayer and a hearty breakfast of borekas (pastries filled with cheese, potatoes or veggies), eggs, cheese, Israeli salad, labane (a tangy yogurt spread), eggs and various fruits and juices. Lunch on the road would be schnitzel with different side salads, including hummus and tahini, falafel (deep fried chickpea balls served in pita break) or shwarma (grilled meat), usually stuffed in pita with French fries and salad. Dinner would consist of a combination of chicken, fish or beef, plentiful vegetables, more salads, delicious breads and desserts such as baklava, knafeh (pastry, cheese and syrup), malabi (pudding flavored with rose water and topped with nuts) or cake. Don’t let anyone tell you that the food there is not excellent!
These evening meals were followed by a short “debriefing” of the day’s events and a special time for sharing with an overview of the next day’s events. Our accommodations were very European, small, modest but comfortable rooms shared by two people. In our case, my mother and myself. This allowed us time to go over what we saw that day that really pertained to our personal Christian journey and also to share in the day’s scripture lessons. Most importantly each day we had services and communion in an important site we visited that day. All were included, different folks took turns reading the scripture and helping serve communion. We were one body, sharing the Body of Christ. I truly felt the Lord’s spirit in each and every place we shared these special services; under a tree beside the Sea of Gailee, in the Church of Shepherd’s Field, at the Mount of Olives and each time after the service being led in song.
Over the day trip we stayed at three hotels and my mom and I each time were in a room, which provided a small balcony either overlooking the sea or Jerusalem. Our early (sometimes 5:00 a.m.) wakeup gave us plenty of time to put on our best walking shoes, pack our bottled water and pray that the Lord would carry us through the day by helping us keep up with the group. Let me assure you that God is good – sometimes we lagged behind a little but he and our pilgrim friends kept us going for those nine days, every step UP and DOWN along the way. None of us could possibly anticipate what the next days would hold for us.
It was a different experience for each and everyone on the trip. Some went as tourists, snapping pictures everywhere we went; others were truly pilgrims, on a journey to learn all that we could about the life and land of our Lord and to draw closer to him. I’m not saying that I didn’t get into the tourist mode a part of the time. How could you pass up not taking pictures of places where our Lord had been, but I was there to find answers to the many questions I had about the places I had heard about all of my life. I wanted to truly walk where Jesus had walked and become closer to him, I wanted this to strengthen my personal relationship with our Lord. My mother was on much the same journey. Together we made a decision not to take a “personal device” such as a cell phone, I pad or IPod or to even turn on the television while we were away. We were there to study the scriptures and to, as our Pastor says so many times, “get it.”
We traveled to Caesarea by the Sea, Nazareth, Cana, Sea of Galilee, Capernaum, Mount of Beatitudes, Tabgha, and the Jordan River. Of course it was here that Jesus was baptized and received the Holy Spirit. Pastor Amanda gave the group an opportunity to remember their baptism by immersion or receiving the sign of the cross on our foreheads with water from the river. Many of us, my mom and I included, took advantage of being immersed – a lifelong dream for her and probably the highlight of her trip. I remember watching my mom enter the water as I waited my turn and thinking, “this is what it is all about for her, this is why she made this trip, this is why I am here with her.” It still takes my breath away. We also visited Mount Tabor.and Jericho.
The following day was probably the most exciting for us as we entered the City of Jerusalem. The new City is large, hustling and bustling much like Nashville or Atlanta but inside of all that hustle and bustle are the walls of Old Jerusalem, probably the most important site of all Christendom. Until 1850 everyone lived inside the walls of what we now call the “Old City,” which is about 250 acres. The city was destroyed 17 times and rebuilt 18 times. The joy we felt as we entered the cobblestone streets of the Old City was incredible. To think that we may actually be walking on the same streets as our Lord! The sights, sounds and smells easily transform you to another time and place. For over 3,000 years pilgrims just like us have been making their way to this city. Our guide told us the story of how so many pilgrims set out to visit Jerusalem but thousands never made it. It was so important to those who did make it that they were emblazoned (tattooed) with the sign of a cross some place visible on their body to show that despite the desert, the heat, the lack of food and/or water, many without a donkey to ride walking hundreds of miles – made it. They made it! Well, I made it too and I am so very proud of the small tattooed cross I now carry on my ankle.
We visited Ein Karem, *Pool of Bethesda, and Ecce Homo.
We then returned to the “Old City” and walked the Via Dolorosa where Jesus carried his cross; also known as the sorrowful way. We stopped and read scripture at each station of the cross. We then visited the Church of the Holy Sepulcher and Calvary, the place of the crucifixion, death and burial of Jesus. We were able to place our hands deep inside a hole in the floor, which is believed to be where the actual cross stood. Mom and I were only able to do this by actually sitting on the floor and crawling under the altar to touch the bedrock. Then we visited the tomb from which Jesus rose. Amidst the hustle and bustle of the space you could hear the many groups holding their Sunday services in many tongues. It is hard to describe the feeling once you enter this most holy place. I found myself simply sitting on a stone bench in a darkened corner there and reciting the Lord’s Prayer. Trying to take in all the sights and sounds, the flickering of the many candles, the faces of other pilgrims and experiencing the presence of Jesus. This was the place I found I did not want to leave.
We quietly moved along to the Cenacle, the large upper room/dining area in which Jesus celebrated the Last Supper. The room where Jesus appeared to the disciples after the resurrection and where the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples.
We visited Mount of Olives, Dominus Flevit, Garden of Gethsemani, Pater Noster Church, and The Western (or Wailing) Wall. It is a holy place for all Jews. Some of the very large stones that are visible today were placed there by Herod the Great and were visible to Jesus. Many of us took prayers from members of our church, our friends and others along with our personal prayers and were able to pray at the Wall leaving our written prayers in nooks and crannies we found there.
Next was House of Caiaphas and Temple Mount. Sacrifices took place outside the Temple building and observant Jews came here for the three pilgrimage feasts each year. At the time of Jesus, 24,000 priests served at the Temple offering incense daily as well as burnt and peace offerings. Jesus spent a great deal of time teaching in the Temple and early Christians gathered here for prayers. We passed through strict security before entering the Temple Mount and were not allowed to carry any books with us. We also had to be appropriately dressed meaning sleeves for women and no shorts for either men or women. Here we saw groups studying but being divided by women in one area and men in the other. As Christians we were not allowed to enter the Temple.
At The Dead Sea (I could write a book about this site), Mom and I decided that despite the hot temperature and long walk down many steps we could handle this as we both wanted to experience floating in this famous body of water. Despite the temperature hovering around 105 degrees, we, along with many others on our trip, put on our bathing suits and trooped down to the murky water. The sand was as hot as anything I’ve ever walked on (think hot coals) and I personally was so looking forward to the refreshing water. Wrong! The water itself must have been 100 degrees. In order to get into the water we had to sit on the hot sand and scoot. After one good push we realized that the mud, which is supposed to be healing and sold in some of the stores for $10 per ounce, was much like wet play dough. It was black, sticky and thick.
Naturally, we both became mired in this sticky substance but could not hold ourselves back as many of our travel mates were already floating in the water. After much pushing and walking on my hands belly up I was able to get out enough to float just a bit. When I turned to help mom I found that she had decided that if $10 per ounce would make you look younger just think what an entire handful of that glorious mud could do for you. She forgot that after she covered her face and upper body the only water she had access to was salt water. I could tell by the look on her face a few seconds later that she indeed remembered.
Again, thanks to our fellow travelers she was rescued from the mire and got to an outside shower to get the mud off. I, on the other hand, did not fare so well. I was able to finally get myself out of the water but soon realized that the blazing hot sun coupled with the almost equally hot water had caused a tremendous headache. I struggled to the outside shower only to find that water was a warm 90 degrees or so. Once again God came to the rescue. I simply began walking very slowly toward the steps pouring what little drinking water I had over my head and praying that I could make it to the “real” showers. After what seemed an eternity I was able to get in the bath house and sit down and let water (maybe 80 degrees) run over my body.
As I struggled toward our bus I heard our bus driver calling my name and frantically motioning for me to come inside to a cool refreshment area where our marvelous guide, Nader, realized what was going on and he along with many other helpful folks were able to force water and a sweet drink down to cool me off. I remember thinking, if I die here it will be o.k. What better place to go home than in God’s chosen land. Even after the scare I still feel that way.
We visited Bethany, home of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, The Garden Tomb located near the heart of Jerusalem, and Bethlehem.
On Wednesday evening we said our goodbyes to Nader, Mohammed and our beloved Israel and made our way onto the plane for which turned out to be a 36-hour. journey from the time we got up that beautiful morning to arrival in Nashville the next afternoon. As we said “see you soon” to our fellow travelers we each went our separate ways to try to sort out all of what we had seen and experienced. Eleven marvelous days with old and new friends and for me eleven special days spent with my mom climbing up and down hills and steps, praying and worshiping our Lord together, drawing closer to each other as we drew closer to our Lord. For this I will be forever grateful.
Thanks be to God, Pastor Amanda and Fr. Frank and all the pilgrims which made this an unforgettable trip for mom and me! And a special thanks to all who lent a hand with us, getting up and down steps, hauling much too much luggage and not leaving us behind. We were so blessed.
Am I glad I made the trip? Are you kidding? Would I go again? – If I get my new knees. Was I ever afraid? Never. Yes, some folks did take “devices” and we were aware of what was going on between the United States and Syria. I was never afraid because you see I had traveled many miles, many hours, taken hundreds of steps all in the name of our Lord. I saw firsthand how He lived, where He lived and most importantly WHY He lived. What do I have to fear? I give all my thanks to Him for He led me on a trip, which has changed my relationship forever with old and new friends, with my mom and with Him. He lives! I know He lives. I hope you do as well.