Pilgimage to the Holy Land - Lakeside United Methodist Church, Lake Worth Florida

On February 9, 2015 a group from Lakeside UM Church , Lake Worth, FL [13 pilgrims] led by Pastor David Branson, embarked on a 10 day pilgrimage through the Holy Land. We were accompanied by our brothers and sisters in faith from: First United Methodist Church, Boca Raton, FL [5 pilgrims]; St. Paul's United Methodist Church, Kensington, MD [9 pilgrims]; Resurrection Catholic Church, Burtonsville, MD [2 pilgrims].
Details about our itinerary are given in this link:  Travel Information

February 2015


10 Tel-Aviv Airport, Bethlehem

11 Kasr el Yehud, Jericho, Qumran

12 Herodian, Bethlehem, Church of the Nativity, Shepherd's Field

13 Cesararea, Mount Carmel, Megiddo

14 Capernaum, Mount of Beatitudes, Sea of Galilee, Tabgha, Chapel of Tiberias the Primacy

15 Cana, Nazareth, Tel Dothan, Samaria, Mount Ebal, Mount Gerizim, Nablus, Jacob's Well

16 Mount of Olives, Garden of Gethsemane, Gihon        Spring, Hezekiah's Tunnel, Mount Zion, Upper Room, Church of St. Peter in Gallicantu

17 Old City, Cardo, Davidson Center, Southern Wall Excavations, Teaching Steps, Western Wall, Pool of Bethesda, Antonia Fortress,Via Dolorosa, Church of the Holy Sepuchre, Garden Tomb

18 Ein Karem, Nebi Samuel Emmaus, Valley of Elah

Jordan Extension

19 Border (Israel-Jordan), Mount Nebo, Madaba

20 Petra

21 Jerash, Border (Jordan-Israel),  Tel-Aviv Airport

Jacir Palace Hotel       
Bethlehem, Palestine

Feb 13-14
Royal Plaza Hotel
Tiberias, Israel

Feb 15-18
Olive Tree Hotel

Feb 19-20
Dead Sea Spa Hotel
Dead Sea, Jordan
 00 962 5 356 1000

Monday/Tuesday, 9/10 February 2015 - West Palm to Bethlehem

Monday/Tuesday, 9/10 February 2015 - West Palm to Bethlehem

Pastor David & Flock (less the Newark bound)
With a major winter storm in the North East, it was a bit dicey, but we all got away from either Philadelphia or Newark. From the time our group arrived at the Philadelphia airport, we began encountering people wearing the EO nametags in a whole array of colours. No one else in the Maroon group is doing the Jordan extension at the end, but Larry and I encountered a few in the other groups who are going on it. All of us were glad that we wouldn't be doing it alone.

It was a long lay-over but some of us found ways to pass the time.

Overnight flights are never a lot of fun, and de-icing kept us sitting on the tarmac for an hour before take-off, but it went relatively smoothly and we were still nearly on time arriving in Tel Aviv.
EO had reps placed all around the baggage claim area as well as near the transportation lot, so our transition through the airport and onto the buses was smooth. Pastor David and Nanci managed to keep us all more or less well-herded. The buses are very nice and comfortable. Our guide for the week, Wisam, and our driver, Mamoud were there at Ben Gurion Airport to welcome us, and drive us to Bethlehem. Part of the route lay through Jerusalem, but in the dark we couldn't see much. We'll be back later in the week. Wisam gave us a good intro and instructions for the week. I'm confident we'll really see the Holy Land in detail.
The Jacir Palace Hotel in Bethlehem is very nice.

Check-in was smooth as silk, then we dropped our bags and made our way along long marble corridors to the large dining room. It was very pleasant to walk around, chat with fellow pilgrims and the hospitality staff, and enjoy a great meal. Then it was time to settle into our comfortable rooms for the night.

Wednesday February 11 - The Jordan Valley

Wednesday February 11 - The Jordan Valley

   [All the photos can be clicked for larger view, and roll your  mouse wheel to page through them all]
It was a hazy, windy morning and looking from our hotel room, the sun was barely visible. Wisam told us that we were very lucky -- it is a sandstorm that only happens about once a year! When we left Bethlehem we travelled through several closely-spaced villages, then we started down the crazy twisting road into "Hell", the valley that was Jerusalem's garbage dump, where wild scavengers made the place extremely dangerous.
 Our first stop was Qumran, site of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. The sand-laden wind certainly added to the  atmosphere. It is a barren, bleak and beautiful area. It has been excavated and some restoration done, to show how the monastic community lived, who left behind the many records in the scrolls. We looked down on the cave where the first of the pottery jars containing the scrolls were found.
Next stop: The Dead Sea. Question: Would anyone be crazy enough to go in? Answer: yes, 4 of us did,  but we didn't get far -- there was actually a wild surf so we were limited to a quick dip, forbidden to swim. Check out the video link below; most of us obeyed the strictures. The water was surprisingly warm on a very chilly day, and would have been very nice in better weather.
 We drove through a narrow area between high fences sporting land mine warnings to get to Qasr el Yehud, the traditional site of Jesus' baptism in the Jordan River. Several of us had been to the tourist baptism site on another part of the Jordan, but this was only recently re-opened to the public. It's much calmer and less commercial. Nanci read the account of Jesus' baptism from Matthew,

and Pastor David conducted a moving re-affirmations of our baptisms, using Jordan River water.
As we left the site, we encountered 2 young Israeli soldiers and they kindly posed for photos with us. What a contrast -- a peaceful ceremony to armed soldiers.


On to Jericho, where we first enjoyed lunch and shopping, then visited the Tell es-Sultan, the oldest site of settlement in the world. The area of the tell has about 20 layers of civilization, but has been uninhabited since Joshua's time. Still windy, chilly and sandy.
We stopped where we had a good (though hazy) view of the monastery that marks the traditional site of Jesus' temptation by the devil.

Coincidentally, someone was offering camel rides, while someone else was selling local scarves. Several people took advantage of one or both offers.

The last stop of the day was a hill overlooking the Monastery of St. George, the old Jericho Road and the Valley of the Shadow of Death. We made the difficult, though short, climb to the top and were very nearly blown off. Our view was definitely hampered by the blowing sand -- yet was still stunning. Along the road back to Bethlehem we passed a few Bedouin communities. They still follow their traditional herder lifestyle, though they are quite restricted in their movements. They've traded their tents for tar paper shacks along the highways. We also passed a Palestinian refugee camp, though we could really see nothing of it. Wisam shared his perspective on life and history as a Palestinian Christian. Quite a different viewpoint than most of us have experienced. We met back at the hotel to chat about our day, enjoyed another good dinner and retired to our rooms to rinse off the sand, salt and mud from our hair, bodies and clothing. The rain began as we returned. That should settle the sand and make the wilderness bloom.

Click Below for Video of Some of Our Ladies (and one of our men) taking a dip in the Dead Sea on a Very Windy Day
http://youtu.be/a0Z8wMvJqgU                            Link to All Photos For February 11

Thursday February 12 - Herodium and Bethlehem

Thursday February 12 - Herodium and Bethlehem
Happy Birthday Pastor David and Peggy!
Sure enough, we had blue skies and clearer air this morning, though the wind was still blowing and it was quite chilly.
Sharon and Carolyn led a devotion on the way to our first stop. What a great start to our day!
Our first visit was the Herodium, Herod's summer palace.

We learned what a truly terrible man he was, managing to live to a good age in spite of his path of death and destruction, murder and mayhem. He had this palace built by moving the top of one mountain onto the top of a lower mountain, then creating a fortification. The vast swimming pool at ground level is testament to his decadent lifestyle. As we began our hike to the top through a tunnel, the power failed, leaving us in deep darkness.

 Luckily, there were enough cell phones in the group to light our way to the top. Even as a ruin this is an impressive place, but today it was cold and blustery, so we admired the amazing views and quickly headed back down the exterior ramp. The footing was precarious on both routes, but no casualties.

 Our next stop was Shepherds' Field and the Church of the Angel. It's a lovely, park-like place. We had a hymn, scripture and prayer in the cave that tradition says was occupied by the shepherds who first received the news of Jesus' birth.
Back in Bethlehem we had a bit of retail therapy at the wonderful gift and souvenir shop. The staff presented a Birthday Cake to Pastor David and Peggy.  Cake for all!  Later we took advantage of the opportunity to visit the carvers' wood-working shop below the store.

 Lunch followed, then we moved on to the Church of the Nativity. Amazingly, we were able to go straight down to the cave where Jesus was born. This was a very different experience from what most of us have had in the past. There are usually long lines and huge crowds. After looking and feeling the emotional impact of the place of Jesus' birth, and of the manger, we joined them in singing a carol with the previous group, then had our own brief devotion and
song before moving on. Just wonderful! While there, we visited St. Jerome's cave and chapel and saw other parts of the underground cave complex.
Because we had saved an hour or so of scheduled waiting time, we were able to drive by Solomon's Pools (huge water-storage cisterns, no longer in use for supplying Jerusalem and the area) and get a

close-up look at the wall that separates the Palestinian territory from Israel proper. As we headed back to the hotel for dinner we were reminded that we must pack tonight and be ready to move out of the Jacir Palace early tomorrow morning.

 Link to All Photos for February 12

Friday, February 13 -- Caesarea, Mt. Carmel, Megiddo & Cana

Friday, February 13 -- Caesarea, Mt. Carmel, Megiddo & Cana
[I apologize that this is being posted late. We had internet problems posting it last night.]
Happy Birthday Lorrie!
We managed to be on the bus and away right on time this morning. Larry and I did a devotion based on stories of two places we planned to visit during the day. The weather was very unsettled, with blue sky and dark clouds taking turns, but we were optimistic. We crossed the checkpoint with no fuss, unlike a few years ago when we had to show our passports and were carefully scrutinized by Israeli security.

Travelling generally north on a multi-lane highway, our first stop was a service centre. Several of us immediately lined up for the co-ed washroom. No biggie for the women, but the men whined a bit about the long line-up. Boo-hoo, welcome to our world.

 Then on to Caesarea. We parked for a few minutes at the beach near the Roman aqueduct and walked to the edge of the surf. The Mediterranean was as rough today as the Dead Sea was the other day. Amazing to think these aqueducts have stood there for around 2000 years. We went into the old part of the city itself and suddenly the wind and clouds came up, there were thunderclaps and rain, then hail.

 We sheltered in the gift shop until it let up, then went to the marvelous amphitheatre. We listened from a seat at the top as 2 of our group (Pastor Rick and Dan, I think) sang onstage. Great acoustics. Then another drenching rain sent us scurrying back to the bus. Driving was treacherous, with icy slush on the roads, but Mamoud got us safely to the Monastery at Mt. Carmel. Luckily there was a break in the weather while we were there so we climbed to the roof and enjoyed the view stretching off in all directions.

We had been discussing the story of Elijah's triumph over the prophets of Baal at this site, so enjoyed seeing his statue in the garden.

At Tel Megiddo we had lunch before starting our tour. By the time we gathered outside, clouds were also gathering, and sure enough, just as we reached the top, rain began pouring down.

 We took a quick look down into the valley that is said to be the location of Armageddon, the final battle between good and evil, before scampering to the tunnel entrance for the return to ground level. The tunnel consists of steep stairs, some with metal mesh treads that really set off the vertigo, but we all made it safely to the bottom and ran to the waiting bus. After this many times in the rain, most of us were damp, with wet feet, and chilled through. The heat on the bus is a bit wonky, so we never really quite got over it.

 Cana was not on the agenda for today, but we stopped there anyway, since we had time. In a small outdoor chapel, 8 couples re-affirmed our marriage vows. I cried, as I had at our wedding, but this time 'round Larry didn't.[ I had tears in  my eyes, I did! ].

 We visited a lower-level room below the Franciscan church, to see a stone vessel like the ones Jesus used when he turned water to wine at the wedding feast, and the foundations of a first century house, traditionally thought to be the site of the miracle.

 Of course, we had to visit a wine store to sample the local product. It was sweet and tasted like sherry or port. Oh, did I mention? It poured rain through all this and we had to walk 3 or 4 blocks to and from the bus. Nanci had a gift for each couple who'd re-affirmed their vows -- a sweet little carved chalice. Thank you Nanci, we'll treasure it as a remembrance of today.
We were all SO ready for warm and dry by the time we reached Tiberius and the Royal Plaza Hotel. Our host reminded us that the Sabbath would begin shortly, and that the dining room would be very busy. It certainly was! One large group was enjoying a boisterous Bar Mitzvah celebration, while many others had quieter family dinners. Scattered among them were several busloads of EO pilgrims. Doris had bought a couple of bottles of much-better wine at the wine store, and shared them with everyone on our bus, as part of our "wedding feast". Thanks Doris, that was most thoughtful. The food was pretty good and very plentiful, our rooms are basic but clean and comfortable and it is lovely and warm!

Link to All Photos For February 13

Saturday February 14 - The Galilee

Saturday February 14 - The Galilee
Happy Valentine's Day everyone!
Our clothes and shoes had been spread out drying and were ready for a new day.
The weather was improved today. We found out from local people that the sand storm we experienced the first day was the worst in 14 years, and Wisam says he's never seen conditions like we had on the highway after the hail storms. We really have experienced some extreme weather for this area.
This morning we started at the Mount of Beatitudes. It is a lovely park setting with a beautiful octagonal church.
 High on each of the interior walls is one of the Beatitudes in two languages. David S. read the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew and led in prayer, followed by singing. It was very emotional for all of us to be at this lovely, holy place and hear the words Jesus spoke here.

When we boarded one of the boats that plies the Sea of Galilee, a crew member raised the American flag and they played The Star-Spangled Banner while the group sang it lustily. It was a surprising and moving gesture, and much appreciated. [A few people mentioned that they thought there should have been a Canadian flag and O Canada for us, but we were OK without it.]
 Then, as we moved out onto the water and cruised around for an hour or so, they played some favourite praise music. They stopped the boat in the centre of the Sea to give us quiet for a devotion.  The views from the water are amazing and Wisam pointed out the sites around the shoreline. The weather cooperated fully, so we had a smooth sailing and good view.

 Near the dock we were able to visit a museum holding an ancient boat that would have been on the lake in Jesus' time. The story of its discovery, recovery and preservation is fascinating.

 The Church of the Multiplication of Bread at Tabgha was next, and we took in beautiful mosaics in a lovely church. We discussed the story of the loaves and fishes and Wisam offered insights into possible explanations for some points in the story.


 A very short bus ride took us to the Church of the Primacy, thought to be situated where Jesus appeared to the disciples after the Resurrection and shared breakfast with them. He commissioned Peter as the leader at that meeting. Mike and Jan read the scripture from John, and we all walked to the shore.

Driving across the Jordan we were in Israeli-occupied territory that previously belonged to Syria. This area was where Jesus drove the demons out of a possessed man and into a herd of pigs. Pastor David read the story and Wisam pointed out the cliff off which they hurled themselves.

 We had lunch at Kibbutz Ein Ged, right on the edge of the Sea and enjoyed a stroll along the water's edge.
At Capurnaum, a large area of the town has been excavated. Most exciting is Peter's house, where Jesus lived after he withdrew from Nazareth, with the ruins of an octagonal church above it. Floating over that area is the modern church that somewhat resembles a spaceship. The synagogue there dates from the 3rd or 4th century but gave us a clear idea of what kind of place Jesus would have worshiped and preached in.

Our final activity of the day was a walk a short way up the Valley of the Winds, in Arbel Park. Jesus would have walked through this valley from Nazareth to Capurnaum, about a 2-day journey. High on the cliffs are caves in which Jews lived during the time of the Romans.
We were all tired by the time we got back to the hotel and ready for dinner, packing up and bed.

Link to All Photos for February 14

Sunday February 15 - Nazareth to Jerusalem via West Bank

Sunday February 15 - Nazareth to Jerusalem via West Bank
The sun came up bright and clear over the Sea of Galilee this morning. Glory be! 

We were all in good time on the bus and off we went for the day's adventures. David S. led a devotion based on Jesus' "hidden" life when he was growing up in Nazareth. Wisam described family and village life in Palestine that would be similar to life in Nazareth 2000 years ago. 

The Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth is beautiful inside and out. It is built over the remains of the 1st century village, and the ground floor has an entrance to Mary's house, part of which is a cave. 
The upper level is where the local community worships. The walls are adorned with works of art from many countries depicting the Annunciation. Canada has two: a bas-relief woodcarving in the Quebec style and an entire painted chapel. The U.S. one is dramatic and metallic-looking. In each country's work, Mary resembles the people of that country. We walked back through narrow streets to the bus. 

 Near Nazareth the bus took us up a hill to the Cliff of Precipice, where the people of Nazareth attempted to throw Jesus to his death.
Driving through the Jezreel Valley we passed large fields of grain and arrays of greenhouses. There was lots of evidence of the rains of the last several days. 

We crossed into Palestine at Jenin, where much of the best produce in the area is grown and sold. The city is busy and crowded, predominantly Muslim. Local rock is quarried, cut and carved here.
 We rode up a steep road to Sebastinah, where we walked among the Roman ruins, including an amphitheatre, colonnaded street, a palace and then a later Christian church. 

 Most of the group went into a restaurant for a typical Palestinian meal, that they said was the best meal yet. A few of us skipped it, since we've been over-eating and I've been unable to negotiate garlic-free meals at lunch time.[ watching the camel instead of lunch ]

In Nablus we visited Jacob's Well. the church built over it is lovely, with many icons painted by the Greek Orthodox priest who is in charge. He's been there for 40 years and will be buried there eventually. He took us down to the well where we read the story from John, of Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well. Wisam lowered a bucket into the well and all the women took turns turning the crank to bring it back to the surface. The well is, indeed, very deep.

On the way to Jerusalem we passed Ramala, the Palestinian capital, and a few other familiar-sounding places.Once again we sailed through the check point without having to stop, and came to the lovely 
Olive Tree hotel in Old Jerusalem. This is definitely the best of the 3 hotels we've been in. There's even a tea kettle in our room, which I used right away.
Dinner was delicious, and afterward we heard a dialogue between an Israeli and a Palestinian giving their respective views on the conflict.

Link to All Photos for February 15

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