Sepphoris, Nazareth, Megiddo, Caesarea Maritima… Today was a day filled with beautiful mosaics at every place we stopped.  Some of them were thousands of years old at the archaeological sites.   In an ancient synagogue we saw a blending of Canaanite, Jewish, and Hellenistic images in the floor of the place of worship.  In Nazareth at the Church of the Annunciation we saw modern depictions of Mary, mother of our Lord, from all over the world. The level of detail in those works of art was staggering.

A mosaic is made with different materials with different colors and textures.  Some pieces of the mosaics we viewed were imported and traveled many leagues to find their place in those masterpieces.  Some of the pieces were made from common gravel, some were simply broken pieces of tiles, glass, or pottery… Art created from the cast off refuse, the garbage of thousands of years ago.


We looked at the Dionysius mosaic which is called the Mona Lisa of the Galilee.  Centered at the bottom is a portrait of a beautiful woman with a wispy look about her that draws your eye and makes you wonder who she was.  Carefully shaded, her portrait is so detailed that it doesn’t seem to be a mosaic at all. Someone pointed out that to achieve that level of detail, to approximate reality that closely, the artist would have to make the fragments smaller and smaller.  Big pieces would be shattered into mere specks for eyelashes and lips.

Our group here is like those mosaic pieces.  We have been brought together from far and wide. Almost six decades separate the youngest and the oldest.  We are a rarity here.  We are a minority.  The Artist has brought us here to become a part of something beautiful.  We find ourselves mixed in with the people of this side of the world and we find that, in spite of differences in language and dress, we are far more alike than different.  Each one of us adds a new color to the palette for the Artist to create a new masterpiece.  Sometimes in order to see the picture more clearly, the Artist must reduce us, already broken and fragmented, to the humblest of specks.

The good news is that even the refuse, even the smallest, most humble speck, will play a vital part in the masterpiece of God’s creation.  No one is left out of God’s plan.  I realized today looking at those mosaics that there are no insignificant specks… There are no insignificant people.  Every single one is a critical part of the masterpiece being recreated from the shattered refuse of this world.  Even the least among us have a vital part to play.  In fact, it turns out that it is the smallest specks that provide the exceptional details that bring a mosaic to life.  It is the seemingly most humble pieces of this world that God uses in the transformation that takes broken, fragmented people and, through Christ, recreates something miraculous from our shattered lives.  Looking at the guns, the guard towers, and the miles of razor wire trying to keep each piece separate, I find my hope and peace in the assurance that the Artist is here with us, making even the smallest, even the most isolated piece fit right where it belongs in this unfolding masterpiece.

Charlie Pratt is a student at Union Presbyterian Seminary.

Sights from Jesus’ Ministry

So far on our Middle East Travel Seminar we have seen and done a lot: pyramids, ancient temples, historic Roman and Greek cities, and beautiful natural vistas; but today has been the most meaningful day for me.  We began the morning by boarding a boat for a cruise on the Sea of Galilee.  Once we were underway, Charlotte student Sally Herlong led us in a devotion and song.  Then Professor Rodney Sadler served us the Lord’s Supper—in the middle of the Galilee!

Pic 1
Rodney Sadler administering the Lord’s Supper
Pic 2
The group on a boat in the Sea of Galilee

Our next stop was the Mount of the Beatitudes.  Once we arrived here, Keat Wiles read us portions of the Sermon on the Mount and Professor Frances Taylor Gench led us in the Lord’s Prayer—in the spot that Jesus is believed to have said it! After this stop, we headed to the Church of the Multiplication in Tabgha.  At this site Jesus performed the feeding of the five thousand miracle.  The church has beautiful floor mosaics that date from the 5th century.   Unfortunately, arsonist burned portions of the church in 2015 and evidence of the destruction is still visible.

Pic 3
Keat Wiley and Frances Taylor Gench at the Mount of the Beatitudes
Pic 4
The alter and 5th century mosaic at the Church of the Multiplication

A short five-minute bus ride delivered us to our next stop: The Church of the Primacy of Saint Peter.  It as at this location where Jesus asked Peter three times: “Do you love me?” and Jesus told Peter, “Feed my sheep.”  Inside the church is a large rock where tradition holds that Jesus and the disciples ate breakfast.  It was moving to see so many Christians come kneel, touch, kiss, and pray at this rock—where Jesus and the disciples ate after the resurrection!

Pic 5
The Mensa Christi (Table of Christ) where Jesus laid out breakfast for the disciples

Our last stop of the day was Capernaum, the town where Jesus spent much of his ministry.  Before viewing the sites, Frances Taylor Gench talked to us about Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law. Then we were free to examine the church built above Peter’s house (where this miracle took place) and the synagogue where Jesus performed an exorcism on the Sabbath (Mark 1:21-28 and Luke 4:31-37).

Pic 6
Marina Ghaly and Bruce McVey at the Synagogue in Capernaum

Believe it or not, we actually made a few other stops today!  But, I chose to share these specific experiences with you, our dear reader, because they appear to have made the most impact on our group.  Seeing these places where Jesus and his disciples conducted their ministry has brought tears to many of our eyes today.  Think about it for a second: communion on the Galilee, followed by saying the Lord’s Prayer on the Mount of the Beatitudes, followed by touching the place where Jesus and the disciples ate, followed by walking in the synagogue where Jesus conducted miracles.  In one day!  Experiencing these real-life places, about which we have read and studied most of our lives, has been life-changing for many of us.  As this amazing day draws to a close, the pull of Jerusalem—and the cross—is palpable.

Bruce McVey is an M.Div. student at Union Presbyterian Seminary.

Joy, Awe, and Grandeur

Today was Petra…need I say more? It is not without good reason that this is one of the seven wonders of the world! We left at 8:30 in the morning and by the time I came home after 6:30pm I had walked more that 12 miles. We traversed the Siq, a natural fissure between two mountains that led into the heart of Petra. The joy and awe of the group was palpable when we reached the spot where the Treasury first became visible through a cleft in the rocks. Then we saw the Treasury in all of its glory…and could almost imagine Indiana Jones riding his horse past its entrance. Actually the Treasury was not a treasury at all, but a tomb for a wealthy and well positioned man…but that in no way diminishes its grandeur.

After the Treasury we continued the tour with our able guide Naiem telling us about the various aqueducts, cisterns, and dams used to bring an ample supply of water to this desert city.  We also saw the hooks that hung the streetlights, the tombs with steps down from and up to the heavens, and even a carved camel caravan on the wall of the Siq that is evidenced now only by the merchant and the camels’ feet.

After lunch, we made our way up to the Monastery at the “Top,” another tomb that had been converted into a Byzantine church.  That was a hike that took a few hours up and down the highest mountains in the region and provided great views of a Grand Canyon that though not “the” Grand Canyon, it was a grand canyon anyway. We could even see into Israel to the places where we will be traveling tomorrow.

After the Monastery we visited a 6th century Byzantine church and a series of elaborate and ostentatious tombs one of which had been converted into a church. By the time we made it home I had more than 33,300 steps for the day and very sore legs.


Dinner was filled with tales of Bruce McIntyre jumping off his donkey in fear and then seeing a boy and his donkey fall off a cliff (both were alright because apparently the boy broke the donkey’s fall), our 84 year old Joyce Tipton who out ran everyone on the climbs up the mountains, and a host of other stories of interest. Our two casualties were Sally Herlong who had a tumble down the descent from the Monastery and bruised her foot and Bruce who slipped and fell bruising his pride.  They are both well.

After dinner and a wonderful few moments on the roof in fellowship in the cold evening breezes sipping warm mint tea, I went downstairs and with Marina Ghaly met a wonderful artist, Hussein Amarat who made art in bottles using sand as his medium.  His works were stellar. I even bought one for my Bird. Marina even made a piece of sand art under Hussein’s careful guidance.

Pray for us as tomorrow we cross into a land divided not just along class and status lines, but by religion, and oppression, and hatred, because of differences of ethnicity and religion. The conflict in Israel and Palestine is one of the most significant factors hindering world peace. This hundred year old crisis, the product not of biblical enmity, but of colonialist power struggles shapes the politics of the world and we are entering into that realm tomorrow to seek to find a deeper understanding of peace, and Love, and God in this hotbed of political intrigue. Pray that we are safe, that all goes well, and that the magic  of this trip will persist into Jesus’ homeland. Please, please pray for us…

Dr. Rodney Sadler is Associate Professor of Bible.

(Photos by Rodney Sadler and Amanda Kathryn Hill)

Falling in love with this land

Today was our second day in Jordan, and I think I can speak for most of our group in saying that we’re falling in love with this land more with every site, every view, and every interaction.

We traveled from Amman today, along the King’s Highway through the regions of Moab and Edom until we reached Petra. The King’s Highway, referenced in Numbers 21, winds through rolling hills and mountains and is the same road that Moses and the Israelites traveled on towards Moab and the promised land.


The views that we saw were incredible. The land is dry and dusty, yet it is spotted with trees and the Jordan River. Along the way, we saw numerous tents scattered across the land. These tents are inhabited by Bedouins, people of a nomadic tribe. For the majority of the day, we were traveling through the region of Moab. This is the region that Ruth and Naomi traveled through, too!

Our first stop was at Mt. Nebo, and it was nothing short of amazing. According to Deuteronomy 34, this is the place where God revealed the promised land to Moses, just before Moses’ death. From atop the mountain, we looked out on this promised land and saw Jericho and the Dead Sea, Hebron and Bethlehem.


We read Deuteronomy 34 and thought about how Moses must have felt seeing this land, but not actually going to it. Like Moses we saw the promised land, but we couldn’t go there (yet). These areas are across the border, and as Associate Professor of Bible Rodney Sadler said, “Oftentimes, politics prevent us from reaching the promised land.” Our time on Mt. Nebo breathed a breath of new life into our Scriptures, and now I am even more excited for the rest of our journey.


Our next stop was at Madaba, where there is a 5th century Byzantine mosaic map. This is one of the world’s earliest and well-preserved maps, and it positions Jerusalem at its center. It was neat to see places on that map where we’ve already been, as well as the places we will soon travel to. The craftsmanship and attention to detail was amazing. A Greek Orthodox Church has been built around the map and its walls were tiled with impressive mosaics illustrating the life of Jesus.



This afternoon we made a quick stop for lunch and a tour of Kerak, a 12th century crusader castle, before arriving in Petra. The ancient city awaits us…

P.S. Today we celebrated Bruce’s birthday! The chefs and wait staff at our hotel made him a cake and came out and sang a few songs in loud and upbeat voices. However, just before they came out Bruce had left the room! It was too late for the staff to stop their birthday celebrations, despite Bruce’s momentary absence. We all enjoyed the laugh. A few minutes later, Bruce returned and the staff were kind enough to recreate the whole scene all over again! Happy Birthday, Bruce!


Rosy Robson is a M.A.C.E./M.Div. student.

(Photos by Rosy Robson and Rodney Sadler)

Our first day in Jordan was rich

I am sitting in the lobby of the Landmark Hotel in Amman, Jordan listening to a Bedouin band playing an exotic mix of drums and flutes as the celebrants in this wedding ceremony pictured below make the traditional uvula throbbing scream familiar in Arabic celebrations and a constant clap that would make a go-go band jealous. Glad to be a witness to this joyous wedding celebration in our lobby. The celebration just engulfed me as the wedding came out to my once quiet corner seat…but I’m not complaining…


Our first day in Jordan was rich, starting with the Acropolis where you see the Temple of Hercules pictured behind our group photo below. We had a wonderful tour of the site and visit to the Museum that holds 12,000+years of the history of this nation. This is likely the oldest continuously occupied nation in the world.


After that we drove an hour north on our way to Jerash, stopping at Green Valley for an exquisite Jordanian lunch. There, Charlotte student Lisa Lewis-Jenkins made bread for the group.


At Jerash, the supposed city of the Geresene demoniac, we saw the majestic 85ft. Hadrian’s Arch, the best preserved Roman city in the world with its restored cardio maximus and agora and hints of an incredibly advanced water system with aqueducts and fountains and fine examples of early manhole covers in the streets (didn’t know that they were that old?).



We ended our tour at the Artemis Temple pictured below. This grand Temple was strategically located at the top of the city’s most prominent staircase positioned to amaze visitors who made it up to the final platform. That massive structure is what they would have seen.


On the way home we stopped to look into the valley where the Jabbok River had been dammed. It was along this river that Jacob’s name was changed to Israel after he wrestled for a night with God, or an angel, or his brother Esau, or something/someone.

We ended our night with a visit from Jim Barnhart the Director of the USAID Jordan post who talked to us about the US response to the Syrian refugee crisis and what our nation is doing to make life better for the people of Jordan.


Truly it was a rich and varied day, for which I remain grateful to God!

Dr. Rodney Sadler is Associate Professor of Bible

(Photos by Rodney Sadler and Amanda Kathryn Hill)

We are safe


We were on an EgyptAir flight this morning from Luxor to Cairo, and arrived for our evening lodging in Alexandria. It wasn’t until we arrived that we heard of the terrible loss of EgyptAir Flight 804. Our Buy Phentermine friends and family back home are relieved to know we are safe, but we pray for those who lost their lives and their families. Our chaplain Michelle Freeman Owens sent the following prayer to our seminary community:

O God of compassion, in moments like these, our prayers are complicated, filled with tangled emotions. 

Fear, terror even, confusion, relief, and under all of it, gratitude. 

Always, and ever, gratitude.


We are grateful for the news of our travel seminar’s safe arrival in Alexandria, 

just as we pray for the passengers and crew of the missing EgyptAir Flight 804. 

For their families that are anxiously awaiting news, 

filled with questions none of us ever want to ask, 

and knowing they will get answers no one wants to hear.


God who is our light and our salvation, we trust you hear our prayers. 

Give us faith to hold onto the firm and certain knowledge that your light shines upon us all, 

and that you have overcome death, 

so that we know this is not the end of the story for those who lost their lives today.


We pray this all in the name of Christ, Amen.


Aside from this tragic news, all is well with our group. We had a wonderful visit at a 5th century desert monastery en route, and at the Health and Hope Oasis, a ministry to children with cancer and their families.  Tired from a very early flight, but in good spirits.

Luxor: Peeking Behind the Veil

Today’s blog is lovingly dedicated to our Distinguished Associate Professor of Bible, Dr. Rodney Sadler.

Our day began with a 3:30a.m. wake-up call for a 5:00 departure for Luxor, which is further south in Egypt. Because of an abbreviated night’s sleep, the day has been marked by some less than fortunate events – primarily for Rodney.

What is wrong with this picture?

It all started after going through numerous security checks and metal detectors when many of us noticed Rodney going into the above pictured restroom – this is not the door through which one would have expected him to go. We called after him, but in his sleep-deprived state, he failed to hear us. When he did not immediately come out, Charlotte student Sally Herlong quickly grabbed her phone for this priceless photo op. We hope you enjoy it as much as we have – and do! Of course, the activist in Rodney explained that he was “making a statement against HB2” in N.C.! To that, we say “tell it like it is, brother!”

We flew into Luxor continued to our first stop of the day at the Karnak Temple. This was a temple dedicated to the god Amun-Ra and was built under the pharaoh-ship of Rameses II. The enormity of this great temple has reminded us that we cannot measure the vastness of God or his reach millennia ago and still today.




We made our way to our new hotel to check in and have an early lunch (since we had such an early breakfast!), to begin promptly at 11:30. At about 11:45, some students noticed that we were missing two of our fellow travelers. Who could it be? Why, it was Rodney and his roommate, Charlotte student Charlie Pratt! Around 12:05, our tour guide, Amir, was going to go check on them in their room, when lo and behold, in walk Rodney and Charlie. Charlie had a huge smirk on his face and we all wanted to know the reason for it. He got everyone’s attention and announced to all how to properly use the balcony doors of our rooms. Come to find out, our friends had not been sleeping or goofing off, they had been locked out of their room on the balcony for thirty minutes!

Charlie described how they garnered the attention of the swimmers of a nearby pool and the people on the rooftop next door performing their afternoon prayer, but the onlookers just waved back enthusiastically! Finally, Rodney and Charlie used their hands to gesture their room number and one of the onlookers responded using hand motions emulating a locking gesture, to which Rodney and Charlie nodded quickly and eagerly, YES! They were then able to be rescued. Very unfortunately, we were not able to seize a photo op in this instance.

Yes, we are giving our beloved professor a hard time, but he has a good sense of humor and has handled it admirably! Thus, we feel it incumbent upon ourselves to share with you how much he has been a part of our learning on this trip.


While we have ogled over the large number of items of antiquity preserved at the Egyptian Museum, the gold, intricately carved jewelry, etc. and the grandeur of the temple, Sally mentioned that Rodney is the one who always teaches us that there is an untold story of those without power and voice; for instance, those who built these amazing structures and catered to this powered-filled, elite class. Rodney left us after a de-briefing following lunch with a quote for us to think about and we want to share it with you. When Becca asked Rodney who authored the quote, he answered with a snark, “Me, of course!” The quote is:

“If we can begin to see beneath the skin, beyond the different colors and different religions and different cultures and different ethnicities, we might just peek behind the veil that hides the very face of God.”

May it be so.

Goodnight from Luxor!

Becca Cummings and Sally Herlong are M.Div. students at Union Presbyterian Seminary. Photo contributors include Sally Herlong, Amanda Hill, and Rodney Sadler.

Adventures at the Pyramids!

By Beth Hill

Today must have been the hottest day in the world, 120ºF. We visited the great pyramids. Amanda, Sally and Joyce had a camel ride! We went down inside an empty burial tomb and saw the oldest and largest step Pyramid of Zoser. One of the most amazing things today was the Solar Boat which was found beside the giant pyramid on 1957 and took 10 years to unearth and restore. This boat was built, disassembled and stored for the trip of the Pharoah to the afterlife. Amazingly preserved for 4,500 years.

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This evening we visited the largest Arab Christian church in the world and listened to Rev. Ben tell about the church in Egypt. Apparently the population of Egypt is 15 percent Christian and of those, 300,000 are Presbyterians. This is an evangelical church which focuses on Evangelism. He told us how satellite TV is answering the questions of Muslims before they even come to the church. The church has 270 small groups. Very interesting. Long, hot day!


The Middle East Travel Seminar has departed!

The Middle East Travel Seminar has departed! Twenty-three participants (including students and faculty from both the Richmond and Charlotte campuses, alums, and friends of UPSem) will be traveling in Egypt, Jordan, and Israel/ Palestine from May 12-31.


We will be visiting museums, churches, mosques, synagogues, and important archeological sites belonging to the world of biblical and ecclesiastical antiquity. We are also looking forward to our engagement with “living stones” in the region: we will have opportunities to observe contemporary manifestations of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity in this part of the world and to converse with religious and other leaders.


Follow our adventures on this blog!

Before departing for their two-week seminar, participants assembled in front of Watts Hall for a blessing and prayer from chaplain Michelle Freeman-Owens. She read to them Psalm 121: A song of ascents, a tradition in her family when any of them leave for a significant amount of time.

Frances Taylor Gench is the Herbert Worth and Annie H. Jackson Professor of Biblical Interpretation at Union Presbyterian Seminary.