Monday, February 28, 2011

Holy Land Pilgrimage – Praying at the Western Wall

Note: In January 2011 my wife and I went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. This post is part of a series of blogs I have written to convey what I learned while on this life changing trip. You can read about the entire trip in the devotional book Touching the Footprints of Jesus.

One of the most popular sites to visit in Jerusalem is the Western Wall. It is the last remnant left of the Second Temple built by Jews who returned from the Babylonian Exile in 517 B.C. Later, Herod the Great renovated the temple in 19 B.C. in such a huge way that was often referred to as Herod’s Temple. During the Great Jewish Revolt in 70 A.D. the Romans completely destroyed the Temple and only one section of the western portion of the wall remains.

The wall is a symbol of both hope and mourning for the Jews. It is a symbol of the hope the Jews have to one day rebuild their temple. It is a symbol of mourning because it represents all the Jews have lost through the ages. Over the centuries Jews have gathered at the wall to pray audibly to God for hope and to mourn their sorrows. The sound of their prayers can be heard even before one enters the courtyard in front of the wall. For this reason, the Western Wall is also called the Wailing Wall.

In January 2011 my wife and I and a group of fellow pastors and spouses visited the Western Wall. It was a lovely sunny day which meant that the area was filled with people praying to God. Men and women pray in separate sections and so my wife went with the ladies to one side while I went with the men to other side. Though our group was all Christian, we donned a yarmulke out of respect for Jewish tradition and joined our Jewish brothers in praying at the wall. I do not know what other people in our group prayed while they were standing there, but I prayed for Yeshua (the name Jews use to refer to Jesus) to reveal Himself to His people. I could not help but feel humbled as I, a Gentile who was only grafted into the family of God, stood in such a sacred place and pleaded with the Lord of Glory to call His people back to Himself.

I do not consider myself an expert on prophecy, but I believe God is not yet finished with the Jews. They are still God’s chosen people and somehow they continue to figure into God’s plan for world redemption. I do not claim to understand all the political or cultural complexities the Jews face as they carve out a nation surrounded by powerful enemies, but I understand the simplicity of Psalm 122:6-7, “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: May those who love you prosper; may there be peace within your walls, prosperity within your fortresses" (HCSV). So on that day, as I stood by that famous wall, I prayed for the peace of Jerusalem. I prayed not only for political peace, but I prayed for spiritual peace which only the Prince of Peace can bring into our lives. Please stop right now and take a few minutes to pray for a move of God’s Spirit to sweep through His people once again and for the Jews to realize that Jesus is their long awaited Messiah. Join me in praying for the peace of Jerusalem and watch in anxious anticipation for how the Lord of Glory will answer that prayer.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Holy Land Pilgrimage – Lessons from the Via Delarosa

Note: In January 2011 my wife and I went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. This post is part of a series of blogs I have written to convey what I learned while on this life changing trip. You can read about the entire trip in the devotional book Touching the Footprints of Jesus.

I fondly recall the day my wife and I walked around the Old City in Jerusalem. We walked down the Via Delarosa, which commemorates the route which Jesus took as He carried the cross to Golgotha. Often referred to as “the Way of Suffering,” the Via Delarosa has 14 “stations” or stopping points. Each station reminds pilgrims along the route of various aspects of Christ’s suffering.

Even though the current narrow route in the Old City in Jerusalem is 30 feet above the original road and some of the Stations of the Cross are nowhere near their original places, I was still moved to think of what that route symbolizes to Christians around the world and to me personally. Despite the historical inaccuracies of some of the current locations of the Stations of the Cross, they are still powerful reminders of what our Lord suffered for us. Though it pains me to admit it, I confess that I have often taken our Lord’s sacrifice for granted. Walking the Via Delarosa helped me refocus and contemplate afresh and a new what it cost Jesus to redeem me from my sin.

At one spot along the route, we visited a 1000 year old church that is built over the traditional site of Mary’s parent’s house. The church had amazing acoustics and a person standing in the front speaking in a quiet voice could be heard around the room. Choirs that stood in that spot and sang sounded like a multitude of angels singing on high. Though our group was not a choir, we did decide to sing several songs of praise to the Lord Jesus. It sounded so powerful that we could not help but lift our hands toward heaven as we sang of what He had done for us along that route. One day, multitudes of Christians from around the world will stand before the throne and we will sing praise to the King of Kings and it will sound even more amazing than that acoustically perfect church.

Just outside that particular church was the ruins of the pool of Bethesda. That was the pool mentioned in John 5 which sick people waited beside in hopes that an angel would come stir the waters. When the waters were stirred, it was popular belief that whoever got in the water first would be healed. Jesus is still stirring the hearts of those who seek Him, but we no longer have to try to be the “first” in order to be healed. Now the door is open wide for anyone who seeks Him to experience spiritual healing in His name. And there is room at the cross for anyone who desires to be healed of the sickness of sin.

At another stop along that route we stood near the place where Jesus was whipped. Pilgrims are no longer allowed to visit the actual site because it is controlled by Muslims. But hundreds of years ago Christians built a replica of the site on the other side of the road. The church built to commentate His beating had old Roman flagstones from the original Roman street embedded in the floor. Those flagstones had a game etched into it. It would have been a game similar to what the soldiers played as they gambled for Jesus’ clothes. I was moved as I stood there looking at that game etched into the floor. I could not help but wonder how many people are gambling with their soul in hopes that the claims Jesus made about Himself were not real. But Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah is real and those who gamble with their souls will lose that wager.

Lord, help me share Your love with those around me so they can find the assurance they need for eternal life.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Holy Land Pilgrimage – Meditations on Forgiveness

Note: In January 2011 my wife and I went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. This post is part of a series of blogs I have written to convey what I learned while on this life changing trip. You can read about the entire trip in the devotional book Touching the Footprints of Jesus.

Our tour group was in Jerusalem on a Sunday morning. There were a number of other pastors in the group and originally one of them was supposed to preach in a special service that was arranged just for our group. But due to a last minute change of plans, the speaker was unable to participate. The group leader asked me on Saturday night if I might preach on Sunday morning. I obviously said YES, after all, how many times does a preacher from a small town in a small state like where I live get to preach in Jerusalem!!! I had little time to prepare, but sought the Spirit’s leading and was directed to Matthew 18:21-35, which is the story of the Unforgiving Servant.

After having spent several days in Israel witnessing the deep racial divides that are so prevalent there (click here to read my previous post about that) I decided to preach on the importance of forgiveness. After having a fellow pastor read from Matthew 18:21-35, I shared a testimony of how God taught me the importance of forgiveness. My testimony of learning forgiveness involves a near fatal accident my family experienced due to a drunk driver (click here to read a short version of that story). I then related the scriptures, and my own experience with forgiveness, to the situation I had observed in Israel. It was clear to everyone in our group that the Jews and Arabs have not offered each other forgiveness. Perhaps individuals within each group have offered forgiveness to other individuals in the other group, but as a whole, there has been no reconciliation of any kind between their two peoples. The ongoing friction of that reality keeps both of their cultures in a state of constant tension.

I completed my sermon by asking the group to consider how many individual Christians and/or churches have failed to offer forgiveness to someone who needed it. Could it be that the lack of forgiveness in our lives and our churches is the source of much of the internal turmoil and emotional conflict we experience? Only when we learn the importance of forgiveness can we move back into a place of joy, happiness and spiritual blessing.

Lord, help us grasp the importance of forgiveness today.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Holy Land Pilgrimage – Lessons from the Dead Sea

Note: In January 2011 my wife and I went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. This post is part of a series of blogs I have written to convey what I learned while on this life changing trip. You can read about the entire trip in the devotional book Touching the Footprints of Jesus.

Everyone who visits the Holy Land wants to float in the Dead Sea. When we visited Israel in January, we spent one afternoon enjoying this unique experience. It was an interesting experience because it is not really possible to swim in the Dead Sea, you can only float. The high mineral content of the water makes people extra buoyant. It is important not to put your hear under water because that same mineral content makes the water toxic.

The surface of the Dead Sea is 1,300 feet below sea level, making its shore the lowest dry point on the entire planet. The Jordan River and a number of other smaller tributaries flow into the Dead Sea, but since it is so low, there is no outlet. The water that flows in to the Dead Sea naturally carries minerals into the Dead Sea. As water evaporates, the minerals are left behind because there is no way for them to go anyone else. Over the years, the level of mineral content has grown to somewhere around 34%, whereas the ocean would be only 6-7%. All these minerals make it impossible for anything to live in the water.

The Dead Sea is beautiful lake to look at. It has crystal blue water. But there are no fish in it or fishing boats on top of it. There are no fancy lake houses around the shore. It is an interesting tourist attraction and provides a brief moment of relaxation and fun, but is unable to provide the life giving resources that most lakes offer. Though modern technology has allowed the extraction of some minerals from the water, which are used in the cosmetic industry, the lake itself can offer no life.

As I reflect on that experience, it seems to me that many churches are like the Dead Sea. They have numerous “rivers” of talent, skill, financial support and ministry programming flowing into them, but often lack a conduit that moves the focus of the church outward. All those resources begin to build up in the church and instead of providing health and life; they will eventually kill the church. Such churches may look good from the outside, and offer some “cosmetic” assistance to people, but they will not be fishing for men. They may offer a brief respite for Christians from the difficulties of the world, but will not be able to offer the Water of Life to the spiritually thirsty.

Lord, keep our churches fresh by allowing us to have an outward flow and an upward flow, not just an inward consumption.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Holy Land Pilgrimage – Lessons from Masada

Note: In January 2011 my wife and I went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. This post is part of a series of blogs I have written to convey what I learned while on this life changing trip. You can read about the entire trip in the devotional book Touching the Footprints of Jesus.

Last month while my wife and I were in Israel we took a tour one morning of the Jewish fortress of Masada. The fortress was built by Herod the Great in the Judean desert from 37 to 31 BC as a refuge against revolts. Because of its location and the geography of the surrounding countryside, it made an ideal location as a refuge. It was also used as a summer palace and great investment was made to convert a previously inhospitable place into something quite comfortable.

During the First Jewish Revolt against the Romans in 66 AD, a group of Jews fled to Masada. They were later joined by other Jews until nearly 1000 were living in the mountain top fortress. The Roman Legion eventually surrounded the fortress and began a prolonged siege. The Jews held out for three years before the Romans managed to break through the front gate with a battering ram. In a twist of fate, the Romans then withdrew with the intention of sweeping in the next day and taking over the entire fortress. The Jews realized that there was no way they could prevail, so the leaders of the Jewish rebels chose instead to commit mass suicide. Because it was against Jewish law to commit suicide, the men faced the grim task of killing their own wives and children. The men then drew lots for who would kill each other until only one man was left, who then had to kill himself. The result being that only one man actually committed suicide. The Jews felt it was better to die by their own hands than it was to be killed by others and have their children sold into slavery.

It is interesting to note that only one Jewish historian recorded the entire event and since he was not particularly popular with other Jews at the time, the entire episode became a vague cultural memory for more than 1500 years. It was not until the 1920’s that the story began to re-emerge in the Jewish cultural mindset. Since then, Masada has become a symbol of freedom to the Jews.

Though we spent nearly 3 hours on the tour and heard the tour guide make numerous mini-speeches and read countless historical plaques, I am still a bit baffled by the entire account. As I have reflected on what I saw and heard about what happened there, I am just not sure their sacrifice accomplished anything. In the end, the Romans not only took the fortress, but they destroyed the entire nation, including the Second Temple. The Jewish nation was completely devastated and ceased to exist as a national entity for nearly 1900 years. When the nation of Israel was finally reformed as an independent nation, it was the horror of the Holocaust that motivated the United Nations to act, not the memory of Masada. In light of those realities, what exactly did the mass suicide at Masada accomplish? What makes it such a powerful symbol of Jewish freedom?

I am not saying that we should not be willing to sacrifice. We are often called upon to sacrifice in the present so that we can have a better future. But as I have reflected on my visit to that important site, I just cannot see what their suicide accomplished. I have to wonder if they let their emotions control them. I have to wonder if they let their nationalism overcome their judgment. I have heard the Jewish version of the history of Masada. I have also read other accounts that gave different perspectives. I remain unconvinced that it is the symbol the Jews want it to be. Though I agree that there are some hills worth dying on, I am not sure this was one of them.

What can we learn from Masada? Perhaps we can learn about the need to sacrifice. But I think it is more likely that we learn about the need to know which hills are worth dying on. Lord, give us wisdom to know when to take a stand for things that will make a difference in the world and when we are simply letting our own emotions influence us.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Holy Land Pilgrimage – Lessons from Mt. Scopus

Note: In January 2011 my wife and I went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. This post is part of a series of blogs I have written to convey what I learned while on this life changing trip. You can read about the entire trip in the devotional book Touching the Footprints of Jesus.

As my regular readers know, I have been blogging the last couple of weeks about my recent pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Throughout the entire experience I was constantly amazed at our Jewish guide’s rich grasp of history. He seemed to know the chronology of just about every rock or tree we passed by. Since I love history, I enjoyed hearing his mini-lectures. But what was equally amazing was his complete lack of ability to make a spiritual connection between the history he was telling us and the biblical narrative from which they emerged. He clearly knew the history of the Holy Land, but he also clearly missed the point of most of what had happened there in the past 3500 years.

There was one exception to our guide’s lack of spirituality, when we entered Jerusalem for the first time on our journey. We drove to the top of Mt. Scopus and stood on the hillside overlooking the city. Our guide put on his yarmulke and gave us a traditional Jewish toast to Jerusalem that even included a little prayer in Hebrew. It was a special moment and I sensed our guide was sincere in his prayer. It was the only time that our guide had a spiritual moment during our entire trip.

Though I was disappointed that our guide missed most of the spiritual connections that emanate from the Holy Land, as I have reflected back on the experience it occurs to me that he was not that much different from many Christians who only show up at church for Easter and Christmas services. They come get a little taste of spirituality and then go back on their way thinking they have done their religious duty. When Christians do that, they are just like our tour guide, having a spiritual moment when it is convenient. With all due respect, I must wonder how meaningful that kind of faith really is.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Holy Land Pilgrimage – Lessons from the Bedouin

Note: In January 2011 my wife and I went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. This post is part of a series of blogs I have written to convey what I learned while on this life changing trip. You can read about the entire trip in the devotional book Touching the Footprints of Jesus.

The Bedouin are a nomadic people who have been shepherding camels in the Middle East for at least 3000 years. In recent generations the Bedouin have added sheep and goats to their inventory. Though the Bedouin are scattered across the Middle East, most of the Israeli Bedouin have become less nomadic and more settled due to the political and economic conditions that exist in Israel. But their long nomadic cultural memory has kept from investing in building fancy homes. Instead, they tend to find what most others would consider scraps and cobble together shacks that look like they will fall over if a big wind came through. The shacks were so insubstantial looking that it was almost comical to see a big satellite dish beside almost every home. The satellite dish must have cost more than the entire house, and yet there they were, everywhere we looked.

My wife and I saw countless numbers of these Bedouin shacks and their accompanying satellite dishes as we road back and forth on various roads through Israel. The tour guide that was assigned to our group shared a surprising fact about the Bedouin that we could not have known just by looking at their shacks. Our tour guide revealed that many of the people living in those shacks have sacks of money hidden in those shacks. Since they obviously do not pay much for the house, and most are set up on land that is owned by someone else, their housing costs are almost nothing. The United Nations provides food packets for them on a regular basis. Other charities help provide health care and other basic necessities. The end result is that the particular Bedouin who live in that area have no need to spend their own money. They simply put it in a sack under the bed or in a cabinet behind the dishes. Though it would appear at first glance that they are terribly poor, the reality is that they are relatively rich.

I realize that there are Bedouin in other places who may indeed be struggling. And perhaps there are individual families even in Israel that are not as well off as others. But as a general rule, the Bedouin around Jerusalem who appear to be so poor are not poor at all. As I reflect on this reality, I realized it is a great illustration that not everything in the world is as it appears. We are all good at putting on one face in front of others and a different face in our own private lives. We tend to hide the details about ourselves that shed a different light on us than what we want other people to see.

From a spiritual perspective, we must remember that the Lord does not judge by the outward appearance, He looks at what is on the inside. The Lord knows what we have hidden under the bed or behind the cabinets in the darkest places in our hearts. He sees. He knows. He points these things out to us when we least want to listen. We can pretend we do not hear Him and continue to live in spiritual shacks, or we can let His light shine through us burning away all the falsehoods and leaving only pure truth. That is something to contemplate as we seek to tune up our spiritual satellite dish today.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Holy Land Pilgrimage – Lessons from the Inn of the Good Samaritan

Note: In January 2011 my wife and I went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. This post is part of a series of blogs I have written to convey what I learned while on this life changing trip. You can read about the entire trip in the devotional book Touching the Footprints of Jesus.

While in Israel, our tour bus passed by the site of the inn of the Good Samaritan several times. The ruins of the inn are just off the main road to Jerusalem. Unlike other biblical sites, the area around the inn has not been developed and pilgrims cannot visit the site. It can only be viewed from the road as vehicles pass by. It is located in a mountainous area and one can easily imagine a lone merchant being ambushed by a band of thieves along that road.

The story is found in Luke 10:25-37. A lawyer asked Jesus who was his neighbor. In response Jesus told the story of a Jewish man traveling along the road from Jerusalem to Jericho. Robbers attacked him, stripped him of his belongings and left him for dead. First a priest, and then a Levite passed by the man. Though they saw him, they ignored his cries for help. Then a Samaritan passed by. The Samaritans and Jews were enemies. Yet, it was the Samaritan that stopped to help the Jewish man. He put him on his donkey and carried him to the inn. He paid the innkeeper to keep the Jewish man in the inn until he could recover. The Samaritan even said that if the bill was more than he expected, he would pay the balance the next time he came by. It is a powerful story of the need to overcome cultural and racial differences and help other people when they are need.

I found it interesting that though the site is right beside the road and is one of the most famous parables that Jesus told, no one in Israel has ever bothered to develop the site. There it sits, easily accessible. It would seem like an easy site to develop, and rumor is that it will be eventually. Yet, after 2000 years, “eventually” has not come yet. I cannot help but wonder if the reason a site that speaks of racial reconciliation in a land of ongoing racial strife has been ignored for a reason. Perhaps if the site was developed, then those who live in the area would have to deal the meaning of the site in a way they may not yet be ready to. It is much easier to ignore the meaning of the area if the site sits undeveloped and unvisited.

Thinking about this issue makes me wonder about racial reconciliation in the United States. Though Americans have made great progress in the last fifty years, Sunday morning still tends to be the most segregated hour of the week. After all this time, surely Christians should have been able to overcome their racial difficulties and worship together. Unless, of course, we just do not want to deal with that concept yet . . . .

Friday, February 18, 2011

Holy Land Pilgrimage – Lessons from Qumran

Note: In January 2011 my wife and I went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. This post is part of a series of blogs I have written to convey what I learned while on this life changing trip.

One afternoon we visited Qumran, which is the site where Bedouin shepherds discovered the Dead Sea scrolls by accident. The settlement of Qumran is less than a mile from the northwest edge of the Dead Sea, the lowest land on earth. According to the story it was in the winter of 1946–47 that Muhammed edh-Dhib and his cousin discovered the caves. They were throwing rocks at the caves because they were bored and they heard a crash when one of their rocks hit a clay jar in a cave. Though could not imagine why a clay pot would be in a cave, so they investigated and found the scrolls. Eventually they told someone and archeologists began to search in earnest for more scrolls. When all the searching was complete, 972 scrolls were discovered in 11 different caves in the area.

Scholars emphasize that “the texts are of great mystical and historical significance, as they include the oldest known surviving copies of the Bible as well as extra-biblical documents and preserve evidence of great diversity in late Second Temple Judaism. They are written in Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek, mostly on parchment, but with some written on papyrus.[1] These manuscripts generally date between 150 BCE and 70 CE.[2] The scrolls are traditionally identified with the ancient Jewish sect called the Essenes. The Essenes composed the scrolls and ultimately hid them in the nearby caves during the Jewish Revolt sometime between 66 and 68 CE.”

Scholars go on to say “the significance of the scrolls relates in a large part to the field of textual criticism and how accurately the Bible has been transcribed over time. Before the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the oldest Hebrew manuscripts of the Bible were Masoretic texts dating to 10th century CE such as the Aleppo Codex. The biblical manuscripts found among the Dead Sea Scrolls push that date back a millennium to the 2nd century BCE.”

All that scholar talk simply means that these scrolls are important because they show that the Bible we have to today is the same Old Testament the Jews were using over 2200 years ago. Though it is common for people who are not Christians to claim that the Bible has been changed over time and is not reliable, the Dead Sea scrolls provide historical and scientific proof that the Bible has not been changed over time. It has been preserved by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Bible is more than a good book. It is more than just a collection of nice stories handed down orally through the ages. It is the Word of God. Because of this miraculous power of God to preserve His Word, we can be confident as we read the scriptures that God is still speaking through them to us today and the Bible is still relevant for today. Since the Bible is accurate after all, and still relevant for giving us direction in life, we must ask ourselves how well we are doing in reading and studying it. Those Essenes thought it was important enough to copy word for word on scrolls and hide them in caves so future generations could find them. Do we believe the Bible is important enough to read, study, memorize and mediate on?

I am reminded of what Paul wrote in 2 Timothy 3:16-17 “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.” Spend some time reading these ancient words today. They may be far more inspiring than we thought!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Holy Land Pilgrimage – Lessons from Jewish Believers

Note: In January 2011 my wife and I went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. This post is part of a series of blogs I have written to convey what I learned while on this life changing trip. You can read about the entire trip in the devotional book Touching the Footprints of Jesus.

While in Israel, my wife and I stayed two nights in the lovely city of Tiberius. One evening a Messianic Jew and her husband came to the motel after supper to meet with us. We spent time looking at some scriptures that prophecy about the Jews returning to the land. The couple shared their belief that Jesus would come soon in fulfillment of all those prophecies. It was extremely interesting to hear such things from the perspective of Jewish believers.

The couple then led us in a time of worship. They sang many of the common worship choruses that are popular around the world right now. But they sang them in both English and Hebrew. Listening to someone praising the Lord in His native tongue was deeply moving. The couple shared how they invite people to their home and share a simple meal with them. In the process of sharing a meal, they also share their faith that Jesus is the Messiah. It was such a simple and yet profound ministry concept.

I was fascinated to hear how they had to avoid certain cultural taboos while still remaining faithful to the truth of the Bible. They had spent a great deal of time thinking through how to share the Gospel in a way that their fellow Jews would be able to understand it. It was a great example of the importance of the contextualization of the Gospel without abandoning the Gospel. For example, they prefer to use the term “Messiah” instead of “Christ.” It is not that they do not like the word “Christ,” but it is simply that the Jews are not looking for a “Christ.” The Jews are looking for a Messiah that will redeem them from their sin. Therefore, this couple uses the word “Messiah” instead of the word “Christ.” The meaning is the same, but the cultural trappings make it an easier word to use in a non-Christian culture.

As the United States moves farther and farther away from a Christian cultural influence, those of us who labor to share the Gospel can take a lesson from these dear servants of the Lord in Israel. We must ask the Lord to show us how to share the never changing message of the Gospel in ways that our non-Christian culture in America can understand. As we learn to be faithful to the Gospel while communicating that Gospel in a way that others can understand, we will have the joy of seeing God draw many people to Himself through our witnessing efforts.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Holy Land Pilgrimage – Lessons from the Jordan River

Note: In January 2011 my wife and I went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. This post is part of a series of blogs I have written to convey what I sensed while on this life changing trip. You can read about the entire trip in the devotional book Touching the Footprints of Jesus.

As a Baptist, one of the things that fascinates me about biblical history was the importance that the ancient Jews placed on baptism. Many people falsely think that baptism was a “Christian” invention. In actuality, baptism had been a part of Jewish religious life for generations before Christ ever walked the earth. During Christ’s time there were a number of Jewish sects living in isolation that practiced regular ritual baptism. There were pools and rituals baths found all over the nation that provide evidence of just how important baptism was to the ancient Jews.

Though who think that John the Baptist created the concept of Christian baptism should realize that he simply borrowed a very familiar concept from Jewish history and gave it a new meaning. He took what had become a “ritual” and gave it new purpose. When Jesus Himself appeared one day and asked John the Baptist to baptize Him in the Jordan River, the rite became even more important to those who followed Jesus. The Apostles then refined the idea of baptism as they wrote the New Testament, making baptism the outward expression of inward faith in Jesus as the Messiah. Baptism has now become a key component of the Christian faith where as very few Jews practice it any longer.

Though the actual place of Jesus’ baptism is no longer accessible to the public, just down the river from that
spot is the Jordan Baptismal Center where thousands of Christian pilgrims come each year to be baptized. On the morning we toured the center we were blessed to watch 25 Nigerians be baptized. They sang songs as they went in the water. They shouted praise as they came out. Their faces shined brightly with the love of Christ throughout the entire experience. Afterwards, they filled up bottles of water from the Jordan River to take home with them. I was moved by their passion and appreciated the depth of their faith. Standing on the banks of the Jordan watching those Nigerians experience such a powerful worship experience, I wondered why we Americans do not show such passion about our own Christian faith. I fear that we Americans think we are too “sophisticated” for such outward displays of inner spirituality. But watching those Nigerians that day, it was clear to me that we Americans have lost something important. Perhaps our lives would be a little happier if we were a tad bit less sophisticated.

Holy Land Pilgrimage – Lessons from Ordinary Life

Note: In January 2011 my wife and I went on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. This post is part of a series of blogs I have written to convey what I sensed while on this life changing trip. You can read about the entire trip in the devotional book Touching the Footprints of Jesus.

During my recent tour of the Holy Land, our group spent quite a bit of time driving around Jerusalem. It was a city filled with contrasts. The “old city” was an eclectic mix of shops, houses, churches and open air markets that were all bunched up together much as they have been for generations. The old city was split into “quarters,” which were designated for specific races and religions. That seems so wrong from my North American perspective, but it has been that way for so long in the “old city” that everyone accepts it as normal.

Outside the “old city” was the rest of Jerusalem. This newer version of an ancient city was much more modern than I had anticipated. Outside the walls of the “old city” one could have easily imagined that you were in any big city in North America. Traffic buzzed along in modern vehicles. There were city buses running regular routes. There were new buildings that looked just as modern and sleek as anything you might see in other city in the world.

Though this congruence of “old” and “new” took a little getting used to, after a while, it began to seem normal. As we traveled around that ancient city we saw certain aspects of the city that were both common place and profound at the same time. For example, we drove through a 2000 year old cemetery. It was just a cemetery. While some people buried there were famous, most were just ordinary people who lived their lives in Jerusalem, died there and were buried there. Most of the graves were simple and ordinary. Yet, I could not help but wonder if the people buried there heard Jesus teach? Did they witness one of His miracles? Were some of them His followers? That ordinary cemetery contained the bodies of people who had witnessed extraordinary things.

Another day we saw some 2000 year old olive trees. They were just trees. They were not that pretty. In fact, they were gnarled with age. They were just trees. But those ordinary trees had been there since the time of Jesus. I could almost imagine Jesus praying beneath one. My mind could almost see him reaching up and plucking a rope olive and eating it.

Driving around that city with its mix of ancient and modern made the whole New Testament seem more real to me. It made me realize that the Holy Land is real place where real people have lived ordinary lives for generations. It reminded me that God sometimes steps into ordinary lives and does extraordinary things. I delight to think about what would happen if God did it again. What would my ordinary life be like if the supernatural God of the Universe stepped into it? Oh, wait, He did . . . .

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Holy Land Pilgrimage – Lessons from the Carpenter Shop

Note: In January 2011 my wife and I made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. It was a very moving experience. This post is part of a series of blogs I have written to convey what I sensed while on this life changing trip. You can read about the entire trip in the devotional book Touching the Footprints of Jesus.

When we read stories in the Bible about angels talking to people or miracles that God did in those people’s lives, it is easy to forget that those people were “real” people. Those people actually existed in history. They worked jobs. They cooked supper. They cleaned the kitchen. They swept the floor. They did laundry. They had to do all the ordinary things necessary for life. In the midst of those ordinary activities, God did some extraordinary things.

While in the Holy Land last month, my wife and I toured some spots that were “common” places that people in the Bible lived and worked. One day we stood above the carpenter shop where Joseph taught Jesus how to use tools. A church has been built over that site and you could view part of the site from above or could go into the basement and see some of it up close. Though anyone who has read the Gospels knows that Jesus was a carpenter, few have thought of how he learned to measure a board, saw it and then use wooden pegs to secure it to whatever item he was building. That is the “ordinary” side of His extraordinary life.

We also visited the ruins of Mary’s house. It was just down the street from Joseph’s. It was an ordinary house for that time period and her life in that house would have been similar to the lives of other young girls in that community at that time in history. But in that house God did an extraordinary thing. God sent an angel to tell Mary that she would bear the long awaited Messiah. That extraordinary experience changed the world. Though the house itself was extremely modest, the church built above the site of Mary’s home was very extravagant. I doubt Mary would have recognized her simple home nestled in those very decadent surroundings.

I spent some time praying at one of the kneeling benches and when I finished I noticed a pigeon flying around inside the top of the church. It was fluttering here and there and seemed confused about how to get out. It made me think about how confusing we Christians have sometimes made religion. Religion is supposed to be something that real life people can experience and be enriched by. Somehow, we have forgotten the “real” aspect of church and focused on fancy buildings, lofty theological statements, and man-made traditions. We tend to chase after the “extraordinary” instead of appreciating the simple aspects of faith that are the most important. Perhaps instead of seeking the extraordinary, we should simply live out our faith in ordinary ways. In the process of doing that, we may experience the extraordinary in ways we could have never expected.

Lord, help us recover that child-like faith that You told us would lead us to Your Kingdom.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Holy Land Pilgrimage – Lessons from Mark 3

Note: In January 2011 my wife and I made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. It was a very moving experience. This post is part of a series of blogs I have written to convey what I sensed while on this life changing trip. You can read about the entire trip in a devotional book called "Touching the Footprints of Jesus."

On the day we visited Capernaum we saw the site where Jesus performed his first miracle, which was turning water into wine at a wedding. Though that was interesting to see, it was much more moving later in the morning when we found ourselves standing in the middle of the very synagogue described in the third chapter of the Gospel of Mark. The first six verses record the story of Jesus healing a man with a crippled hand in that ancient synagogue on the Sabbath.

“And He entered the synagogue again, and a man was there who had a withered hand. So they watched Him closely, whether He would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they might accuse Him. And He said to the man who had the withered hand, “Step forward.” Then He said to them, “Is it lawful on the Sabbath to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they kept silent. And when He had looked around at them with anger, being grieved by the hardness of their hearts, He said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” And he stretched it out, and his hand was restored as whole as the other. Then the Pharisees went out and immediately plotted with the Herodians against Him, how they might destroy Him.” Mark 3:1-6

The good news in the passage of scripture is that Jesus has the power to heal. Jesus can heal us physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Jesus offers that healing freely to anyone willing to “step forward” and “stretch out our hand.”

The sad news in this passage of scripture is that instead of rejoicing that a crippled man was healed, the Pharisees condemned Jesus for doing what they considered “work” on the Sabbath. They became so focused on what their own opinion of what “work” was that they missed the very point of what Jesus did, which was touch a person who had no hope of healing apart from Christ.

Though it is easy to judge the Pharisees for the hardness of their hearts, I wonder how many churches in our modern era miss opportunities to touch the lives of people who are crippled by sin or who find themselves in some other desperate situation? Broken people often wander into the church hoping for some fresh touch from God. When Christians act like the Pharisees, we miss out on the possibility of acting like Jesus, who healed the man in Mark 3. The Sabbath may not be a day for working, but surely it is a day for healing!

Lord, help us touch those who are physically, emotionally or spiritually crippled. May we help them step forward and stretch out their hand to You so that You can heal them.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Holy Land Pilgrimage – Lessons from Peter’s House

Note: In January 2011 my wife and I made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. It was a very moving experience. This post is part of a series of blogs I have written to convey what I sensed while on this life changing trip. You can read about the entire trip in a devotional book called "Touching the Footprints of Jesus."

We spent one morning in Capernaum. We viewed the ruins of a house where tradition says that Peter’s mother in law was healed. There was a church literally built over the top of the house. The church was suspended on giant beams above the house so that the ruins themselves were undisturbed. There was a huge glass floor in the middle of church that allowed visitors to look down on the house below. Needless to say, it was a very interesting tour.

I was fascinated by the fact that there is no real proof this was the house in which Peter’s family lived. The reason that it has been traditionally identified as the house is because the ruins were found right next door to the synagogue. The Gospels of Luke and Mark tell the story that when Jesus left that particular synagogue, he went to Peter’s house, which was “next” to it and healed Peter’s mother in law. Of course, there were many houses “next” to the synagogue. The area is filled with ruins and the actual house could have been any one of them. In one sense, I guess it does not matter if that is the exact house or not, because even if it was the house on the other side of the synagogue, it would have been very similar to what we were looking at. On the other hand, it was interesting how powerful the tradition had become, even though the evidence was fairly shallow. It made me think about how powerful man-made traditions are in the modern church. I had to ask myself how much actual scriptural support there is for some of our beloved religious traditions.

I recall seeing a priest and three people walking around in the ruins themselves. This area was sealed off with iron gates, so they must have had special permission to enter it. They were down there quite a while and the priest was showing them various things and the three guests were clearly excited and animated about whatever he was saying. Since I love history, I must admit I was a bit jealous and was wondering what I had to do to get down there in the ruins with them. I wondered what they had done to get the honor of going into such a special place. But I saw no signs or posters giving directions for any “behind the scenes” tour and none of the other priests offered to take people on a special tour of the ruins themselves, so there was no opportunity for me to be one of the “special” people who got the special tour.

As I reflect back on that experience, I wonder if there are people outside the church who wish someone would invite them to the “party.” A number of recent surveys say that many people would come to church if someone they knew simply asked them. Have Christians unintentionally created a “club” mentality about the church and those outside cannot figure out what the rules are to get in? Once that happens, how is the “Church Club” any different from the many other community organizations and groups with all their secret handshakes and rituals?

Lord, help us abandon any belief or practice that is not firmly rooted in scripture.

Lord, help us be the one who invites everyone to the behind the scenes tour of Your love.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Holy Land Pilgrimage – Meditating on the Beatitudes

Note: In January 2011 my wife and I made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. It was a very moving experience. This post is part of a series of blogs I have written to convey what I sensed while on this life changing trip. You can read about the entire trip in a devotional book called "Touching the Footprints of Jesus."

One morning during our visit to the Holy Land we visited the Church of the Beatitudes located on Mt. Eremos. Though it is unknown exactly where Jesus delivered the Sermon on the Mount, this church was located in the general area that was believed to be where Jesus gave that famous sermon. The view from the mountain was amazing as we looked down at the valley below. It was easy to imagine the hillsides filled with groups of people listening to Jesus preach. It is understandable why Jesus chose that area to give one of His most important sermons.

Though I am not Catholic, I enjoyed meditating inside the Roman Catholic Church built on the site long before I was born. Kneeling at the kneeling bench praying and then looking up into the lovely dome above the church at the mosaics of the various events that happened on the mountain was very moving. Later, our group sat outside the church in a lovely garden while one of the members of the group read the Beatitudes from the Gospels and we prayed together.

Our tour guide, who was not Christian, seemed in a hurry to be off to the next place. He did not seem to feel the same Spirit that we did in that place. At the time, I was annoyed at him about his lack of understanding at what the rest of us in the group who were Christians were experiencing. But as I reflect back on the experience, instead of feeling annoyed at him, I feel sadness. To him, it was just one more spot on a list of places to show tourists. It was simply a job to be fulfilled. It was a duty to be done in order to get a good tip from the group.

I wonder if our tour guide was that much different than countless Christians who go into church every week with one eye on their watch and the other on the back door. Too often they seem in a hurry to rush out and beat the people from the church across town to the best restaurants for lunch. Perhaps we need to learn to slow down some. To savor the moments of serenity and peace that God gives us. Perhaps it is time to learn to feel the Spirit in sacred places and let the Spirit renew us with a sense of God’s most holy Presence. Those are the thoughts that come to mind as I meditate on my visit to the Church of the Beatitudes.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Maturing Through Difficulty

A sermon based on James 1:1-8 developed by Dr. Terry W. Dorsett.

Verse 1 - James, a slave of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ: To the 12 tribes in the Dispersion. Greetings.
• James was most likely the half brother of Jesus (Galatians 1:19).
• He was often called James the Just and is considered by many to be the first Bishop of Jerusalem.
• This book has caused controversy through the years in the Christian church because of its strong emphasis on doing good works.
• Some have misunderstood the book to teach that we can gain salvation by good works. But that is not what the book of James teaches.
• James teaches that people who have received salvation by grace will naturally do good works because of their faith.
• James refers to himself as a slave of Christ, meaning that he has no choice but to obey Christ since Christ is the ruler of all.
• James wrote the book to the Jews who had been scattered across the world.
• This is often called the Diaspora, or in common language, the Dispersion.
• 800 years before Christ the Jews were carried into exile.
• While some eventually returned to Israel during Ezra’s time, most remain scattered.
• Though out history the scattered Jews were often mistreated, ridiculed and persecuted.
• In 70 AD the Romans totally destroyed their nation, tore down the temple and scattered the Jews even more than they had been.
• The Jews had no nation to return to until 1948 when the United Nations re-established the nation of Israel.
• In the last sixty years many Jews have returned to Israel, which was prophesied in the Bible.
• Yet, even today only 42% of ethnic Jews live in Israel. Most are still scattered. Many are still mistreated, ridiculed and persecuted.
• The Lord tells us to pray for peace of Jerusalem. He promises that if we bless Israel, then we will be blessed and if we curse Israel, then we will be cursed.
• Though the Jews have been scattered across the world for centuries, they have a common bond through their history and beliefs.
• Likewise, Christians come in every color, language, ethnic group, economic class and educational level, but we are all connected together through the love of Christ, the communion of the saints and the Word of God.

Verse 2 - Consider it a great joy, my brothers, whenever you experience various trials . . .
• James tells these Jewish believers who had been scattered across the world and mistreated, ridiculed and persecuted to consider their situation a great joy.
• Do you wonder if James needed psychological treatment?
• Why would James say anyone should consider trails and hardships a time of joy?

Verse 3 - . . . knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.
• When our faith is tested, it produces a spirit of endurance in us.
• Why is endurance important?
• Because real life is full of difficulties and if we quit every time life gets hard, we will never accomplish anything in life.
• When we go through personal trials, we discover what kind of faith we really have.
• We must remember that every road has an ending and every journey has a conclusion. Likewise, every trial has a purpose.
• The problem with most American Christians is that we do not like suffering.
• American Christians see trials as something we should try to escape from.
• Many Christians, who, like the Jews, are scattered around the world living in less than ideal circumstances, realize that difficulties in life are not to be run from or avoided.
• Difficulties should be viewed as opportunities to learn, to grow, to increase our faith and to mold us into better followers of God.
• Sadly, most Christians assume that trials are about getting deliverance and they fuss and cry until the pressure lets up, then they go back to living however they always have.
• God’s intention in trials is not to produce an escape, but to produce a spirit of endurance.
• When Christians endure trials the way God intends, trials become testimonies.

Verse 4 - But endurance must do its complete work, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking nothing.
• The reason endurance is so important is because when we have learned to endure difficulty, we become mature.
• When we learn to endure difficulty, then we also know how to live better in times that do not include difficulty.
• People who have not experienced personal difficulty in their lives are seldom mature.

Verse 5 - Now if any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives to all generously and without criticizing, and it will be given to him.
• The challenge of enduring difficulty is trying to figure out what it is that God wants us to learn from it.
• God says that if we are struggling to know what character traits or concepts we should be learning from our struggles, we should ask Him.
• God says that He will give generous wisdom to those who ask.
• Notice that God does not criticize us for asking Him what we are to be learning from our difficulties.
• In fact, the text seems to imply that God WANTS us to ask Him about it!

Verse 6 - But let him ask in faith without doubting. For the doubter is like the surging sea, driven and tossed by the wind.
• God gives us a warning concerning talking to Him about what we should learn from our difficulties.
• God tells us to ask Him in faith and not doubt.
• Those that doubt will be tossed about like a small ship on a big ocean during a hurricane.
• When we ask God for wisdom about our troubles, He will answer.
• But once He answers, we are then responsible to act upon what God has told us.
• The whole book of James is about ACTING out our faith, not just HEARING it.
• We may not always like God’s answers, but we must act on them.
• We may not always like the lessons God has told us to learn, but we must learn them and become better people as a result.
• Otherwise, we will just bounce back and forth between one idea and another, never really making progress in our lives.
• That is not a very good way to live.

Verses 7-8 - That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. An indecisive man is unstable in all his ways.
• People who ask God to show them what they need to learn and then refuse to learn it should not expect to hear anything else from God.
• God wants us to obey the LAST thing He told us to do BEFORE He tells us the NEXT thing to do.
• When we do not obey the last thing we heard from God, we become unstable.
• Not only are we unstable in our faith, but we become unstable in ALL our other actions.
• Our faith is the anchor that holds us steady during a storm. If we cut the anchor loose, there is nothing left to keep us upright in the storm.

• Instead of running from our troubles, we should learn to endure them in a way that teaches us something important about life.
• When we struggle to see what we should be learning, we should ask God to show us.
• But when we ask God, we had better listen and obey His response to us.
• When we do this, we become mature in our faith and our life finds balance in the midst of the storm.

For more spiritual truth on this same topic, consider the book "Malachi: Finding Hope in the Midst of

Holy Land Pilgrimage – Lessons Learned from the Sea of Galilee

Note: In January 2011 my wife and I made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. It was a very moving experience. This post is part of a series of blogs I have written to convey what I sensed while on this life changing trip. You can read about the entire trip in a devotional book called "Touching the Footprints of Jesus."

Part of our tour of the Holy Land included a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee. The Sea of Galilee is the world's lowest freshwater lake with a length of around 13 miles, a width of up to 8 miles, and a depth of as much as 150 feet. It was also known in ancient times of the Lake of Gennesaret and the Sea of Tiberius. The lake is fed by the Jordan River and the water is deep blue. Because of the shape of the mountains around it and the ease of pressure systems settling into such a low lying area, the Sea of Galilee is known for fierce storms that can rise up abruptly and create huge waves.

But we were not thinking of all that when we got on the boat that morning. We were stunned by the beauty of the lake and the crisp clean air and the mountains green with vegetation around us. As soon as the boat pulled out from the shore I notice that the piped music being played was familiar Christian hymns. Knowing that most people in that area were either Jewish or Muslim in their faith, I thought the boat captain was just trying to be nice to a group of pastors and had dug around and found some old CD of Christian hymns to play. But ten minutes into the ride the music shifted to modern praise and worship music and the volume increased so that you could hear it clearly. I began to wonder if the boat captain was a Christian.

Once we got in the middle of the sea, the boat captain gave us a short history of the sea and then told us that he was indeed a Christian. In fact, out of the many different tour boats that operate on the Sea of Galilee, he is the only Christian running one. He proceeded to share his testimony with us and then sing us some praise songs in both Hebrew and English. Though we could not understand the Hebrew words, we could understand the Spirit. To hear the King of Kings praised in His own language was a very moving experience. As I sat in that boat in the middle of the Sea of Galilee, the Presence of Christ was so real that I could have easily believed that I would see Him walking across the water to the boat as Peter and the disciples did in the Gospel.

Later that morning we toured a small village on the edge of the Sea of Galilee where they found a 2000 year old fishing boat that dated to Jesus’ time. No one knows who owned the boat, or what its history was. But after our own boat ride on the Sea of Galilee, it was easy to imagine Jesus standing in that boat 2000 years ago preaching to the crowd, or telling Peter to let down his nets to catch fish. That day on the Sea of Galilee was one of the highlights of my pilgrimage to the Holy Land.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Holy Land Pilgrimage – Lessons from Mount Carmel

Note: In January my wife and I joined a group of other pastors and their spouses and made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. It was a very moving experience. I kept a running journal of the trip so that I could reflect on the experience after I returned. This post is part of a series of blogs I have written to convey what I sensed while on this life changing trip. You can read about the entire trip in a devotional book called "Touching the Footprints of Jesus."

As we drove up to the top of Mount Carmel, I was struck by the beauty of it. For those who have never visited the Holy Land, it is a dry land and often barren. But in places where there is water, things grow in abundance. Mount Carmel is one of those places. What makes that fact so impressive is that it was not always the case. In 1 Kings 18 the story is told of how a drought had stricken the land of Israel due to the sins of King Arab and his people. For years no rain fell. It was so dry that all the brooks and streams dried up. Finally the prophet Elijah called together the people of Israel and told them to come to Mount Carmel. There on the mountain he publicly challenged the prophets of two false gods to a contest. They were to build an altar to their god. Elijah would build an altar to the true God. Then each side would ask for fire to fall on the altar of whichever God was real. After a full day of wild violent efforts to rouse the false god Baal to action, Elijah finally prayed a short prayer to the true God and fire fell on Mount Carmel and burned up the altar that Elijah had built proving that Elijah’s God, Yahweh, was the one true God. Shortly thereafter, rain came again to the land and the dry land blossomed once again. It is a powerful story of not only God’s supremacy over false gods, but also a story of God’s provision in difficult times.

As I stood on the Mount Carmel looking out over the plains of Megiddo, I was amazed by the beauty of it all. Lush green crops, trees as far as the eye could see, a land of milk and honey. I was not thinking so much of the past and of Elijah’s story, but of the future. My mind wandered to those scriptures that tell us that in the last days there will be a battle fought on those very plains around that very mountain. It is called the Battle of Armageddon. At that battle the enemies of God will rise up against Him. They will think they are powerful and mighty and will think they pose a threat to the King of Kings. But He will defeat them and the blood will run so high that it will be up to a horse’s neck. That is not a pleasant thought to contemplate, but I could not help but ponder it as I stood on Mount Carmel looking out at the plains of Megiddo.

In those moments I had an overpowering sense of the danger of defying God. In America we live in a culture that has defied God at every turn. Young people have mocked God, declared Him non-existent and His Word irrelevant. School teachers and college professors have bluntly told our children and young adults that they cannot trust the biblical accounts. Our political leaders will tolerate only a vague sense of cultural religion but nothing that has actual value or power. But history has proven time and again that cultures that do this end up destroyed. Lord, forgive us for our cultural arrogance and turn our hearts back to You before it is too late. Lord, stay Your hand of judgment and give us Your mercy and grace instead.

Holy Land Pilgrimage – Lessons from Caesarea

Note: In January my wife and I joined a group of other pastors and their spouses and made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. It was a very moving experience. I kept a running journal of the experience so that I could reflect on the experience after I returned. This post is part of a series of blogs I have written to convey what I sensed while on this life changing trip. You can read about the entire trip in a devotional book called "Touching the Footprints of Jesus."

The first full day my wife and I were in Israel we visited the town of Caesarea. Many important events happened in Caesarea and we spent quite a bit of time there. One of the things that stood out in my mind while there was the sad ending of what started as an amazing project. Herod the Great build a fabulous palace on the edge of the Mediterranean Sea. Even though all that is left now is ruins, visitors can still grasp the greatness that it once was. But it was also in that same spot that Herod’s grandson, Agrippa, allowed his followers to say that he looked like god. Immediately after which, the true God allowed Agrippa to be fatally stricken with worms (Acts 12), which was probably Fournier’s Gangrene. It was a powerful reminder to me that though we may seek to build something great in our lives, we must always give the honor and glory to the Lord. When we take it for ourselves, we may find the results are not as great as we had hoped, they might even be disastrous.

The second thing that stood out in my mind on that trip to Caesarea was a group of Jewish school children who were touring the same site. It is an important site in Jewish history as well and that particular spot is a familiar field trip for local school children. What struck me was that some of the chaperons were armed with rifles. They carried them over their shoulder as if it was the most normal thing to carry a loaded weapon on a school field trip. That would be unthinkable in the United States, yet was normal in that context. On other days I often saw men with handguns tucked into their belts. In Jerusalem itself it was common to see multiple soldiers with machines guns patrolling the narrow streets. Considering that school children on a field trip needed to be guarded by armed chaperons further reinforced the idea that things that start out great, such as a palace, can turn out not so great. It was also a powerful reminder to pray for the peace of Jerusalem and ask God to keep His chosen people safe. Lord, hear our prayer.