Domes, Walls, Pools, Songs, Hills, Tombs…

this is the base of the rock that is Calvary. it’s in the basement of The Church of the Holy Sepulcher. after you touch and pray at this rock, you walk up 3 different flights of stairs to be on top of Calvary

Hello friends . . .grace and peace,

We were everywhere today!  We spent time on some of the holiest of ground for all three of the Great Abrahamic Faiths: Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.  Yes, in case you didn’t know, all three of the major world faiths trace their roots to Abraham who worshipped One God. (Genesis 15)

Our first stop was at The Dome of the Rock, which is the 3rd most holy place for Muslims.  Our professor, Fr. Kamal Farah, walked with us all through the grounds, teaching us about the different elements of the Islamic faith.  We were stunned to learn (or at least some of us were) at how many times Jesus came up within the Muslim faith.  Of course, Muslims do not recognize Jesus as Messiah (nor do those in the Jewish faith) but Muslims BELIEVE in Jesus.  They believe in Mary (and she is the only woman mentioned by name in the entire Koran).  They believe that Jesus will be the Judge on the Last Day.  They believe that all the prophets who have gone before are currently listening to just one other prophet tell them about the scriptures and that is, you guessed it, JESUS!!

None of us are saying that there’s no different between Muslims and Christians. That would be ridiculous.  But many of us thought it very interesting to keep hearing the Name of Jesus brought up again and again in a Muslim context.  Here are some photos of the Dome of the Rock.

We next went to The Western Wall, or as it’s also called, The Wailing Wall.  This is the most holy spot in the world for people of the Jewish faith.  In their story, God was and is most present in the Holy of Holies inside The Temple.  The First Temple was built by King Solomon in the 950’s BC but then destroyed in 586 BC. The Second Temple was then built in 516 BC and stood all the way until 70 AD when it was destroyed by the Roman Empire.  All that remains from The Second Temple is the Western Wall which is what is now The Wailing Wall.  Jewish people from around the globe come to say prayers at the Wall, praying for the coming time of The Third Temple.

After that, we went to the Pool of Bethesda, the spot where Jesus healed the man who couldn’t walk and had been sitting by the pool for 38 years.  (John 5:1-15) This pool dates back to 3,000 BC.  It’s more than 5,000 years old!!  (which is only half as long as the city of Jericho has been around!)  This was another one of “those spots” where we KNOW that Jesus actually stood.  Many other places in the Holy Land are “traditional sites” meaning, it’s not the exact spot where something happened but it’s close so we just put up a monument or a church to commemorate the event.  But, like the well where Jesus met the Samaritan woman, this pool is a place where Jesus actually stood.

ruins of the upper levels of Bethesda Pool

many many steps to get down to where the pool was in Jesus’ time

this is a 3,000 year old pool . . . and Jesus was here

Just next to the Bethesda Pool is St. Anne’s Church which has possibly the best acoustics of any church we’ve ever heard.  We recorded our group signing a few songs but we haven’t gotten it from the iPhone of the gentleman who recorded it. Here’s a clip of another group singing.  LISTEN TO THE ACOUSTICS!!!  (click here) ((it’s only 2 minutes long))

the acoustically perfect St. Anne’s Church in Jerusalem

We had lunch and then moved on to The Church of the Holy Sepulcher.  This place is ENORMOUS!  It houses 4 key sites for Christians.

1) Calvary, where Jesus was crucified
2) The spot where Jesus’ dead body was presented to Mary
3) Jesus’ tomb
4) The garden where the resurrected Jesus first appeared to Mary Magdalene

All of these sites are each within a 30 second walk from each other, and some even less.  And all have been commemorated in grand ways with candles and gold and lights and altars and more.  It’s beautiful but it’s also so busy and so active that at times, it’s hard to really “get into it”.  There were SO MANY people there who have their own spirituality to draw close to Jesus.  And every language you can think of. All of them coming to engage with God through Jesus.

hand on the rock which forms the base of Calvary

first set of stairs heading up towards Calvary

all along the walls as you go up the stairs, there are MILLIONS of crosses that have been carved into the stone by pilgrims over the centuries

another set of stairs up to Calvary

up top, on the right side, where the light is coming from under the arch, that is the top of Calvary

final set of (VERY STEEP) stairs up to Calvary

the altar, built onto the rock of Calvary. you can crawl under the altar and place your hand in the place that held the cross of the crucified Christ

“It is accomplished”

this is the spot believed to be where Jesus’ dead body was placed in Mary’s arms

where Jesus lay . . . dead

the tomb of Jesus

you have to wait in line to get into the tomb. sometimes the wait can be all day. other times, only a few hours. Aran waited only 45 minutes!

heading into the tomb . . . you have to stoop way down, almost to your knees

this is not THE place as the real tomb is about 5 feet below this spot. but it does represent the beautiful location where Jesus lay dead and then rose to life again!

this space is where the garden would have been when the resurrected Jesus first appeared to Mary Magdalene

just to give perspective, on the far left is the tomb, then come around the corner in the middle and there’s where Mary received her son’s body. and further to the right is Calvary. the garden is past the tomb and around the next corner to the right. it all happened within about a 300 square foot area.

It was a great day.  And perhaps the most two important things we discovered are:

ONE – Jesus is in places we don’t expect him to be and

TWO – Even if we don’t know the “exact” spot where Jesus may have been, it doesn’t mean he’s not there now.  Plus, by the presence of the Holy Spirit, he lives in our hearts, minds, souls, and bodies.

peace to you


In the Garden…

Hello friends . . . grace and peace,

Before reading further, please take a moment to read Fr. Ralph’s post from earlier today.  Click here.  Thanks.

Today was rather remarkable.  We quite literally walked our way from Palm Sunday through Maundy Thursday.

We began our morning at Bethpage Catholic Church near the top of the Mount of Olives and saw the stone on which it is believed that Jesus stood onto in order to get onto the donkey he rode into Jerusalem. (see Luke 19:28-35)

We then walked down the Mount of Olives, using the very same road (it’s been repaved) that Jesus would have used on his way into Jerusalem.

We made a brief stop in order to have a teaching and reflection on Luke 19:41-44 when Jesus sees the city of Jerusalem for the first time and weeps over it.  The view point from this spot was stunning to say the least!

From that point we walked, in silence, to the Garden of Gethsemane, the place where Jesus most acutely displayed the tension between his humanity and his divinity.  Here are several pictures from the Garden where Jesus prayed just hours before his arrest.

Now, keep up with us here and PLEASE don’t miss this . . . The conversation Jesus has in prayer with God could be summed up like this….

“God, I don’t want to do this.  At all.  Is there another way?”  But then, in a stunning display of trust, Jesus later prays, “God, if this is your will, then let’s move forward together.”  (these are obviously not direct quotes but simply a summarization of Matthew 26:36-42)

Fr. Kamal, center

Our professor, Fr. Kamal Farah, shared with us a quote from a 1st century pilgrim to the Holy Land (20 centuries before we have done the same thing) that was shared throughout the years.  The pilgrim prayed:

“God, I don’t understand you. But I trust you.”

There are so many times when Jesus moves us past our expectations or “knowledge” of what we believe God is doing (or ought to do).  Christians are famous for saying things like, “Oh no, this isn’t of God!” or “God could never go ‘there’!” But what if it IS of God and God DID go there and we just haven’t figured out what God is doing yet?!?  Is it possible that in our rush to judge the actions of others, or the church, or the nations, or other faiths, that are we denying God’s activity?

Perhaps the places where we say God is not, are the exact places that God is.

peace to you

Day of Thanksgiving…

Dear family members of our St. Thomas pilgrims, all of the St. Thomas family, and all who read this blog,

It is Monday evening here in Jerusalem. We continue to have a wonderful and deeply spiritual experience. I want you to know that we are in good hands. Our Liaison (arrangements person) has a direct line to government officials. He used to work for the U.N. and gets updates about the situation here and makes decisions accordingly. So far, none of his updates have caused any concern. We are less than seventy-two hours from getting on our plane and making our way home. Rest assured that we are doing well and it may be true that there is much less anxiety here than back in the U.S.

You are in all of our thoughts and prayers. You are especially in mine.

Fr. Ralph+






Editor’s Note:  It is important to note that the travel warnings issued by the US State Department have not changed since we traveled to the Middle East.  The US Government updates these travel warnings hourly. There are groups from all over the world coming to this area every day, including a brand new group of students arriving tomorrow (Tuesday, November 20) to take a course at St. George’s College.

All About Context…

Hello friends . . . grace and peace,

Our time is winding down here in Israel & Palestine.  We will be leaving for the airport in about 72 hours.  There is still more for us to learn, however, in these last few days and so we ask that you please pray for all of us in this Palestine of Jesus class that our focus would be on God first, our safety second, and on learning as much as we can about who Jesus was and is.  Thank you for all your prayers!

We have met some amazing people here in Jerusalem as well as in the Nazareth and Galilee areas.  We have met people who proclaim to be of the Christian faith, Jewish faith, Muslim faith, and more.  All of them, every single one, is a beautiful creation of God.  We have not been disrespected by anyone.  We have listened to them and learned about their lives, their ways, their cultures.  And as we have listened, we have come to realize that there are many different ways of looking at things.

what do you see? a young woman? an old woman? both?

Our professor, Fr. Kamal Farah has taught us the deep importance of reading the scriptures.  Over and over again he has said that if we get home and we don’t read the letters, laws, poetry, proverbs, histories, prophecies, philosophy and stories of the bible, then we have missed the point of the class.  BUT, just as we’ve listened and heard about the culture, way, and beliefs of the people we’ve met, we MUST do the same with the people and narratives of the bible.  “Context, you see? Alway the context.” is one of Kamal’s favorite things to say.

There are whole segments of the scriptures that, unless you SEE the land, unless you LEARN the culture, unless you LISTEN to the history, we fail, completely, to gain any knowledge of what Jesus was actually about and up to with his teachings.

For example . . . look at the photo below . . .

This is photo Aran took of Jerusalem from the top of the Mount of Olives.  You’re looking at the southeast corner of the wall that surround the Old City section of Jerusalem.  The gold dome you see is the Dome of the Rock, the 3rd most holy place for people of the Islamic faith.

Now, stay with us here . . .

In Genesis 22, we read the story of Abraham being asked by God to sacrifice his son, Isaac in the region of Moriah on a mountain (verse 2).  The region that Abraham was told to go to is the very place you are looking at in the photo above.  In fact, very close to the corner of the wall is the spot where biblical scholars and archeologist believe Abraham was sent.

(by the way, while may of us read this story and think “HOW COULD GOD ASK A FATHER TO DO THIS?!?” it’s actually believed to be because human sacrifice was a common place among the other religions of the world and God took this opportunity to say, “no more”)

Back to the above photo . . . spinning forward from Abraham and Isaac several hundred years, in 1 Chronicles 28, we read about the plans for the Temple in Jerusalem.  This was to be a place of worship and sacrifice.  Animal sacrifice, not human (remember Genesis 22?).  These sacrifices were to be for the renewal of The Covenant which God made through Abraham and all his descendants.

The location of that Temple was just up from the spot where Abraham and Isaac were.  The First Temple (destroyed in 586 BC) and The Second Temple (destroyed in 70 AD) were in the spot where the Dome of the Rock currently sits.

The sacrifices are moving up the hill . . . it’s almost as if it’s leading us somewhere . . .

You’ve probably figured out where this is going.  God, instead of maintaing a sacrificial system of covenant renewal that had to be repeated year after year (remember 1 Chronicles 28), offers the His own Son (remember Genesis 22) and establishes a New Covenant.  And this time, it’s not just for Abraham’s descendants, it’s for ALL PEOPLE.

Back to the photo . . . in John 19, we read that Jesus was taken to the place of the skull, also called Golgotha.  That place is now located within the Church of the Holy Sepulcher which is just a bit up the hill and to the left in the photo.

So we have 3 different sacrificial places, and each of them moves further up the mountain, and each time God provides what it needed . . . just like it says in Genesis 22.

There is just no way that this stuff can be learned from a book or a set of pictures or any other means.  It’s all about . . . “Context, you see? Alway the context.” – Fr. Kamal

peace to you

Mountains, Rivers, and an Oasis…

Hello friends . . . grace and peace,

We are so blessed!  Seriously, we are.  We began our day on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, then stood atop Mount Tabor where Jesus’ transfiguration more than likely took place (Matthew 17), then had lunch and saw one of two ancient sycamore trees in Jericho (see Luke 19) then renewed our baptism vows in the Jordan River, and finally, returned back to St. George’s College, our home away from home.

We were away from the college for almost 4 full days.  It was an amazing trip that also included time in Caesarea, Nazareth, Cana, Capernaum, The Golan Heights, Caesarea Philipp, Tabgha, and more.

(you can click on any of the above boldfaced words to learn more about those places)

Plus, here’s a map of the Galilee region…

There’s so much to share and so much to say that we’re simply going to let the pictures below do the talking.  Because as we all know, a picture is worth a thousand (or so) words…

the aqueduct that ran from Mount Carmel to Caesarea Maritima, more than 12 miles away. built by King Herod the Great

Fr. Kamal Farah teaching from the top of Mount Carmel

Church of the Annunciation, where the angel met with Mary

in Nazareth: the most remarkable spice and dried fruit store we’ve ever seen

sunset in Nazareth

Eucharist on the shores of the Sea of Galilee

also known as Capernaum, the city where Jesus lived at Peter’s house

a yummy lunch. this kind of fish is literally called (no joke) St. Peter’s Fish

Fr. Ralph taking a photo of his lovely bride, Cindy, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee

the rocks at Caesarea Philippi. when Jesus said he would build The Universal Church on the rock, he was referring to these kind of rocks, one of the hardest in the world

Aran’s feet in the Sea of Galilee

one last look at the Sea of Galilee

a Palestinian boy. please pray for peace in this region.

renewing our baptism vows while standing in the Jordan River

Teaching In Context…

Fr Kamal Farah teaching us at Caesarea Philippi, where Jesus first told his disciples he was the Messiah (Matthew 16)

Hello friends . . . grace and peace,

Today we are reminded of the scene in The Princess Bride when Inigo Montoya is asked many questions in rapid fire by Westley.  Inigo responds by saying, “Let me explain . . . no, there is too much.  Let me sum up.”

Click HERE to see the 2 minute clip. (if you want)

the mountains of northern Israel

It is not possible for us to share with you all that we have learned.  The primary reason for this is because we are learning to read the teachings of Jesus in a contextualized way.  That is to say, we aren’t reading the bible and trying to apply it right away.  Rather, we are hearing the stories and learning to put them in the historical, cultural, and (yes, it’s true) topographical contexts in which they were written.  Our professor has said several times things like, “And now, we read this passage and because we see the hills and the seas, we understand, yes?”

the Sea of Galilee

This is not something that can be understood by reading a book.  Nor can it be learned by watching a video or seeing pictures.  It must be experienced.  Our goal, upon our return, is to participate with our friends and neighbors in sharing the stories we have heard and bringing a bit of fresh wind to our lives in Christ.

We have learned that there is no end to the depths in which God’s Word goes.  There is always something to learn.  There is always more to understand.  Our faith is not frozen.  It is alive.  It’s going somewhere.  It advances and progresses into the future and is not stuck in the past. It moves with the Spirit/Breath/Wind of God.  (yes, the same word in Hebrew & Greek means all three of those words)

We pray that God’s Spirit/Breath/Wind moves you to exciting new places with God today!!

peace to you

We Are Safe…

Hello friends . . . grace and peace,

You have probably heard the horrible news of all that is going on in the Gaza Strip. Please, we beg you, keep this whole situation in prayer.  If we have learned anything by being over here, this is not an issue that is understandable by simple reading a few articles or watching a report on CNN.  As we reported a few days ago in our blog post “Pray For Peace…” we have listened to many voices on the issue of Israeli and Palestinian conflict and we are just as confused as ever.

prayer is needed

Our best advice to all who are concerned about peace coming to this region is to 1) Pray and 2) get your information from multiple sources.  No media outlet has the corner market on presenting an accurate picture of what is going on between Israel and Palestine.  Read, watch, and study input from all sides.  But most of all, pray.

Thank you to those of you who have emailed, facebooked, tweeted, and even called.  We are safe.  All of the horrible acts (on both sides) are taking place more than 50 miles away from us and there is absolutely no threat to the Galilee area where we are currently, nor are there any threats to Jerusalem which is where we will be Saturday through Thursday when we leave.

Thank you for your continued prayers for our safety.  Please include in your prayers the safety of the Palestinian and Israeli people as well as a smooth process towards “the peace that surpasses all understanding.”

peace to you