Why is it so hard?

As I’ve seen the news about pastors, like Rev. Tony Spell in Louisiana, who are insisting on their “right” to hold Easter services in spite of the Covid-19 pandemic, I have to ask why is it so hard to obey stay-at-home orders that have been put in place to protect the lives of the vulnerable; the very people that churches profess to care about? Why is it so hard?

I fully understand people wanting to be with family and to take part in their traditional Easter celebrations. I’d love to be with my kids and grandkids too, but I’ve been pondering why we do what we do and why we think we need to. Nowhere in scripture are we commanded to gather together for Easter (other than the instruction not to give up meeting together in Hebrews 10:25 which, thankfully, we’re able to do virtually) or given any instructions about how to celebrate the resurrection. These are manmade traditions. Perhaps a quiet, at home Easter without all those extras is not a bad thing. Perhaps it’s a time for us to reflect in a more intentional way on the real meaning of the event which is not bunnies, eggs, and chocolate. It isn’t even necessarily going to church!

I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with the ways we usually celebrate Easter, but just this once, it’s okay to do things differently. In fact, we need to do things differently! As the church, we need to be obedient to the Word of God which tells us in several places to obey those in positions of authority over us. Romans 13:1 tells us, “Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.” Regardless of what people like Rev. Spell proclaim, we are called to obey those who put the current social distancing regulations in place! Why is that so hard?

I’m reminded of the two Easters that we spent in non Christian countries. In Japan, we did attend a Christian church and celebrated Easter there, but outside the walls of the church, there was no recognition of Easter at all. In China, where we weren’t part of any Christian organization, I’ll always remember that we went out for dinner with a couple of our college students on Easter Sunday and ate roast duck and bullfrog! Not frog’s legs, the whole frog! It was delicious, but I digress! At the end of that day, I wrote this and I think it applies as well to our current situation as it did then.

“Easter isn’t really about what we eat or who we spend the day with. Whether we’re with family around a table laden with ham and all the trimmings or in a shopping mall in China eating bullfrog, as Christians, Easter is at the centre of who we are and what we believe.”


Churches of Coatepec

Everywhere we go in Coatepec and the surrounding area, the colour and architecture of the churches practically insist that I stop to take photos! Over 90% of the population of the area adheres to the Roman Catholic faith, so Catholic churches are everywhere.

In the nearby city of Xalapa, the Catedral Metropolitana de la Immaculada Concepción, or the Xalapa Cathedral as it is more commonly called, is one of the oldest buildings in the city.

IMG_3649 - Version 2

Every small town has churches that are equally spectacular. Santa Maria Magdalena is the patron saint of Xico and the church that bears her name is absolutely stunning.


A little further away, this beautiful church overlooks the central square in the smaller town of Teocelo.

Here in Coatepec, the stately church of San Jéronimo is located in the central core across the street from the Parque de Miguel Hidalgo which is always a happening place.


I don’t know the names of the other churches that I’ve stopped to photograph, but there are many!



We specifically walked up a steep hill to take a closer look at this one this morning.


But this is my favourite of all the ones we’ve seen in Coatepec. Not only is the architecture exquisite, but I love the Calvary motif high above the entrance.


By contrast, less than 10% of the population is evangelical Christian and they meet in much more modest buildings. The Pescadores de Hombres Compañerismo Christiano (Fishers of Men Christian Fellowship) congregation meets in this building a few blocks away from where we’ve been staying.


A church on Sunday morning and Wednesday evening, it’s a cochina economica (cheap kitchen) the rest of the week where you can buy tacos for 10 pesos (69 cents CAD) apiece.


What is an Evangelical Christian anyway?

Christian terminology can be confusing even to Christians. We have a tendency to use words that aren’t part of the everyday vernacular of most people and sometimes we don’t even agree on what they mean!

When the word evangelical entered the conversation at our dinner table recently, a non-Christian guest asked what it meant. I was embarrassed to admit that I couldn’t readily come up with a clear and concise definition off the top of my head.

Then came the media reports of unprecedented flooding when Hurricane Harvey slammed into the coast of Texas forcing more than 30 000 people from their homes and leaving the area in a devastating state of emergency. When it came to light that Lakewood Church, one of the largest churches in the United States, pastored by televangelist Joel Osteen, allegedly refused to open their doors to hurricane victims seeking shelter, the media had a heyday. Mainstream and social media immediately began to paint all evangelical Christians with the same brush. Ignoring the fact that hundreds of them were, in fact, slogging through the mud and water striving to bring help and hope where it was so badly needed, evangelicals everywhere were suddenly uncaring hypocrites.

Please don’t get me wrong! If Lakewood Church did, in fact, turn a blind eye to those in dire need, they acted in a most unChristlike manner and deserve no one’s sympathy. Personally, due to conflicting news reports, I have no idea what really happened at Lakewood or why. I do know that I have problems with Joel Osteen’s theology as he preaches what is often referred to as the “prosperity gospel” or “health and wellness gospel” which teaches that that financial blessing and physical well-being will always come to those who have enough faith. This could not be further from the message of the Bible. Rather than guaranteeing them a life of ease, Christ told his followers that “In this life you will have trouble.” (John 16:33) If wealth was a legitimate goal for the Christian, Jesus would have pursued it himself. Instead, he was a poor itinerant teacher with “no place to lay his head.” (Matthew 8:20) In fact, the only disciple who concerned himself with financial wealth was Judas Iscariot.

I am not here, however, to defend or attack Lakewood Church or their pastor. I simply want to correct my own shortcoming and ensure that from now on when I use a term like evangelical, I know for sure what I’m talking about and can clearly communicate it to someone else!

So what exactly is an evangelical Christian?

Christian is the easy part. The term, first used in Acts 11:26, simply means a follower of Jesus Christ. But what makes us evangelicals?

That term comes from the Greek “euangelion” which means good news. An evangelical Christian, then, is simply a follower of Christ who believes that it is important to tell others the good news that through his death on the cross, Jesus Christ paid the penalty for our sins and that by his resurrection, he conquered death and provides everlasting life to all who follow him. It is a message of divine intervention; a message of hope for mankind who, no matter how hard we try, cannot save ourselves.

In the public arena, however, the phrase evangelical Christian is used in different ways, some of them derogatory. For some, it is simply a title used to differentiate between Christian denominations. Generally speaking, evangelical denominations are those that believe that the Bible is the inerrant word of God and that individual believers must accept Christ’s gift of salvation for themselves and enter into a personal relationship with God. For others, the term is equivalent to “wing nut”, “intolerant extremist”, or “right-wing, fundamentalist Republican”. There is no doubt that holding to the fundamentals of the Bible will result in a certain worldview, but being an evangelical Christian most definitely does not demand allegiance to a specific political party!

In reality, all Christians should be evangelical Christians; tellers of good news! The Bible very clearly instructs us “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20) 


If you come to visit us, you’ll notice something on the doorpost at the entrance to our home that wasn’t there before our trip to Israel.


Four inches long and made of brass, it is a mezuzah container. Hidden inside are two tiny slips of paper, one in Hebrew and the other in English.




Mezuzahs are fastened to the door frames of Jewish homes to fulfill the Biblical commandment to write the words of the Shema, the command that is central to the Jewish faith, on the door frames of their houses. (Deuteronomy 6:5-9)

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” 

If ours were a true Jewish mezuzah, there would be just one scroll inside. It would have been handwritten by a certified scribe with specially prepared ink on kosher parchment made of thinly shaved hide. If we were a Jewish family, we would have several mezuzahs, not just the one on the outside doorpost. Every doorway that leads into a proper room, except for the bathroom, would have its own mezuzah. Each of our hotel rooms in Israel had one.

A mezuzah is permanently affixed to the right doorpost, on the lower part of the upper third. It is traditionally hung on a slant, as shown in the photo above, with the top pointing inward. A special blessing is usually read or recited prior to affixing each mezuzah.

Mezuzah cases come in a variety of sizes and materials. Ours is a Messianic mezuzah made specifically for a Christian home. The symbol at the top is the Hebrew letter “Shin”, the first letter of Shaddai (Almighty), one of the Biblical names of God. Below it is the Messianic Seal of the Church of Jerusalem which incorporates a menorah (seven branched candelabra), a distinctly Jewish symbol, and a fish, which has been used as a symbol of Christianity since its very early days. The triangular base of the candelabra and the tail of the fish tie the two symbols together and form the Star of David, the national symbol of Israel.

The mezuzah at the entrance to our home will long be a reminder of our amazing pilgrimage to Israel, but also an expression of our faith in God.

“As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”  Joshua 24:15

Eating Kosher

I knew that I would be asked what the food was like in Israel, so this time I was prepared and even took pictures! We ate all of our breakfasts and suppers at our hotels while lunches were enjoyed in restaurants wherever we happened to be at the time. I can say without hesitation that the food was delicious, nutritious and kosher!

So what does it mean to eat kosher? Essentially, it means eating according to the dietary laws given in the Old Testament, or Torah. I was already aware that this meant only eating meat from animals that both have cloven hooves and chew their cud, avoiding all seafood except fish with fins and scales, and avoiding eating meat and dairy together. I’ve learned, however, that eating kosher is much more complicated than that and that even amongst Jews, there are many different ways of interpreting and following the dietary rules.

For example, when it comes to meat, it isn’t only a matter of which animals are eaten, but also how the animal is slaughtered and how the carcass is prepared for butchering. Some birds are kosher, while others are not. The eggs of kosher birds may be eaten, but only if they contain no blood which means that each egg should be examined individually. All dairy products must be derived from the milk of kosher animals. Hard cheeses pose a problem because an essential ingredient in their production is an enzyme called rennet, which is normally derived from the stomach of an animal. Some rabbinic authorities maintain that the enzyme is so separated from its original source, that it should not even be considered a meat product. Therefore, these authorities believe that it is permissible to eat cheese that was made with rennet. Others, however, believe that rennet still constitutes a part of an animal, and thus cannot be mixed with milk. Eating processed food is particularly troublesome because one must be sure that every ingredient, no matter how much or how little the product contains, is kosher.

Generally, all fruits and vegetables are kosher, but again, we learned, in Israel, that it isn’t quite that simple. There, these products are only considered kosher if 10% of the crop is left on the plants, bushes or trees around the perimeter of the field or orchard at harvest time for the use of the poor in the community and if the land is left to rest every 7th year. Fruits and vegetables must also be very carefully checked for insects as they are not kosher. Drinking wine or grape juice that has been produced by non-Jews is also forbidden.

There are those who claim that God established the dietary laws to protect the health of His people and that, for this reason, we would be wise to follow them. I don’t believe this to be true. Though there may have been some health advantages to some of the laws in the days before refrigeration, there is nothing less healthy about eating camel or rabbit than eating beef or chicken. I believe that it was simply God’s intent to distinguish His people from those around them and to teach them obedience. I am, therefore, in agreement with those Jews who say that they eat kosher simply because God told them to and for no other reason. How thankful I am that as New Testament believers, we are not subject to the Old Testament dietary laws. God made that very clear to the apostle Peter in a vision while he was staying at the house of Simon the Tanner in Joppa. (Acts 10:9-16)

All meals served in the hotels where we stayed were kosher. Each hotel is under the supervision of its local rabbinical council and should they ever be caught serving anything non-kosher, the penalty would be severe.

So, what did we eat? The meals were similar at all four of our hotels. Breakfasts and dinners were sumptuous buffets with a myriad of wonderful choices. It’s only in the west that breakfast is an entirely different meal from lunch and supper. For example, when we lived in Japan, if we asked our students what they ate for breakfast, the answer would most often be fish and rice. If we asked what they ate for dinner, the answer would usually be the same. This appeared to be true in Israel as well. Though cereal and toast were available at breakfast time and our last hotel had a station where yummy looking omelettes were made to order, breakfast also included a complete salad bar! Cottage cheese, yogurt, various cheeses, buns and breads were also part of the breakfast menu, but so were fish, olives and a variety of hot dishes. Coffee and a variety of teas were also available.

I think I could have lived off the salad bars alone. I started each day with a plate filled with salad, a dollop of cottage cheese, a few slices of cheese and a bun or a slice of hearty bread. When that was done, I finished off with a taste of a one or two of the hot dishes.

We were thankful for the hearty breakfasts as our days were full and we did lots of walking and climbing. Lunch was most often a pita filled with either falafel (spiced mashed chickpeas formed into balls and deep-fried) or schawarma (roasted, shaved meat) and vegetables. Simple, but tasty and filling.

Dinner was usually fairly late. After a busy day, we were ready to load up our plates again!

Again, I filled a plate at the salad bar and then went back for a smaller serving from the many hot food choices. Meats most often included fish, chicken and beef. The dessert selections looked absolutely amazing, but I didn’t take any pictures as I didn’t want to linger over them too long! I managed to stick to my low sugar diet most of the trip. Three of our four hotels offered sugar free dessert options which was nice. When I didn’t see any on offer at our last hotel, I asked, and after a long wait, I was brought a piece of very dry, plain cake that was still slightly frozen in the centre. After that, I didn’t ask! I did break my diet twice, once when we celebrated our youngest group member’s 16th birthday with a lovely cake and once when I tried a teeny, tiny chocolate eclair because everyone else was raving about them. It was well worth it!

Though the reason for my diet is the fact that I’m pre-diabetic, I was pleased to discover that in spite of eating so well, I didn’t gain any weight while we were away!


Shabbat Shalom!

We were in Israel for two Shabbats, the Jewish Sabbath that begins at sundown on Friday and lasts until sundown Saturday. Most schools, businesses, shops and even tourist sites close at 3:00 pm on Friday and don’t reopen until Sunday morning.

According to Old Testament law, work is forbidden on Shabbat. The 4th commandment says, “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy. Six days you shall labour and do all your work, but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. On it you shall not do any work, neither you, nor your son or daughter, nor your manservant or maidservant, nor your animals, nor the alien within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and all that is in them, but he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy.” (Exodus 20:8-11)

Over the centuries, Judaism has attempted to interpreted what is work and what isn’t, what is forbidden on Shabbat and what is allowed, ending up with a complex and somewhat overwhelming list of rules to be followed. Here’s a basic list of activities that ought to be avoided on Shabbat:

  • writing, erasing, and tearing
  • business transactions
  • driving or riding in cars or other vehicles
  • shopping
  • using the telephone
  • turning on or off anything which uses electricity, including lights, radios, televisions, computers, air-conditioners and alarm clocks
  • cooking, baking or kindling a fire
  • gardening and grass-mowing
  • doing laundry
  • carrying anything outdoors or transferring objects between an enclosed domain, such as the house, and a public domain, such as the street

There are detailed rules pertaining to each of these. For example, the refrigerator can be used because it is on all the time, but to ensure that it’s use doesn’t involve turning something on or off, the fridge light should be disconnected before Shabbat by unscrewing the bulb slightly. The rule about carrying things outdoors would include carrying anything in your pocket or even having gum in your mouth! Of course, as in any culture or religion, there are those who follow the Shabbat rules to the nth degree and those who don’t.

Clearly our Lord took exception to the interpretations of the 4th commandment that were in vogue in His day as He was criticized by the religious leaders for healing the sick on the Sabbath (John 5:1-15) and for allowing His disciples to pick heads of grain and eat them when they passed through the fields on that day of the week. (Matthew 12:1-2)

In one of our hotels, we had the choice of three door hangers to notify the staff of our various needs or intentions.


Many hotels in Israel allow a late checkout on Saturday for Shabbat observers, enabling them to stay in the hotel until after sundown. Attending synagogue on Shabbat is considered essential by most Jews, so many hotels also have a synagogue within the building.

We were warned to avoid using the specially designated Shabbat elevators in our hotels unless we had lots of time to spare. Set to go up and down continuously, stopping and opening at every floor for the entire 24 hour Shabbat period, these elevators ensure that Shabbat observers don’t have to push any buttons which would be construed as work.

Friday dinners in our hotels were festive affairs with many Jewish families there to celebrate Shabbat. Going out for dinner ensured that they kept the no cooking rule and they didn’t seem to object to the fact that someone else had to work to prepare and serve the meal! The already sumptuous buffets were even more elaborate on those days and it definitely wasn’t all food that was prepared in advance. Saturday breakfasts, however, were more basic than the other days and involved very little hot food.

Of course, the people we saw at dinner in the hotels were not the ultra-Orthodox Jews. They would have been at home observing Shabbat in a much more traditional way. We drove through an ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood on our way back to our hotel in Jerusalem on a Friday afternoon and observed them scuttling about making their last minute purchases and preparations before retiring to their homes.

Our guide pointed out that the various ways that the men were dressed indicated membership in different sects. Height or style of hat, coat length, whether his socks are black or white, and whether or not his pants are tucked into his socks are all indicators of which group a man is part of. The women’s clothing is much less distinctive, but very conservative. For example, they would never be seen in public wearing pants. A large overhead billboard as we entered the neighbourhood advised us how we ought to dress while we were there.


Photo:  Lisa Mathon – https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2024503


So who are these ultra-Orthodox people? Though they consider themselves the most religiously authentic Jews, they don’t seem to be very productive members of Israeli society and are seen by many as a drain on the economy. Less than 50% of the men are employed. Instead, many spend long hours every day praying and studying scripture while the family lives off Israel’s generous social welfare system. Like many other Israelis, our guide, Shimon, resents how much he pays in taxes to support these people. Apparently, this is a huge political issue at election time. Another source of resentment for many is the fact that, upon the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, ultra-Orthodox males of military age were exempted from universal conscription into the Israel Defense Forces. Officially, those who were enrolled in yeshiva, an institution focusing on the study of traditional religious texts, were granted deferred entry into the IDF, but in practice few serve at all. At the time when this agreement was made, only about 400 individuals were affected, but due to their extremely high birth rate, the ultra-Orthodox are now estimated to make up approximately 10% of the Israeli population!

Well, even though the days are getting longer it’s now past sundown on a Friday afternoon in my part of the world so I wish you Shabbat Shalom or, in English, Sabbath Peace!

Final day

Reflecting on and writing about our final day in Jerusalem seems like a perfect way to enter the Lenten season as we spent the day immersed in the final moments of Jesus’ life here on earth, visiting the sites surrounding his arrest, crucifixion, burial and resurrection!

Our morning started on the Mount of Olives overlooking the Kidron Valley. The sun gleamed off the golden Dome of the Rock, the Muslim mosque that now stands atop Mount Moriah where the Jewish temple once stood. Before us lay the route that He took on His triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the day that has become known as Palm Sunday. (Matthew 21:1-11)

IMG_1107 - Version 2

As we stood atop the Mount, we were reminded that, according to prophecy, that is where He will return someday! (Zechariah 14:4) Come, Lord Jesus!

Walking down the Mount, we came to the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus spent the final moments before His arrest. Even with the sound of traffic in the background, the garden was a place of great peace. In our devotional time there, we were reminded so clearly of the great burden that our Lord bore that night as He prayed alone, feeling the weight of the sin of the entire world on His shoulders. Kirk, our devotional leader, compared it to the deepest of depressions. For me, our time of reflection in the garden was spiritually profound. As I thought about the extreme anguish that I once felt when I was betrayed by someone I loved and then tried to multiply that by the sin and betrayal of every person who has ever lived, it was beyond my ability to comprehend. Is it any wonder that He sweat drops of blood and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, take take this cup from me.” How thankful I am that He followed this up with “yet not my will, but yours be done.” (Luke 22:39-45) Without that willingness to carry the weight of our sins to the cross, we would be forever lost with no hope of salvation and eternal life.

We stopped for a quick look at the Gethsemane Basilica of Agony with it’s beautiful mosaics above the portico.


Continuing down the hill and up the other side of the valley, we entered the walled city through the Lions’ Gate, which is also known as St. Stephen’s Gate or the Sheep Gate.


IMG_1203 - Version 2

Inside the wall, we visited St. Anne’s Church where, when we sang Amazing Grace together, the acoustics were so amazing that each note hung in the air for a good four seconds! Though she isn’t mentioned in scripture, St. Anne was, according to tradition, the mother of Mary and the grandmother of Jesus. I was especially taken with the beautiful alabaster statue of a mother teaching her young daughter from scripture. The scroll in her hand has Deuteronomy 6:5 written on it in Hebrew. “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” The delightful French Canadian priest told us that the church is often referred to as the “grandparents’ church” and reminded us of our Lord’s instruction to pass on His teachings to our children and grandchildren. (Deuteronomy 6:6-7)


In the area, we also saw where the pools of Bethesda were once located. It was here that Jesus healed a man who had been crippled for 38 years. (John 5:1-15)

IMG_1218 - Version 2

A quick trip around the Temple Mount by bus took us to the Jaffa Gate where we entered Old Jerusalem and walked the narrow market streets to a tiny restaurant where we had lunch.

Our next stop was the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, a cavernous structure standing on the bedrock at a site said to encompass both Golgotha, or Calvary, the spot where Jesus was crucified, and the tomb (sepulchre) where His body lay. Filled with icons and incense, we could only think of what we saw as idolatry and, to me, it didn’t seem very different from what we’d seen in numerous Buddhist temples in Asia. Most disturbing to me was the Stone of Unction, or Stone of Anointing, a flat red stone some six metres in length and decorated with candlesticks and lamps that is located in the entrance of the church. It is purported to be the place where Jesus’ body was laid and prepared for burial after being taken down from the cross. It was surrounded by devoted pilgrims bowing before it, kissing it and rubbing their possessions on it in hope of receiving some sort of blessing. Personally, I was more than happy to leave. Apparently, people sometimes wait hours to enter the Edicule, an ornate cubicle that supposedly houses the empty tomb, but we had another tomb to visit!

IMG_1253 - Version 2


Some 2000 years after the fact, there is, of course, no way of knowing exactly where the cross of Christ stood or where the tomb that held his body was located, but the Garden Tomb seemed much more authentic to me. The guide who met us there, gave us many pieces of evidence pointing to the likelihood that this could be the place. If nothing else, there was a great sense of peace there that I didn’t feel in the Church. He first showed us the hillside that would appear to be Golgotha, meaning “the place of the skull”. Though the nose crumbled several years ago and a bus station has somewhat obliterated the lower portion, it’s easy to see a skull in the rocky hillside.


Although I’ve always visualized the crosses standing at the top of a lonely barren hill, the guide explained that they were more likely positioned near the bottom beside a busy road and in the face of the throngs of passersby making their way into Jerusalem for Passover. That’s the way the Romans did things. He also pointed out the irony of thousands of lambs being brought into the city for the Passover sacrifices passing right by the true lamb of God hanging on the cross, but missed by the multitudes.

Next, he walked us through the garden to the empty tomb. Actually being able to enter and see the spot where Christ’s body may have lain was another very moving experience. The doorway has been enlarged and steps added to allow easier access.



This is a similar tomb beside a road in Galilee that shows what the stone would have looked like.


After we’d all had a chance to enter the tomb, we gathered in a tiny well-lit chapel in the garden for a service of communion. We drank our wine from tiny olive wood communion cups which we were then given to bring home with us. Celebrating our risen Lord with a group of people that we’d quickly grown close to and experienced so much with was very meaningful! Though that would have been a suitable finale to our pilgrimage, we made three more quick stops before our busy day was over!

On Mount Zion, we first visited the place that is traditionally held to be the location of the Upper Room where Jesus and His disciples shared their Last Supper. (Matthew 26:17-30) The building is actually a 12th century Crusader structure, but archaeological evidence of Roman construction on the lower level supports the possibility that this area was indeed the location where our Lord shared a final meal with his disciples. Like so many others, the building has changed hands many times throughout history.

On the lower level, we visited one of the most holy Jewish sites, the traditional location of the tomb of King David. The men were required to don yarmulke, the skullcap traditionally worn by Jewish males, and entered one room while we women went into a smaller adjoining room. In our room, a few women quietly read their Hebrew scriptures, but we could hear quite a din from the other side of the partition. Our men exited shaking their heads and describing a crowded room full of ultra-Orthodox men shouting, wailing and banging on a central table as they bowed and bobbed. There is obviously much that we don’t understand about their religious practices!

Our final stop was the house of Caiaphas, the high priest, where Jesus was taken after his arrest. There is clear evidence that this time we were, indeed, standing in an authentic spot. The stone stairs leading up to the house are the very ones that Jesus would have climbed on His way to trial.


Inside the house, we went down into the dungeon where Jesus likely spent His final night on earth. It was nothing more a large hole dug into the rock beneath the house. Somewhat overcome by all that we had seen and experienced, we sang our final hymn together.

The Western Wall

One of the questions that I’ve been asked most often since we returned from Israel is “Did you go to the Wailing Wall?” Yes, we did and it was quite an adventure, but before I tell that story, there are some misconceptions to clear up. First of all, while in Israel, we never heard it referred to as the “Wailing” Wall. That term isn’t used by the Jews. It is the Western Wall. Where the term, Wailing Wall, came from is uncertain, but it probably referred to the weeping of the Jews over the destruction of their temple.

I had always understood that the so-called Wailing Wall was the only remaining piece of the ancient temple and for that reason it had been set aside as a holy place of prayer. Not so! It is actually a relatively small segment of a much longer retaining wall that was originally built as part of the expansion of the second Jewish temple by Herod the Great. Although other parts of the retaining walls remain, this particular segment is closest to the location of the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctuary of the temple where God promised that His presence would reside. For that reason, it is considered by the Jews to be the holiest place to pray. (Leviticus 16:2)

While the visible portion of the Western Wall is approximately 60 metres in length, the majority of it has spent centuries hidden underground. It is only in recent years that excavation of the Western Wall Tunnels has allowed access to a further 485 metres extending beneath the Old City of Jerusalem. Entrance to the tunnels is limited to tour groups and must be booked months in advance.

This is where our story begins. Our group had a 5:45 pm appointment on January 28th. We left our hotel with plenty of time to spare, but as we neared our destination we found ourselves caught in traffic that was completely backed up along a narrow, crowded street. It wasn’t going anywhere! As minutes ticked by, it was obvious that we would miss our appointment if we didn’t do something, but what do you do with a tour bus caught in such a jam? Our trusty guide, Shimon, jumped off the bus and gave directions while Jimmy, our amazing driver, turned the bus around in a space that I probably couldn’t have turned our SUV! When we finally arrived by an alternate route, we discovered why the traffic was so heavy. The entrance plaza was filled with hundreds of people there for an Israeli Defense Forces swearing in ceremony during which new recruits receive their weapon and a Jewish Bible.

During our exploration of the tunnels we saw the biggest stone in the Western Wall. With a length of 13.6 metres, a height of 3 metres and an estimated width of between 3.5 and 4.5 metres, it is estimated to weigh approximately 570 to 600 tons! How it was moved into place without the use of modern machinery is a mystery. We also walked a section of the Herodian road which ran alongside the Temple Mount, stepping on worn stones that our Saviour undoubtably walked upon.

IMG_0942 - Version 2

Our feet on the Herodian road

By the time we emerged from the tunnels, the swearing in ceremony was over and we wound our way through the jubilant crowd who were busy congratulating and taking pictures of their young soldiers. The segment of the wall designated for prayer is separated into a section for men and one for women. The seven women in our group formed a human chain as we made our way through the crowd so that we wouldn’t become separated from one another! We each spent a few minutes praying at the wall before rejoining the guys and heading back to our hotel.


Women at the Western Wall

Some in our group said that they felt the presence of God in a special way at the wall. I don’t want to question anyone else’s experience, but personally, I didn’t feel any closer to Him there than I do in many other places. I am so thankful that we serve a God who is with us wherever we are and that we don’t need a temple to experience His presence!

Jesus said, “I tell you that one greater than the temple is here.”  Matthew 12:6

Bethlehem, birthplace of our King

As the strains of John Starnes singing “Jerusalem: The Holy City” poured over the loudspeaker of our bus and the gleaming Dome of the Rock on the temple mount came into view, it was definitely a “Pinch me! Am I really in Jerusalem?” moment for most of us on our tour.

IMG_0719 - Version 2

We didn’t stay long, however. At that point, we were actually just passing through the city on our way to Bethlehem, just 7 km away. Bethlehem is in Palestinian territory and Israelis are not usually allowed to pass through the checkpoint in the wall or “security barrier” that separates Jerusalem from the Palestinians. As a tour guide, however, Shimon has a special permit that allows him to take groups into Bethlehem. He accompanied us for lunch and then to a business run by a Christian family who make and sell beautiful olive wood carvings. There he stayed, however, passing us off to a delightful guide who resides in Bethlehem because he doesn’t feel comfortable or safe being out and about on the streets of that small city.


The wall

Our first stop was the Church of the Nativity, the supposed birthplace of Jesus. The church is administered jointly by the Greek Orthodox, Syriac Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Armenian Apostolic churches. It consists of the main Basilica of the Nativity and the adjoining Church of St. Catharine. The Grotto of the Nativity, an underground cave located beneath the basilica, enshrines the site where Jesus is said to have been born. A large 14 pointed silver star set into the marble floor beneath an altar and surrounded by silver lamps and candles is said to mark the exact spot where Mary gave birth. A few feet away is the Grotto of the Manger, another shrine marking the spot where she apparently laid him in the manger.


We went, we saw and we left. To be perfectly honest, it all seemed rather hokey to me and I found it somewhat disturbing to see other groups of pilgrims who appeared to be completely caught up in worshipping the place. I don’t mean to show disrespect for anyone else’s religious experience, but I do have to wonder how anyone can claim to know the “exact” spot where our Saviour was born in a humble animal shelter some 2000 years ago and, as I’ve said before, I don’t believe that there is any holy magic in the places where he was.


From there, we descended to the Shepherd’s Fields, a park-like area commemorating the angel’s visit to the shepherds to announce the Messiah’s birth on that night so long ago as well as the fields of Boaz where Ruth the Moabitess gleaned. (Ruth 2:1-23) Notice that we descended to the shepherd’s fields. Again, the way I visualized things has been turned upside down! In my mind, I always pictured Bethlehem on lower ground and the shepherds tending their flocks on hillsides above town. In reality, communities throughout Israel are built on the tops of the hills. The shepherds and their sheep would actually have been on the hillsides below Bethlehem and they would have had to climb up to visit the newborn child. (Luke 2:8-17)

As we made our way back to Jerusalem to check into our hotel, I was reminded afresh how lucky we are to be Canadian. As we passed through the checkpoint, Shimon simply told the soldier on duty where we were from and we were sent on our way. Apparently, bus loads of Canadians and Americans pass through with ease while other nationalities are checked much more carefully. Vehicles driven by individuals are searched!

What about Halloween?


We went to church with a dinosaur this morning; a bright orange Tyrannosaurus Rex named Sam! To the left of us, there were two little pumpkins and to the right, a ladybug and a monkey. A spotted leopard sat in front of us and as I looked around the sanctuary I spotted a ballet dancer, a fireman, a pirate, and a clown. R2-D2 and Princess Leia were there too but there were no witches, ghosts or ghouls. “Let’s be more creative than that,” parents at Cap Church were told last Sunday when it was announced that the Cap kids could wear their Halloween costumes to church today.

Whether or not we should participate in Halloween has become a great debate within the Christian church. There is no doubt that the celebration has its roots in ancient pagan rites and superstitions and it’s also a holy day for those who practice Wicca, a modern religious cult that engages in witchcraft. For most people, however, Halloween is simply a secular day of fun. It has religious significance only to those who give it religious significance. To my mind, if some people feel uncomfortable participating in Halloween activities, then they should refrain from doing so but the rest of us should simply be discerning and avoid those activities that might detract from our Christian witness. It also behooves us to avoid judging those who make decisions different from our own.

Personally, I applaud the approach taken by Cap Church. In an article published in recent church bulletins, Pastor Emeritus, Paddy Ducklow, wrote about what he called “the issue of how our faith impacts our culture and neighbourhood, or how surrounding values harm our kids.” He wrote first of safety, urging parents to teach their children how to be safe in an unsafe world. He also advised them to show the closeness and care of God by being with their children. He encouraged Christian men to exhibit a “father’s heart” during a potentially scary time by going door to door with their children as they trick-or-treat. He recommended that parents use Halloween as an opportunity to help their children make righteous choices, staying away from images of witchcraft, death and violence. I especially appreciated his recommendation that parents make Halloween an opportunity to know and enjoy their neighbours. Rather than being aloof, avoiding contact with our neighbourhood on a night when many are out and about having fun, Halloween is a great opportunity to engage with them.

I would love to know where you stand on this contentious topic. If you do choose to comment, however, please show respect for those who express an opinion different from your own. I’d love to see a lively conversation develop but no personal attacks.