A Pilgrim’s Reflections….

A Pilgrim’s Reflections….

The Tour of the Holy Land has certainly reinforced my Belief and Trust in Our God through the power of His Holy Spirit and His Son, Our Lord Jesus Christ.

I have always been conscious of My Belief and Trust due to the numerous times I have been rescued either from incidents of not my design such as saving me from a 1965 fatal car crash in Iran or leaving me with no more than a slight scar after rolling off Striding Edge due to my inadequacy
(eye-sight problem since birth).

My most memorable moments were the Services out-doors such as beside Lake
Galilee and outside the Tomb where Jesus was buried, just to name two,
because I have found the outdoors, eg such as on Kentmere Pike, as just as
easy for receiving God’s message(s) as inside a church.

Nicholas Stainforth


Taking the message on

Taking the message on

After our last breakfast together we made our way to Abu Gosh.

The site of Emmaus is disputed by scholars and archeologists, at least four sites have been proposed: at Amwas or Latrun, Abu Gosh (first favoured by the Crusaders), El Qubeibeh (later preferred by the Crusaders) and Qalunieh. Part of the problem has to do with the distance from Jerusalem. A much visited site is Abu Gosh, named after the former Arab Sheikh who used to levy tolls on passing pilgrims in the 19th century.

The biblical name of the village is Kiriath-jearim, where the Ark of the Covenant was kept before it was taken to Jerusalem. The large Crusader church here is built over a reservoir. The upper church is plain and beautiful with magnificent acoustics.

Here the three ecumenical leaders shared in leading a Communion Service, and we were each give a pin-badge of The Jerusalem Cross (a cross with four crosses in each quarter of the cross – symbolising how the Gospel was taken to each of the corners of the world). It is now for ‘us pilgrims’ to take this message as we journey on through our lives.

We travelled on to Jaffa, an old city, the church here is supposedly built over the home of Simon the Tanner, it was due to close at noon, and because of traffic we arrived with only 5 minutes to go. But, what could the priest say when 75 pilgrims just funnelled into the church?

There are four panels in the church which depict episodes from the life of St. Peter, including the miraculous catch of fish, the giving of the keys, the transfiguration of Jesus on Mount Tabor and the washing of the feet at the Last Supper. It is a beautiful church.

We were then free to wander around this ancient little town to the south of Tel Aviv. It has a small artist colony and plenty of places for a drink. It was a sunny day and a perfect end to our pilgrimage.

From here we headed to the airport and the lengthy security checks.

It was 5:30am on Friday morning that I was finally able to climb into my bed.

Over the next few days I am hopeful that some pilgrims will send me personal reflections and a picture or two that can be uploaded onto this blog – so watch this space.

Blessings to all. Robert.

God has been working in pilgrims’ lives

God has been working in pilgrims’ lives

Our first visit this morning was to the Church of St Anne and the site of The Pool of Bethesda. The Church of St Anne is on one of the traditional places for the birth of Mary. The present building was erected in the 12th century and has wonderful acoustics – we worshipped together in the lovely place.

To the side of the church is the site discovered by archaeologists in 1958 – The Pool of Bethesda: where Jesus healed the man who had sat by the waters for 38 years. Previously discovered in 1871 were the remains of a crusader church sat on-top of the Pool. We read the bible account of the story, and prayed for those we know who need Jesus’ healing as wandered around this place where Jesus healed that paralysed man. We then went to the Western Wall, and had the opportunity to pray at the ‘Wailing Wall’.

Following this we visited The Garden Tomb, another possible site for Jesus crucifixion, placing in the tomb and rising again. Though archaeology would suggest this site less likely!

I suppose the thing is that it does not really matter! People can wander round all these special sites and still go away not knowing the person of Jesus Christ, and knowing the person of Jesus Christ is what matters more than anything.
At the Garden Tomb we had a open air communion service.

Nothing could have prepared us for our afternoon visit. We knew where we were going and had an understanding of it – but still it was shocking! Yad Vashem is the Holocaust Memorial/Education centre (the word museum would be highly inappropriate).

We were give one and a quarter hours to look around. It is hard to decide if that was too little or too much! The displays, films, images… beginning with Jewish life before the holocaust and taking us though it were mind blowing and poignant. The figure of six million Jews exterminated (including one and a half million children) is way beyond my comprehension. No photos were allowed in the building, and it felt highly inappropriate to do so anyway. At the end of the display is a large circular room with a pictures all around the funnelled wall of murdered Jews, around that are files contains names of those who disappeared – an open list that is being added to all the time. In the centre of the room is a ‘well-like’ structure and when you look into it you see all the images from the wall and your own image too!

There are other monuments / memorials around the complex – if you get the opportunity you must visit this place – known simply as Yad Vashem.

In the evening we had an opportunity to tell our stories about what God has been doing in our lives during the pilgrimage. It was wonderful to hear how God had been working in peoples lives during this experience which we have gone though together.

Tomorrow we begin our journey home, via Abu Gosh and Jaffa.

The Spirit at work amongst us

The Spirit at work amongst us

Our first stop this morning was to the Russian Orthodox Girls School in Bethany, in the West Bank. The school provides an education to local children and enables Christian and Muslim children to learn together.

They have about 400 pupils aged between 4 and 15 years old who attend, including 20 who board. The children are from disadvantaged families. We were treated to hospitality and a talk about the school and we were able to look around the grounds which has a tiny chapel. The closeness to the area thought to be where Lazarus was raised from the dead, and the fact that excavations have uncovered the surface of an old road to Jericho has led to a local opinion that Jesus will have passed by that way – I was not convinced!

We then made our way to the place known as Qumran. The site began as a fortress in the Iron Age, and was occupied again years later by a religious group, most probably the Essenes, who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls. We went to the visitor centre and the excavated ruins of their community buildings. One of the caves (cave 4) is clearly visible.

From here we made our way to the area where it is considered that Jesus was baptised by John the Baptist in the River Jordan. Here we held a service of Renewal of Baptism Vows which was very meaningful. The Spirit of God was obviously at work amongst us.

We then drove on to Jericho where we had lunch, visited another shop, saw a couple of the major sites and read some of the readings associated with this place.
Jericho is one of the world’s oldest known cities, possibly founded as early as 8000 BC, it is the lowest city in the world at 825 feet below sea level. It is notable as the first city attacked by Joshua and the Israelites as they entered the Promised Land.
Jericho is evocative because of its association with John the Baptist, who baptised by the banks of the Jordan to the east of the city at the probable site of Bethany beyond the Jordan (John 1:28).

Here Jesus restored the sight of Bartimaeus and met with Zacchaeus sitting in a sycamore tree – which the driver was pleased to show us (we were not convinced).
Traditionally the desert and cliffs to the west of Jericho is the area where Jesus fasted for 40 days in the wilderness after his baptism and was tempted.

On the cliffs (the Mount of Temptation) is a Greek Orthodox monastery that was rebuilt in the 19th century traditionally marking the place where Satan offered Jesus the kingdoms of the world in exchange for his homage. Looking on this site we read the account of the Temptation (Matthew 4:1-11) and prayed.

The Jordan Valley is an amazing place, which at the Dead Sea is over 1,312 feet below sea level. Once the waters from the Jordan reach the landlocked Dead Sea they have nowhere to go, so they evaporate, leaving behind a dense, rich, cocktail of salts and minerals that supply industry, agriculture and medicine with some of its finest products.

At this place, the lowest dry land on earth, is a place to wade out into the waters, cover yourself with the mud and just float like a cork. So that is exactly what many of us did!

In the evening we had a speaker from Breaking the Silence. Breaking the Silence is an organisation of veteran combatants who have served in the Israeli military since the start of the Second Intifada and have taken it upon themselves to expose the Israeli public to the reality of everyday life in the Occupied Territories. They want to stimulate public debate about the price paid for a reality in which young soldiers face a civilian population on a daily basis, and are engaged in the control of that population’s everyday life. Their work aims to bring an end to the occupation.

Our speaker spoke personally about her experience and shared testimonies from others in the group about life in the IDF. It was enlightening to hear her perspective of a Jewish person who loves her country, yet sees a reality that is destroying Palestinian lives and Jewish lives also. For more information visit breakingthesilence.org.il

It has been a great day.

God is in the midst of the hubbub

God is in the midst of the hubbub

Last night I led a 30 strong group down to the Western Wall – to sample the atmosphere of it. It was floodlit, its was reasonably busy, it was loud, and it was Purim. We all prayed at the wall, and we all made it back to our hotel – which was a positive!

This morning we left the hotel at 5:45am to walk the “Via Dolorosa” or “The Way of Sorrow” which winds along the Old City of Jerusalem, leading from the Ecc Homo Convent to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This is the traditional route followed by Jesus from Pilate’s Judgment Hall in the Antonia Fortress to Calvary, the place of the skull. The tradition of following this route is a very old one, and it is unlikely it is the exact route, especially as the streets in Jesus’ day were many metres below the present ground level. Nevertheless it is an incredibly evocative prayer walk with Jesus to Calvary and beyond: a pattern of prayer and meditation on the Passion which Christians of many traditions have long found helpful.
It is normally a busy and noisy route, so to avoid this we set off very early. At each point we read, prayed and reflected.

Many found the experience to be very moving. As the time wore on, and we got further into the morning, many more people were about, especially in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. We discovered that God can be found in the midst of the hubbub, as well as in the tranquillity of Galilee.

We arrived at our hotel and had breakfast at about 9am. As well as arriving having met with Jesus, we also arrived very wet due to the heavy rain. And it was Cumbrian rain – cold and plenty of it!

The hill of Mount Zion, the highest point in ancient Jerusalem, is dominated by the Church of the Dormition. The location is identified in Christian tradition as the place where the Virgin Mary died — or “fell asleep”, as the name suggests. Accounts of Mary’s death in Jerusalem appear in early sources, these books are described as apocryphal (meaning “hidden” or “secret”). Their authenticity is uncertain and they are not accepted as part of the Christian canon of Scripture.
It is a beautiful church, with wonderful artwork.

We walked to the Cenacle. It is considered the site when many of the events described in the New Testament took place, such as: The Last Supper, some resurrection appearances of Jesus, the gathering of the disciples after the Ascension of Jesus, the election of Saint Matthias as apostle, and the descent of the Holy Spirit on the disciples on the day of Pentecost. Since the fourth century a structure identified as the Cenacle, the site of the Last Supper has been a popular Christian pilgrimage site. Here we read from Acts 2, sung and prayed.

We then made our way to “Saint Peter in Gallicantu”. The Church recalls Peter’s triple denial of Jesus and his subsequent remorse. It was erected in 1931. The Catholic tradition positions the palace of the High Priest Caiaphas on this site, it is possible that Jesus was imprisoned in an underground cell here. Some archaeologists suggest that it is more likely Caiaphas lived further up the hill in the Armenian quarter of the city.

“Gallicantu” means “Cock-crow” in Latin. It was so named by the Crusaders when they built their church on this site. We prayed, read the Bible and sung around the site, and also gathered in the ancient cave/cell.

Outside the church are the ancient steps that came from the site of The Pool of Siloam. They would probably have been their at the time of Jesus’ trial, and many Christians believe that Jesus followed this path down to Gethsemane on Maundy Thursday and after his arrest by the guards.

We were given the afternoon off for shopping or rest – I chose the latter!

In the evening we had a visit from three people involved with the Eritrean Women’s Community Centre in Tel Aviv – Helen, Michael and Angela. The Centre is an initiative set up and run by a group of Eritrean refugee women. Established in November 2011, the centre aims to provide Eritrean women with a safe space as well as access to important services.

About 36,000 Eritrean asylum seekers currently live in Israel. Labelled “infiltrators” and “migrant workers” rather than being recognised as refugees, Eritreans, and particularly the isolated population of Eritrean women, are unable to access education, employment, healthcare and social services. It is estimated that the number of Eritrean women living in Israel is around 7,000.

Eritrean women in Israel travelled through the Sinai desert in Egypt in order to reach the border with Israel. This journey is notoriously dangerous as many refugees are held hostage by traffickers for extended periods of time until they are released in exchange for large sums of money. Many women are raped and the majority of individuals experience violence, torture, and a severe lack of basic needs along the way.

Therefore, many Eritrean women arriving in Israel are dealing with trauma, injury, a break down of family structure as well as severe emotional pain. The trauma experienced in the Sinai has collectively influenced the Eritrean community in Israel and especially the community of Eritrean women.

We found their story to be challenging and inspiring. As well as promising to pray for them and giving them money, a number of us promised to tell their story and express our concern for their situation. After all, these are are brothers and sisters.
A special day!

Sacred space

Sacred space
Sunday 12 March

We were given until 7:15am this morning till the phones rang in our rooms to awaken us (it will be different tomorrow!) After breakfast we went to church at the Anglican Cathedral of St. George in Jerusalem – a service conducted in Arabic and English. There were a lot of people present from various countries and communities, and they had to put extra chairs out for the late comers.

After the service we had coffee and cake and the Archbishop of Jerusalem’s Chaplain, David Longe, spoke to us about the work of the diocese. Among other things we learnt that the diocese is home to 7000 Anglicans and a total of 27 parishes extending over 5 countries: Jordan, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and Israel. He shared of some of the projects that the diocese is involved with, and encouraged us to support the Friends Of The Holy Land (FOHL) who do wonderful work in supporting organisations and individuals – the School of Joy, which we visited yesterday, is supported by FOHL.

Following lunch we went to the Jewish Museum which has a 1:50 scale version of the city of Jerusalem of Jesus’ time. Our guide pointed out the major places of interest and gave us a greater understanding of some of the arguments for alternate suggested sites within the city.

Some places you can be sure that a certain event happened in that exact place, others have a certain amount of doubt attached. However, whether something happened in one place or 100 yards around the concern is not that important – the fact that it happened and the sacredness of the space helps the pilgrim allow the place to pass through them, not them through the place.

Over the next few days as we visit some of these sites/areas thinking back to the model will help us with our mental pictures.

The museum also houses artefacts and tells the story of the Dead Sea Scrolls. No photos are allowed in the museum, but it was an interesting place to have a look around.

We then made our way to Ein Karem (Arabic for the spring of the vineyard). It is a lovely little village a few miles southwest of Jerusalem. Not mentioned in the Bible, it is considered to be the traditional home of John the Baptist. There are two churches, one up the hill commemorating the Visitation and one down then hill commemorating his birth.

Up the hill we climbed to what is also known as the Church of the Magnificat (Mary’s song in Luke 1:46-55), in commemoration of Mary’s response to her cousin Elizabeth. Around are many mosaics of the Magnificat in different languages.
The church lower down is traditionally held to be the home of Zechariah. The Benedictus (Zachariah’s song in Luke 1:68-79) is also written in many languages in mosaic around the church.

After our evening meal we intend to visit the Western (Wailing) Wall, which will be flood lit, and to offer some prayers for this place and its people.

A meaningful day

A meaningful day
Saturday 11 March

Today we loaded all our luggage onto the coaches as we would be leaving Bethlehem behind and heading to Jerusalem.

Our first visit of the day was to The School of Joy which was founded by Randa AbuSada in 1993 in Beit Sahour, the town of the shepherds. Its aim is to improve the overall quality of life for children who have low academic achievement in the area.

The harsh political and economical situation has affected almost every member of the local community and specially the children and young people. Children are dropping out of schools and are heading for the streets, specially those ones who suffer from low academic achievements and come from poor families. The schools response was to start a work amongst poor/orphan children. They recruited 6 teachers, who are receiving less than half of the normal salary, and furnished the school. The school relies mainly on the generous donations from the local and international communities, and a small amount of fees are collected from those who can pay.

The School of Joy now serves 66 children, and does so without regard to race, religion or colour, and there are continual requests to take more children.

We were humbled by the story of the school and its work and many were reduced to tears. Two churches (from Barrow and Whitehaven) had sent cash to give the school and a basket was passed round. Many came away with a desire to want to do more; we will see if this leads to any action on our part.

We then travelled to the East Jerusalem YMCA and YWCA of Palestine in Best Sahour and had the opportunity to listen to Nidal Abu Zuluf who spoke about its work, its history and the political situation they were living in. In particular he spoke of the Joint Advocacy Initiative, which seeks to encourage groups and individuals around the world to influence decision-makers and prompt actions that will contribute to ending the Israeli military occupation and its violations of human rights and international laws.

This was a very different experience than visiting the school, but still rewarding and informative, and many in the group found the talk and question & answer session most helpful.

We then returned to the Shepherds Fields as we had some spare time and we were able to wander round, reflect and pray.

After lunch we made our way to the Mount of Olives. Separated from the Temple Mount and the city of David by the Kidron Valley, the Mount of Olives has always been an important feature in Jerusalem’s landscape. The two mile long ridge has three summits each with a tower built on it. It was across this ridge, riding on a donkey, that Jesus came on the first Palm Sunday.

Walking toward Jerusalem on his final journey Jesus became distraught. Aware of the devastation and desecration that lay ahead for the Holy City, he wept. Located, facing the Old City, with the Temple area in the foreground, is a sanctuary called Dominus Flevit, which means, in Latin, “the Lord wept”. To symbolise Jesus’ distress the architect Berluzzi designed it as a teardrop. At this sacred place Bishop James conducted a Communion Service (at which I spoke).

We then made our way down the Mount of Olives singing as we went and we arrived in the physical location of Gethsemane – somewhat out of order in the timeline of events, but here we were!

The Olive trees in the fenced off garden would not have been around 2,000 years ago, but the general area is correct for the events and there is evidence that there has been a church on this site for hundreds of years.

The present church, finished in 1924, is very dim inside deliberately to recall this somber time In Jesus’ life. In the presbytery there is a large fragment of rock on which Jesus is supposed to have prayed on the night before the Passion. Known as “The Rock of the Agony” it is entirely surrounded by a crown of thorns in wrought iron.

We then made our way to The Gloria Hotel which would be our residence for the next 5 nights. Sorting out rooms and luggage was a challenge – however in the end all was sorted out and we settled in.

A very meaningful day.