Day 8: Pre-dawn Via Dolorosa, Garden Tomb, Holocaust Museum, Farewell Lunch

Our final day of Ecclesia Houston’s tour with Breaking Bread Journeys started before dawn at 5am. We made our way into the old city via the Damascus Gate to find nearly empty streets surrounding the Via Dolorosa. Only one or two eager shopkeepers were out opening their shops. As we journeyed through “The Way of Sorrows”, Pastor Chris led us in a solemn progression through what is traditionally believed to be the actual path that Jesus walked on the way to his crucifixion, and the stations there, the actual places the events occurred.

At each Station of the Cross, Pastor Chris read us the corresponding scripture describing what happened at that station. As we had taken a sort of “vow” of silence while we followed the path, the words of Scripture rang a bit louder in void of any other voices at the early hour. We ended at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher a little after sunrise.

Next on our schedule was a tour of the Garden Tomb, a rock-cut tomb in Jerusalem which was unearthed in 1867 and has subsequently been considered by many Christians to be the more historically accurate site of the burial and resurrection of Jesus. The site has some of the most beautiful gardens in Jerusalem, in my opinion. That’s why you’ll see me sharing several photos highlighting the garden in addition to the empty tomb itself. Pastor Chris led us in a very contemplative communion at the completion of the tour.

Next we arrived at the The World Holocaust Remembrance Center (Yad Vashem). It was my sixth visit and I still have not been able to fully process the deeply horrific and saddening events of the Jewish Holocaust as represented in this unfathomable museum. It is always a profoundly disturbing experience as we acknowledge one of history’s deepest wounds.

Overall this day of the tour is quite a heavy one spiritually and emotionally. I will close my last blog post of this tour with an equally simple summary of what I’m feeling. This scripture sums up the day quite well. We are besieged with many sorrows in the reality of our fallen world on this side of eternity (Via Dolorosa, Yad Vashem), but we have a hope in the resurrection (Garden Tomb, Spring, flowers that blossom from apparently dead seeds).

He will wipe away every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
Mourning no more, crying no more, pain no more,
For the first things have gone away.
Revelation 21:4

To beautifully celebrate the official closing of our journey, Christina Samara, one of the founders of Breaking Bread Journeys, shared her farewell with us at lunch in East Jerusalem. We are grateful for the vision of this bold and wonderful tour company.

Not documented: Friday night we enjoyed the experience of a Shabbat dinner ceremony in a local Jewish home (thanks to a group called “Shabbat of a Lifetime”). We learned so much from our gracious hosts. They patiently answered our endless questions about their faith and traditions. Needless to say, the food they generously served us was out-of-this-world delicious.

And thus the bookends of our tour were incredibly fitting: Day 1 of our official itinerary we were served a beautiful and sumptuous meal prepared by Palestinian Muslims in Nablus, and for our final meal together, we were served an elaborate and festive meal by traditional Israeli Jews. It underscored how much we leave the holy land realizing there’s much more that we don’t understand about the deep tensions of this land than we thought we did when we arrived. We depart with a renewed burden to pray for all of God’s people who reside here; the vast majority of whom long for peace.

Day 7: Chefs for Peace Jerusalem Old City Food Tour, Cooking Classes; Holy Sepulchre, Tunnel Tour

A definite highlight of the Ecclesia Houston tour with Breaking Bread Journeys was meeting up with Chefs for Peace today. They’re a non-profit, non-political organization founded in Jerusalem in 2001 by a group of Jewish, Christian and Muslim chefs committed to exploring cultural identity, diversity and peaceful coexistence through food. Chefs for Peace realizes food— its preparation, sharing, and enjoyment— is a powerful means of creating a bond with others and revealing that which is valued by all three faiths: food, family, and friends.

After a morning of free time recovering from our epic road trip the day before, we met the chefs at the Damascus Gate on Thursday along with the founder of Chefs for Peace, the Armenian, Jerusalem-born chef Kevork Alemian. They then took us on a tour of the old city to buy some of the ingredients they would be using to prepare our lunch!

But first we visited a famous photography print shop, known as Elia’s Photo Service, the pictures this Armenian family sell are part of a collection of about 3,000 photographs taken by their late father Elia Kahvedjian, a refugee of the Armenian genocide and one of the greatest photographers in Jerusalem at the beginning of the 20th century. The pictures, which had been hidden away since 1947, were rediscovered by the family over 30 years ago and serve to help researchers and aficionados of Jerusalem probe its past. For a fascinating article on the importance of the photographs, you can read this article. Several of us bought his book, Jerusalem Through My Father’s Eyes, which is a rare and beautiful collector’s item.

After shopping for some fresh Tahini in the Muslim Quarter along with a demonstration of how it is made, the chefs took us for a lunch at a restaurant known for their falafel and hummus, Abu Shukri which is located by Stations of the Cross 5. They explained to us the different styles of making hummus and how to eat the various appetizers served.

After a visit to the spice market, we then made our way to the hidden gem of Zalatimo’s Sweets. In a small room with just an oven, a refrigerator, and a few tables, Mr. Zalatimo and his relatives serve up the greatest pastry that the Old City has to offer, an Arab treat known as a mutabak (from the Arabic for “folded”). The flaky phyllo dough type creation is the only food served at Zalatimo’s, and ordering is simple: “with nuts” or “with cheese.” The shop also includes another treasure: one of the original entrances to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, which is now sealed off and no longer used.

After we literally ate our way through the Old City, the chefs invited us to learn how to cook with them at the Bulghourji Restaurant in the Armenian Quarter, and then we ate some more. I then led some of the members of the group on a photo tour of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, as we had some free time before our next stop on the tour.

Next, after a walk through the Jewish Quarter, our tour with Breaking Bread Journeys took us through the tunnels revealing archaeological finds deep underneath the Old City. The Tunnel Tour is in such high demand that you must book it two months in advance. We learned that much of the city was raised from a small valley centuries ago by arched supports, and it is under these arches that many of the tunnels were excavated. We saw the ancient gates to Solomon’s Temple and learned that one stone of the temple’s western retaining wall weighs an estimated 570 tons.

My devotional focus for Day 6 brought me to themes surrounding celebration, contemplation, and light. Our day started with the surreal juxtaposition of enjoying food along the route of Jesus’ path to the Cross known as the Via Dolorosa. It’s not an easy theme to consider, but in the Christian faith, Jesus’ execution is ultimately the celebration of his resurrection and victory over sin and death. So it is appropriate that, while we also consider his suffering and the penalty he paid on our behalf, we should find also a path of celebration and feasting along the same route. However, I appreciated the way that God led us to the Holy Sepulchre after this celebration where it is hard not to enter in a contemplative spirit.

As you will see in the images further down in the set, there is very inspiring art leading us to a contemplation of the sorrows that Jesus, his family, friends, and disciples endured on the path to the Cross and in his death. However, one of the things I love most about this church is how many beautiful lamps, candles, and lanterns you will find throughout the labyrinthine hallways, chapels, and crypts of the centuries-old structure. These lamps stand as a symbolic testament that, while there is a certain sorrow in considering Christ’s suffering he endured on our behalf, there is the beautiful light of resurrection coming, a light of rebirth and hope offered by God to all who will receive it. John recorded in his Gospel account that Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12)

Day 6: Jordan River, Mount of Temptation, Qumran Caves, Dead Sea, Jerusalem

Day 6 of the Ecclesia Houston holy land tour with Breaking Bread Journeys started departing Tiberias at the Sea of Galilee shortly after sunrise as we made our way along the Jordan River to the site thought to be very close to the Baptismal Site of Jesus Christ. Many pilgrims among our group commemorated their baptisms in the Jordan, and two of those traveling in our group were baptized for the first time. I have many more baptism photos but for the purpose of the blog, I have just chosen a few representative shots. It’s so hard not to publish them all! But if I did, it would be overwhelming for the casual visitor I think!

This is my 6th holy land tour group to shoot for, and our itinerary generally follows a similar path. I will say that this day of the itinerary is usually the most intense, as we cover so much ground in one day. As a result, it’s the day that provides the most photo opportunities. It’s like packing three days into one. Probably the hardest part of publishing this blog is narrowing down the photo choices! From this day alone I have over 200 “keeper” shots!

My devotional thought for Day 6 focused on the transitory nature of time and life. By the time we reached Jerusalem, many of us remarked something to the effect of, “Wait, we were just at the Jordan baptismal site this morning?” I have often reflected on the power of a photograph to freeze time and capture a fleeting moment, and for this single moment, at least a thousand words could be written to describe what was felt and experienced within that frame. Then you stop to think of all the countless trillions of images like this which are accessible to God at any given time, and that he knows each one, feels each one, and has books written in his heart for each of us, lovingly journaling all that we have seen, felt, celebrated, and suffered. God sees all and knows all. Just a few pages ago, Jesus was being baptized by John, and in just a few page-turns in our story, we will be in the glory of heaven with God. “You see, the short-lived pains of this life are creating for us an eternal glory that does not compare to anything we know here. So we do not set our sights on the things we can see with our eyes. All of that is fleeting; it will eventually fade away. Instead, we focus on the things we cannot see, which live on and on.” (Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, chapter 4:17-18).

As it is recorded in John’s gospel, Jesus assures us, “My Father’s home is designed to accommodate all of you. If there were not room for everyone, I would have told you that. I am going to make arrangements for your arrival. I will be there to greet you personally and welcome you home, where we will be together. You know where I am going and how to get there.” (John 14:2-4). This idea of pilgrimage extends not only to a visit of the holy land but of our entire lives. We are on a journey, and God, in his ultimate love for us, has shown us the way to live it and promises that he prepares a final home for us at the end of this long journey. What is beautiful is that, while the journey is often full of sorrows and intensity, he has given us fellow sojourners to share the burdens along the way. We have experienced that on this journey here in the holy land. Just a few days ago we were a group of 43 strangers. Now, already, especially after a day like today, we are already starting to feel like family. We have access to so much in the Body of Christ if we only choose open our arms and receive the love and life-giving support that is available. While my life has been full of my heartbreaking moments and plenty of loss, I am grateful for all the ways I have found strength through God’s promises and all of my brothers and sisters whom God has gathered around me on this pilgrimage; both this week and in the grander pilgrimage of life.

As you will see in the photos that follow, after our visit to the Jordan River, we made our way to a vista point allowing us a look at the Mount of Temptation where many from the group were able to experience a camel ride. It was a very fun break along the way. This group is very fun-loving and spontaneous!

Later in the post, you will see that our journey took us to the archaeological site of the Qumran Caves, the Dead Sea, and ultimately on up into the holy city of Jerusalem!

From a vista in Jericho, we could see a view of the Mount of Temptation. After being baptized by John the Baptist, Jesus fasted for forty days and nights in the Judaean Desert, through which we journeyed today. The Gospels tell us that during this time, Satan appeared to Jesus and tried to tempt him. It is thought that he endured these temptations at this location. Unfortunately we did not have time to take the cable cars up to the Monastery located on the cliffsides of the mountain.

From there we made our way to the Qumran Caves, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered by a shepherd boy in 1947. We learned that The Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in eleven caves along the northwest shore of the Dead Sea between the years 1947 and 1956. The area is 13 miles east of Jerusalem and is 1300 feet below sea level. They have been called the greatest manuscript discovery of modern times. There are now identified among the scrolls, 19 copies of the Book of Isaiah, 25 copies of Deuteronomy and 30 copies of the Psalms. The Isaiah Scroll, found relatively intact, is 1000 years older than any previously known copy of Isaiah. In fact, the scrolls are the oldest group of Old Testament manuscripts ever found.

We then headed to the Dead Sea where members of our group were able to experience the extremely buoyant properties of the highly salinated water. We learned from our tour guide Bassam that most seawater contains 5-7% salt, but that the Dead Sea contains approximately 27-33% salt.

We then journeyed west through the mountains that divide the dessert from the coastal plain and reached Jerusalem in just 30 minutes. Pastor Chris guided the group into the holy city through the Damascus Gate. We arrived at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre just in time to see the famous event many come to watch each evening: the locking of the church doors. The key is held by a Muslim family in a symbolic gesture of interfaith cooperation. There’s an interesting article about the key you can read here.

Pastor Chris then took us to his favorite dinner spot, Jacob’s Pizza…

Just around the corner from Jacob’s Pizza in the Christian Quarter near Jaff Gate is Razzouk Tattoos, a family tattoo business that has been marking pilgrims with special Christan crosses and symbols for over 700 years in the old city. We got to meet Wassim Razzouk and hear a little about his story.

We then walked over to the Jewish Quarter, where Pastor Chris introduced the group to the Western Wall where we prayed and experienced Judaism’s most holy site.

Day 5: Sea of Galilee, Magdala, Rosh Pina, Mount of Beatitudes

I’m here documenting for a group of Christians on pilgrimage to the holy land from Ecclesia Houston with Breaking Bread Journeys. I hope you’re enjoying my account of our experiences. After an unbelievable breakfast at the Scots Hotel, we embarked upon a boating excursion on the Sea of Galilee where our guide David showed us how fishing nets would have been cast in the time of Jesus. Pastor Chris Seay shared with us from the account of Matthew’s Gospel describing Jesus walking on the water and Peter’s struggle with his faith to follow Jesus onto the water.

Personally, although this was my eighth visit to the Sea of Galilee, something different struck me this time. I stopped to ponder the events accounted in Matthew’s Gospel describing Peter’s struggle as our guide David explained to us how bad the storms can get on the sea there, with waves recorded as high as 12 feet. I love the metaphor that a boat, a vessel, provides us with in parallel to the journey of life. The storms of life will come, there is no question about that. The question is what is my anchor, what is my constant when I’m feeling lost and tossed about, when I’m feeling that everything around me is unstable? For me, it’s the grip of Jesus much like Peter felt when he began to sink on the water in his attempt to walk in faith.

We will all find seasons in life when we feel we’re sinking. We can either reach up with an open hand or clench our fist in bitterness and just keep sinking. When I arrived at the Magdala center with this thought on my mind, I saw again the mural there depicting this scene of Peter sinking, and the artwork captivated me in a way I had not felt it before. You will see my photo of the mural later below in the blog post. Jesus is so constant and steadfast, standing there on the water, grabbing Peter. The feelings I felt there in that sacred space will stay with me. Our time here has been extremely inspiring and there is a bond we are all feeling as we journey together, walking in spaces and places where Jesus proclaimed his radical message of love.

We then headed to an archaeological site called Magdala, the site of at least two places in ancient Israel mentioned in the Jewish Talmud and possibly a location mentioned in the Christian New Testament. They have discovered an ancient Jewish Synagogue which would have been active during Jesus’ time. Pastor Chris told us it is almost 100% certain that Jesus would have visited this Synagogue. A chapel is also located at the site with a beautiful view of the lake and very impressive and inspiring murals and artwork throughout. The discovery at Magdala is said to be on par with the Dead Sea Scrolls in historical importance.

After a much-needed afternoon break at the Scots Hotel, we enjoyed an extravagant meal at a local French Restaurant, the Auberge Shulamit, in the town of Rosh Pina. The owner personally introduced us to the menu and helped serve with a very friendly staff. It was a great experience with a beautiful night view of the Sea of Galilee and all several local towns lit up along the shore.

After dinner Pastor Chris led the group in an after-hours visit to the Mount of Beatitudes where he read us the entire Sermon on the Mount at the location it is traditionally believed to have been preached by Jesus. The night sky was very clear and full of stars. It was an unforgettable evening standing there listening to our pastor read what is regarded as the most famous sermon of all time, near what would have been the spot that Jesus shared it almost 2000 years ago. I’ll share some of the beginning verses of this beautiful and timeless message here:

Blessed are the spiritually poor—the kingdom of heaven is theirs.
Blessed are those who mourn—they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek and gentle—they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness—they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful—they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are those who are pure in heart—they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers—they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness—the kingdom of heaven is theirs.

Day 4: Cana, Mount Precipice, Tulip Winery

On Day 4 of the Ecclesia Houston tour with Breaking Bread Journeys, we made our way to Cana, where, according to John’s Gospel, Jesus performed his first miracle of turning water into wine for a wedding celebration. Married couples from our group took the opportunity to renew their wedding vows in a very moving ceremony in one of the gardens of the Franciscan Wedding Church. A couple in the group announced that they would have Pastor Chris marry them, so we had the incredible delight of witnessing a real marriage at Cana! I was so honored to be able to document their day. A member of our group, Sarah Fusilier, blessed us with her vocal talents to provide an enchanting backdrop for the beautiful yet simple ceremony. Our tour guide had found a local shop that served cake and wine just for such occasions, perfect for our impromptu reception.

As I pondered my devotional thought for the day, my focus turned to a theme of celebrating faith and miracles. This world needs more faith. This world needs more miracles. This world needs more faith that miracles are possible. And we need more joy, more celebration of the blessings we do have. Life is very challenging, very overwhelming. As we focus more on celebrating the good we do have in our lives, our faith will increase, and we will believe that more miracles are possible— more miracles that will lead to real change and healing in our broken world. It is fascinating to me that Jesus performed his first miracle at a celebration, turning water into wine, and that the host of the party remarked that the best wine had been saved for the end of the celebration, contrary to tradition. What I take away from this passage is that in our quest to repair a broken world, we will have to think outside the box of tradition and cultural rules while having faith that miracles are possible.

We had the chance today to celebrate life, marriage, and community with the gifts of new friendships, wine, and the miracle of good prevailing in a dark world.

We then made our way to Nazareth, the childhood home of Jesus. We took a short hike to Mt. Precipice for some beautiful panoramic views. It is believed by many to be the site of the Rejection of Jesus described in Luke 4:29-30 – The people of Nazareth, not accepting Jesus as Messiah tried to push him from the mountain, but “he passed through the midst of them and went away.” The mount is situated on the southern edge of the city and provides beautiful views of the valley below and Mt. Tabor (Mount of Transfiguration) seen as an isolated peak to the east. The beautiful views provided for some great shots of the group.

After that we were ready for lunch and a wine tasting at Tulip Winery. We were blessed by our host Lital who you could tell was very passionate about the cause behind Tulip, which employs 35 special needs adults who live in the village where the winery is located, a former kibbutz. The village’s name means “Village of Hope.”

While there, I got to see my friend Nathan who works at Tulip Winery (יקב טוליפ). You’ll see a couple of my portraits of him in this next group of photos. A former tour group member had sent us with a Houston Astros championship hat as a gift for him since we know he loves hats! It was my sixth time to meet him and it seems he is happier every time I see him. He’s challenged with a rare genetic disorder— at the age of 70 he has by far outlived the doctors’ expectations and is the oldest man in the world to carry the disease. I believe it’s because he has been honored and given a purpose at Tulip. There they say “Labels are for wine bottles, not for people.” They were founded with the purpose of providing adults like him with employment and the support of community on the former kibbutz where they’re located. Started as a tiny boutique winery in 2003, now they are shipping close to 500,000 bottles of wine annually and have won various awards locally and internationally. I have really grown to love this place.

Last but not least, we arrived at our next hotel, The Scots Hotel, where we were greeted by this kind fellow offering us whiskey with hot apple cider. The hotel is a former hospital started by the Scottish Church.

Netanya: Travel Recovery Day, Reception

This is day 2 with Ecclesia Houston on a Breaking Bread Journeys tour of the holy land. I won’t write much today as it was basically a free day with the group taking it easy to recover from travel and jet lag. We enjoyed a small reception for the entire group to meet each other where we also met Christina Samara, co-owner of Breaking Bread Journeys.

We then enjoyed a group dinner at an outdoor cafe nearby the hotel. The views of the Meditteranean Sea from Netanya are breathtaking; we enjoyed walks on the beach, explored more of the town (there are cats everywhere, so I had to include a token cat-portrait impression or two), and took in yet another gorgeous sunset. The weather has been absolutely perfect. The official tour kicks off tomorrow bright and early. Here are some photos from the day. I could not decide on my favorite sunset shots, so I’m just throwing all of them on here– hope you enjoy!