"There is an intellectual desire, an eros of the mind. Without it there would arise no questioning, no inquiry, no wonder." Bernard Lonergan

"It seems clear that humans cannot significantly reduce or mitigate the dangers inherent in their use of life by ccumulating more information or better theories or by achieving greater predictability or more caution in their scientific and industrial work. To treat life as less than a miracle is to give up on it." Wendell Berry

"Do not be afraid, my little flock, for it is the Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom." Luke 12:32

Friday, June 20, 2014

Change and Marriage

Friends and members of White Memorial:

Peace be with you during this wonderful summer season.  I am posting this on my blog, Friday, June 20.  I will publish a similar piece on Monday on the cover of our church newsletter.

Undoubtedly many of you will have seen in media sources that the General Assembly of our church, the Presbyterian Church (USA) made a significant shift in how our national church allows for same-gender marriage in states and jurisdictions where same gender marriage is legal.  This first decision, referred to as an Authoritative Interpretation goes into effect on June 21.  The General Assembly also passed amended language about marriage (language which would allow for same gender marriage) for our Directory for Worship, which is part of our national constitution.  The constitutional change described in the sentence immediately preceding this one will not go into effect unless it is ratified by a majority of Presbyteries, our regional governing bodies.   We will not know for many, many months if the Directory for Worship will be changed. Before I write anything else, let me implore you to read some of the links below as these matters are very technical interpretations of church polity, which is church policy and practice.  Let me say it once again, before anyone reading these words rushes to his or her best, or worst, conclusions I implore you to read from these sources which I believe are all fair and trustworthy.  I make this request because simple internet searches will reveal a massive variety of opinion on this issue.  In this way the debate in the church mirrors the debate in our culture.

Let me make three points which I believe are critical as we move forward as a church family as a connected body to our larger church institutions.  1)  The Presbyterian Church (USA) has been embroiled in a painful and contentious conversation about same gender relationships for three decades.  The changes you have heard about are thus not overnight decisions.  There are years and years of discernment, study, conversation and prayers behind them and within them.  2) As the link from Ted Churn our Executive Presbyter and Stated Clerk describes very well, at its essence what the General Assembly did was give ecclesiastical protection under church polity to pastor's who officiate at same-gender marriage services as a matter of their own personal commitment to members of their churches and as a matter of their own personal conscience and convictions.  The assembly also built in a protection that no pastor could be charged or censored for refusing to participate in same-gender weddings as a matter of their own personal conscience or convictions.  3)  At their stated meeting in May, White Memorial's Session was briefed by myself and Ray Watson, a ruling elder elected by our congregation to serve on our Session.  Ray was a commissioner to the General Assembly this past week and he was present for many of the floor debates, conversations, and votes.  Our Session will continue to evaluate these developments and will, if it is deemed necessary, find effective means of prayer, education, and conversation around this matter.

I suspect that many of you greet this news with joy.  I suspect many of you greet it with saddness.  Some may be ebullient.  Some may be angry.  Speaking only for myself, I am resolved to be the finest pastor I can be. I plan on participating in the polity of our church as I give my energy and industry to helping White Memorial be a faithful and inspirational member church of the Presbyterian Church (USA).  In leading our congregation, I realize the significance of this news.  But there were other things that happened at the Assembly that I believe are of equal importance.  Frank Spencer, the son of a Davidson College President and who is from Charlotte was elected President of our Board of Pensions.  Heath Rada, from Asheville, was elected Moderator of the General Assembly.  Heath and Frank are great friends of White Memorial and their election is indicative of the vitality of our church in North Carolina.  A beautiful new confession for the church was commended to the Presbyteries. It is a confession of faith that attests to God's revelation in Jesus Christ being a source of peace, forgiveness, and reconciliation.  It is precisely the kind of word, a Godly word, which is needed in our age of warfare and conflict.  

I pray you'll pray for our national church.  Greet these changes, which will have little direct effect on White Memorial in the foreseeable future, with humility and constancy.  Trust their complexity to God as we resolve to worship, embrace, and serve with one another here in Raleigh and around the world.

May Grace Abound,

Christopher Edmonston





Tuesday, June 17, 2014


I write today from the gloom of heaviness. There is great sadness, loss and grief in our church family and in our faith community. The past year has marked many difficult and tragic deaths which have seemed to accelerate as this spring has blossomed. There is no death that does not affect someone in a deeply personal way. It is not uncommon that a person in their 70's will come see a pastor, mystified as to why the death of a parent in their 90's is so greatly impacting that person. "Why am I so sad?" they wonder. It is quite simple: no matter how natural a death may be, the person who has died was still your mother, still your father. Everyone is someone's family. Thus every death is a great loss and causes those who love to mourn. This is rightly so and as it should be.
There are some deaths, though, which cut broadly across a church community because the impact is greater due to the circumstances of the death, the life stage of the deceased, or the involvement of the person in our church community. Again, these deaths are no more personal or sad than the deaths of others, but they leave deeper wounds. Wounds that will heal, yes, but wounds that require spiritual therapies, prayerful interventions, loving acts of kindness and compassion. Perhaps you might remember some of these with me? Remember with me a young woman, Betsy, in her twenties, whose life ended too quickly while driving home from work. Remember with me Vance, our Sanctuary Choir president, who died suddenly at home. Remember Annette, who succumbed to an aggressive illness and left very young children for her family to raise. Remember L. H. and Rebecca, each with young adult families on the verge of launching into the broader world, who left us in May. Remember those whom I have inadvertently left out, and please forgive my omissions. As you read this, say these names out loud. It is good to name, good to remember, good to trust God through our loss and tears. Remember Simon with me, who at 30 died last week in a senseless accident that tests the faith of even the most stalwart among us. Simon's life touched nearly every area of our church: our youth, our young adults, our Middle-East Committee, and our sports teams. Yes, I'll confess it—it is Simon's loss, especially on the heels of these many others, that makes me feel heavy as I write.
Colleen and I have a dear friend in Charlotte, Sally. Two years ago Sally gave us a book called If There's Anything I Can Do. This book has one simple premise: instead of saying "let me know if there's anything I can do" when someone is sick, hurting or grieving, just get busy with caring. Start praying. Write a card. Bring flowers. Help in the yard. Fix a meal. Encourage a hurting soul to seek a pastor, find a counselor, speak with a Stephen minister. Do something. Take care of each other.
At White Memorial, we talk about Worship, Embrace, and Serve. There is something we can do. This is a season for embrace and embracing. Jesus says, "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted." I have always believed that this statement was partly a call to the comforters. It is a call to us to be agents of healing and care. I sense that our church family, very broadly speaking, is heavy. Today is a day to extend a hand and help one another stand up.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Next 2014

This logo is from the first Next Church back in 2011.  It's old.  It was in Indianapolis.  And the logo is now obsolete.  Little did I know then that I would be still going 4 years later.  And even less I knew that I would be on the Strategy Team, trying to figure out how Next Church can provide leadership and space for congregational leaders to dream and share.  Little I knew how much energy I would be giving to trying to discern how Next might be a vehicle for transformational dialogue and practices.  All the while trying to do this work without being dogmatic or overly didatic.

This work is vital work.  I will confess the exhilaration I feel in being involved in a conversation that seeks to walk longside and with our larger church.  There is an excitement when I see an idea that we might apply in Raleigh.  There is enthusiasm when I hear a young pastor or speaker I have never met before who shares an aspirational idea.

I truly love that Next is optimistic.  There is a confidence about the future of the church, rooted in the faith that the church belongs to God and not us.  This is vocational and it is confessional.  Next is optimistic because there is a trust that God will deliver.  To be sure, things will have to change.  They already are.  But the response to change does not have to be crisis.  It can be hopefulness.   Which is always optimistic.

While optimism is not a fruit of the Spirit, I sure wish it was.

Over the four years, it is apparent to me that Next is growing.

Growth, because of the Spirit, is always to be celebrated.  God calls, Jesus directs, the Spirit equips the church to tend the garden.  

Next is changing.

We are committed to inviting more and more people passionate and optimistic about the future of the Presbyterian church to share and we are going to try to make that more available even beyond the national gatherings.  We are learning as we go, and by God's grace we'll be nimble, adaptive, and find pockets of positive deviance.

Next is impactful.

Reading through the blog-o-sphere we are hitting a stride of a sort with the conferences and we are (I think) about to hit some strides with our other other attempts to connect congregations and promote great ministry.  God has not created a complacent world or church. Jesus did not call the church to stagnate.  We want to be part of positive inertia and when we help that energy be felt, shared, and known then that feels like success to me.

I don't speak for Next Church, but it is an important part of my ministry.  I thank the people who came, who watched online, who have blogged or shared your impressions, your praises, and your critiques of what we offered and what we did not offer.  I want to personally thank Minneapolis and Westminster for their incredible welcome and hosting hospitality.  I learned the phrase "Minnesota nice" this week, and I felt it at Westminster.

If you are someone for whom the ideas, conversations, or connections of Next Church is aiding your ministry, or helping you ask some new questions, or even explore where the Spirit might next be leading you, I (and we) would love to hear your story.  

Looking back over the last 4 years, Next Church has impacted me with its optimism, its growth, its changing and adaptive nature, and its impact.

How has Next Church impacted you?  

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Final Thoughts (for now) - Yad Vashem, the Jerusalem which was, the one which is, and how travel changes (nearly) everything

They don't allow photographs in Yad Vashem.  It is most likely for copyright reasons, you know some proprietary protection of intellectual protperty.  Regardless of the reason the "no photographs" policy is a good one.  There are some stories which are so unique to their locations that they are not easily captured and then retold.  Some stories belong in their fullest telling in a singular place.

(Peter Sabella, our talented tour guide, preps us for our visit to Yad Vasem.  It is there, over that bridge just behind us.)

Yad Vashem, the museum and memorial in Jerusalem which commemorates the Holocaust is one of those places.  Not that there are not other Holocaust memorials - there are.  It is that here we are reminded that the horror of the Holocaust and the creation of modern Israel are intrinsically intertwined.  There is no centrifuge which may separate one from another.

So, no pictures inside.  The books of names, the photograph, upon photograph, upon photograph of faces felled by the worst of humanity.  Some things are too sacred to capture:  digital memory cards and old fashioned film make the holy trivial.  Some sacred things are preserved best by memory

There are some things there which one may photograph.  This is the memorial flame.  Indicative of the architecture of the entire site,the architecture here makes one think of a tomb, of a sealed hall, of a cap being placed upon a vault.  The names of the death camps spread out on the floor.  And like the beautiful stones and places of biblical lore, these places of anything but beauty, well they are real too.  Like the people who lived and breathed the biblical story, the names and faces at Yad Vashem, yes, real too.

It is all horrible.

Yet necessary.

Evil has the potential to win the hearts of men and women until it is named.  Yad Vashem names the evil.

It also makes space for hope.  At least at the end.  This is the final view, leaving the main hall, the main memorial.  Again, the concrete, the triangle, the feeling of being trapped is all around - only here it gives way to light.  It focuses the eyes upon the hope of the land itself.  Think Moses, Mt. Nebo, looking over the Holy Land.  Think the end of death and the coming of spring.  Think new promise.  Because when nearly all has been lost, there is nothing else to do.  When behind "you" is death, then forward is the only way to go.

A trip to Jerusalem must include Yad Vashem.  There is no way to understand the Israel of today without understanding the story that Yad Vashem tells.

There are many competing narratives about what Israel is and what it means as a state in the modern world.  One of the privileges  of preparing for this trip was having the time to read so many books, articles, opinion pieces, and the like in trying to understand the Israel that we would see.  Our group met with local folks from Raleigh who had been before on trips.  We met with people who had been born there.  We met with people who had immigrated to the US by choise and some who had fled for their lives.

I quickly learned there was more than one Israel.

This learning was confirmed while we were there.

Ashkenazi Israel.

Sephardic Israel.

European Israel.

Arab Israel.

Oriental Israel.

West Bank Israel.

Galilee Israel.

Secular Israel.  

Religious Israel.  

Those who believe that Israel has no future without a third temple worthy of the glory of the second.  And those who believe that a new temple is not only a foolish dream be a guarantor of wars and fires of conflict.

It is,quite simply, the most fascinating place I have ever been.  Past and future intersect here in a way that is sigular on the earth.

Africa, Asia, and Europe converge upon it.  Islam, Christianity, Judaism all claim it and converge upon it and within it.  And in the convergence is saddness and hope, glory and confusion, divergent opinions, majority rules and minority voices.  I have read and studied for nearly a year and feel as though I know nothing.

(This is the most helpful model I have ever seen.  It is to scale and each stone is real.  This is Jerusalem  at the time of the destruction of the 2nd temple.  So this is the Jerusalem Jesus would have known.  This is the vantage point from the Mt. of Olives.  Worth noting is the size and prominence of the Temple.  All that remains today are foundation stones form this Temple on the Temple Mount and along the Western Wall respectively.  It truly must have been an awesome sight.  How can the memory of something so long ago, and/or the restoration of a house of worship today -- how can it be so painful and conflicted?)

The glory of the past?

The elusive challenge of the future?

A pretty common question I have received since I returned is along the lines of "did you all see or hear any hopeful signs for peace in the future?"

I can't say that I did.

And, listening to the vitriol surrounding the debate in our own national church, the debate about Israel in our own country as an election cycle approaches, seeing the enormous effort that check points and lock downs require in the Israel of today, hearing from people who actively work as peace negotiators during our stay there... well, may it suffice to say that there is very little agreement about anything there.

About the only thing that the Brits, the Americans, the Jordanians, the Palestinians, the French, the Aficans, and the Israelis seemed to agree upon was that Jerusalem is a hard place to live.

Walking the wall of the Old City of Jerusalem, I became more entranced with the city.  I was intrigued by the difference between in the inside and the outside.  I was charmed by the 900 year old houses and the families who in them generation after generation after generation.

It was time to think deeply.  To pray as I walked.  To recite the words of Christ, "Jerusalem, Jerusalem!"  To look from one side of Kidron to the other.  To observe a living breathing contemporary city that is tethered to its ancient relics.  It stuck me that if one sank then both would sink - the relics need the people and the people need the relics.  Call it cultural and historical co-dependency.  

And though I could recognize this status quo, though I could recognize the strange coexistence between the Palestinians and the Jews, though I could read about and see the push and pull between the secular Jews and the religious Jews, and though I made all sorts of observations, none of these made me any wiser.

The past and the present are my comfort zone.  Like most people I have a proficiency with the status quo.

The murkier future?

Ari Shavit (former paratrooper in the IDF and now self-described peacenik) writes these words in his book, My Promised Land, "What is needed to make peace between the two peoples of this land is probably more than humans can summon."
That is either profoundly depressing or bracingly real.  You can judge as you see fit.  I still do not know and don't expect to know, either.

As we left the Holy Land, I was inundated with layer upon layer upon layer of feelings.  I "walked" where Jesus walked.  I told the story of baptism on the banks of the Jordan.  Our group saw antiquities' finest treasures and we journeyed through the seedbed for the Bible's most sacred claims.

Travel changes everything.  Books can only takes us so far.  Both are necessary and both have value.  But when one travels, one takes some things home and one leaves many thing behind.  I first learned this from a book as a boy (The Hobbit, of course).  I have confirmed it many times as an adult.  One leaves the gate and boards the plane and the world is changed.

The only response can be profound gratitude.  Gratitude to our church for prayer and support.  Gratitude to my family for letting me be a pilgrim far away.  Gratitude for the 18 kind souls who journeyed with me.  Gratitude to those early foremothers and forefathers who opened their hearts and minds to hear the voice of God.  Gratitude for the land which preserved their stories  Gratitude for Christ and his teaching, healing, and redemption here in this very land.

And now that I am home, I am even more grateful.

We prayed that we would be better people upon returning than when we set out.

Indeed, may it be so.  I pray to God that I will remember what I have learned, what I have seen, and what I have heard.

"Thank you, O God.  Thank you.  Thank you.  May your Spirit bless your Holy Land.  May the grace of your Son touch the lives of the long suffering.  May your kingdom come and your will be done.  Amen."

Tuesday, March 25, 2014


We leave in a few moments.  I will blog about our final day, with pictures, from Yad Vashem, the Shrine of the Book, and the National Museum of Israel.  This is including the 2nd Century Model of Jerusalem.

I spent the day walking around the city and the city wall.  The Old City wall that is.  What an amazing city.  Just incredible.  Incredible city for an incredible land.

I close as we leave for the airport with two pieces.  The first is a prayer written by our guide, Peter Sabella.  Peter has guided us through Jerusalem with skill.  He says he is writing a tourist guide to Jerusalem.  If he should finishing it, it will be a masterful piece of information and perspective.

This first piece is a prayer he has written and has shared with groups over the years.

He calls it a Pilgrim's prayer.  It is his work, not mine.  And we began each of our days in Jerusalem with these words:

Pilgrim's Prayer
O Lord Jesus Christ, you simply said two words to Apostle Peter, and he left everything behind him and followed you. From the very beginning he was open to the possibility of having his identity and faith challenged. 
I too, O Lord want to follow you. I am also open to the possibility of having my identity and previous faith perceptions challenged. I have come to seek you. I want to walk with you, see you and hear your voice like the other disciples did. I surrender myself to you. 
Write your Gospel in my heart, open my mind to receive your grace. Help me gain a new insight into my true self. Help me relax my anxieties and frustrations when things don’t seem to go my way! Help me become a permanent pilgrim instead of a passing tourist!
Teach me the way to embrace my brothers and sisters on this pilgrimage and in this land with love, as you have embraced your cross with love.
Lord, I have left family and friends behind. I ask you to keep them in your care and grace.  Grant them patience and peace of heart knowing that I am seeking a transformed spiritual relationship with you.   
I am following in your footsteps, O Lord, hoping that the one who returns home will be a better person than the one who set out!

The second piece is Psalm 67.  I recited it in pews all over this land.  I offered it at the Western Wall.  I offer it to our church today as a prayer.

Psalm 67

The Nations Called to Praise God

To the leader: with stringed instruments. A Psalm. A Song.
May God be gracious to us and bless us
   and make his face to shine upon us,
that your way may be known upon earth,
   your saving power among all nations. 
Let the peoples praise you, O God;
   let all the peoples praise you. 

Let the nations be glad and sing for joy,
   for you judge the peoples with equity
   and guide the nations upon earth.
Let the peoples praise you, O God;
   let all the peoples praise you. 

The earth has yielded its increase;
   God, our God, has blessed us. 
May God continue to bless us;
   let all the ends of the earth revere him.

Yes indeed.  May the way of God, the way of peace, be known in all the earth.  And may all the people praise, praise, praise with their words of love and lives of service.

Thanks for reading.  May you be blessed.

Monday, March 24, 2014

O Little Town of Bethlehem

"O little town of Bethlehem
how still we see thee lie...."

I am no good at politics.  I don't know enough to comment effectively.  So I cannot tell you precisely why this wall has been built in the middle of Bethlhem.  

But I can show this picture.

I am not sure how to explain it or to sugar coat it.  It divides Bethlehem and cuts it off from Jerusalem.  In my mind, Bethlehem has always been far from Jerusalem.  

I have been wrong.  

It is maybe 5 or 6 miles.  And they are cut off from one another.  The birthplace of Jesus cut off from Jerusalem.

Bethlehem Bible College hosted an international conference last month called "Christ at the Checkpoint."  They invite our church each year they have it.  The premise:  if Jesus were born today he would have to go through checkpoints.  Joseph and Mary would have to go through checkpoints (some say as many as 300) from Nazareth to Bethelehem (which is pretty far it turns out).  So what should the church do or say in light of this?  What would happen to the church if Jesus had been detained at a check point?   

The truth is that no American, including us, knows what it is like to live with such walls in the middle of our neighborhoods.  We don't have checkpoints to go to work.  Neither do with live with Israel's security and safety threats.  Or with Israel's memories of the Holocaust.  It is not our reality.

But the walls in the middle of the city of the nativity of the Savior?  6,000 people a day go through the checkpoint at these walls - lining up at 4 AM.  Some days it takes hours.  Like the walls that block the road to Jericho, these broke my heart.  How can these walls be part of any effective solution for peace in this troubled land?

Love wins?  I believe as much.  May it be so in Bethlehem.

(A widow at the Lutheran Church in Bethlehem.  This window commemorates John 6, "I am the bread of life.")

We visited the Lutheran church, which also hosts a small university for Bethlehemites.  It was amazing.  Founded in the 1890's, it is the one Protestant church in Bethelehem.  Years ago, they switched over to Arabic language services which is the language of the Palestinian people here in Bethlehem.  Thus the Arabic in the dome of the church.  Just a lovely, lovely place.

The woman who gave us the tour (the lead Pastor is in the States) said that she prayed for peace and knew it would come, because God had come to Bethlehem once and given the world the gift of peace in the Prince of Peace.  Keep in mind, she has seen tanks roll by her church.  She has swept up after the people in the streets and the army went to blows.  So she has seen what happens when peace is shattered.  And so her deep belief in the Prince of Peace is not casual.  Her words were not empty.

One more thing about the Lutheran Church.  During an expansion project, they found a 2nd Century Cave under the church.  A cave that was a home.  It was replete with cooking instruments, etc..

Here is a poor picture of it.  Bethlehem is riddled with these caves.  This is likely the kind of cave Joseph and Mary stayed in during Jesus' birth.  It was not this cave where Jesus was born.  The cave is elsewhere.  Here is what to note in this picture.  See the steps and how it rises?  That little rise was the "upper room" in a 1st century cave.  Here their cave is set for hosting meals - some church groups want to come and have an authentic supper the way Jesus might have had a meal and so the cave is prepped for this activity.  But you might get the idea.  It is this type of structure that Jesus likely spent his life eating, sleeping, and growing up in.  Note:  as these caves are found, there are mangers carved inside of the doors of nearly all of them.  This is true of this one too.  The manger so that they animals who were brought in on cold winter nights could eat.  Thus the archaeological theory goes that mangers were readily available for Mary to rest her child in the overcrowded little city.

It is believed that Bethlehem had 300 - 500 people living in it at the time of Jesus birth.  For many, many reasons, it is believed that Jesus was born in a meager and simple house (perhaps like the one above) likely owned by realtives (Luke uses "inn" -- as in no "room at the inn."  But there are some translation issues there that I will skip over at this point in time).

The oldest continuing church and congregation in the world is the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which like the churches in Jerusalem, is built directly over the cave and carved out manger that bibically, historically, and archaeologially fit the criteria to be the place of Jesus' birth.

It is an incredible structure.  Old.  Falling down around itself.

This is why there is a major renovation project ongoing.  Much of it is being restored and refurbished.

We waited in another massive line to see the manger, the little room, the meager, dug out home where Jesus is said to have been born.  And I think that on the balance of the evidence, if it wasn't exactly here, it was very near.

I didn't have any of my pictures from the the journey down into the birth site turn out very well.

Peter (the guide) gathered the group up and we sang some Christmas carols together only feet away from the area of the little stone manger.  Singing felt pretty good.  And felt right.  A good and simple way to say thanks to God for the incarnate birth of Christ.

One of the reasons people think the Church of the Nativity is authentic is because of St. Jerome.  St. Jerome died in Bethlehem in 420 AD - he had made this church his home.  So dating back into the 300's one of the geniuses of the faith was an eye witness to the stewardship of the site.

The above photo is of the cave just adjacent to the meager cave of the nativity.  This is the original tomb of St. Jerome, and he was buried in the room where he translated the Bible into Latin, from Greek and Hebrew. That's right:  the guy who translated the authoritative version of the Bible -- the authoritative version for more than 1,000 years, worked in this very room.  

Look at the plaque.  Here lies St. Jerome, "Presbyteri et ecclesiae doctoris."  This means elder and church doctor of course.  How about the word Presbyteri in there?  Our guide saw it immediate, and as he does not know many Presbyterians, we had a discussion about theology and ecclesiology in the tomb and study of St. Jerome.  Are you kidding me?  My inner theologian was smiling from ear to ear.

I geeked out a little bit.

We visited a shop owned by the grandson of the man who first described the Dead Sea Scrolls to the world.  And this jar is the actual jar in which the Isaiah scrolls were found.  That is unreal, really.  

I think our group has done really well.  We have seen many of the stones of the bible, of the ancient world, and of the time of Jesus.  We have greater grasp on what it may have looked like, felt like, and been like.  Ultimately any trip here will be the question - did these stories look and feel the way I thought they would?  That is the point of pilgrimage and study.  I'll never read Sea of Galilee, Mountain of Olives, Gethsemane, or many others again and not think of this week.

The ground may be different today.   But the distances are the same.  With a little prayer and imagination you can almost see how it might have all looked and transpired.

And that is good.

It is a treasure to walk in the footsteps of grace.  A real blessing to cover the earth Jesus and his disciples once covered.  I leave tomorrow with my imagination expanded, and my love of the stories transformed.  What a gift!

We also saw the living stones of this place.  The Muslim men praying at the Temple Mount.  The Jordanian shepherds.  The Jews praying at the Western Wall.  The gracious Palestinians.  The passionate Israelis.  And their collective future is very much in doubt, very much up in the air.

Again, I don't know everything about the walls we have seen, and the flagging peace process.  But I do know this.  Should the living stones of this place find no peace?  Should the beautiful and mysterious Jews and Palestinians who live here and work here side by side, but go home to deeply segregated lives, should these living stones be able to find no peace?  Then the day will come when we who seek the ancient stones will not be able to see and touch and walk in this place.  That would be a two front tragedy.  

A tragedy that peace had failed.

And a tragedy that we are cut off from the story of our faith.

As one of our speakers said, "That's our history, our collective history out there in the Jordan River, we have to both protect it and share it!"

It has been spiritually deeping and humbling to see the places where our Lord was.  They are real and it is powerful to see the the geography of the stories first hand.

You know the line from the prophets, "he shalll be called wonderful counselor, mighty God, prince of peace."  May there be peace.  Deep peace.  The peace of God, which passes all understanding.  May my prayer be that the sons and daughters of God, the lovely and amazing people we have met on both sides of the borders, and the people who care about this place --  may we all be found by that peace.

Peace enough that the ancient stones and ancient stories might live on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on.....  

Tomorrow we head home after a visit to Yad Vashem.  This is a critical and important stop in Jerusalem and is a must for any visit here.  Then to the airport.  I hope to blog tomorrow, but am not sure I'll have WiFi access.  But I will post one or two more blogs, whether I have internet tomorrow or not.



Sunday, March 23, 2014

Holy Chaos

The guide called it Holy chaos.  That would sum up today.  A moving, powerful, and important day.  It was sensory overload in the fullest sense.  A wonderful and touching day that brought together all the themes which have been swirling around us all week.  Bible.  History.  Archaeology.  Complexity of the current situation.

(The line to get into the Temple Mount.  This are the people behind us more than 30 minutes before it opened.)

(Our guide in Jerusalem, Peter, tells the group about the unbelievably complex and intiricate history of the Temple Mount, the focal point for the religion and the debate about the Holy City.)

"You are sitting in the most valuable real estate in the world," Peter told us.  And yes, it is.  So valuable it is controlled by two different security check points.  The list of items that Christians cannot bring in is long, long, long.  Because, afterall, this Muslim Holy site is sitting atop the holiest site in all of Judaism.  

You may go and read the history of the Temple Mount at any time.  How it is where Jesus got lost as a boy.  How it is where Jesus overturned tables once.  How Jesus predicted its destruction.  Read about the Wailing Wall, the Western Wall.  The Dome of the Rock.  Al Asqa.  The Holy of Holies.  Alll of those things.  Right there or near to where our group sat this morning.

(Trying to take it all in.  The mound itself is huge.  Like a giant park.  Only with policemen in riot gear at every gate and with Army soldiers walking around eveywhere.)

In any other time and place it would have been a glorious morning.  It might have been a fantastic stroll through a large park.  A nice place to take in the hills and elevation changes.

But instead its present state is as complex and convoluted as its past.  This site has seen temples come and go.  Fires.  Wars.  The crusaders swept through here killing hundreds upon hundreds on the very stones where we walked.  It is a troubled past.

And as we sit there, one Jewish Youth walks past.  He cannot be more than 24 years old.  He walks a path from which he will not deviate, as he does not want to walk over the site of the Holy of Holies.  He is one of only 2 or 3 Jews who might come in today.  And as he walks by he is flanked by two soldiers.  One a soldier of Israel, making sure that the Youth does not pray, enforcing the no prayer ban handed down years ago.  No prayers other than Muslim prayers on the Temple Mount.  The second soldier?  A member of the Islamic guard which has some jurisdiction at the site observing the Israeli soldier and the Jewish Youth.  One kid.  Two soldiers.  It is a troubled present.

Holy chaos indeed.

The Jews here do pray, of course.

At the Western Wall.  At the foot of the Temple Mount.  

I prayed at the wall.  I touched it.  I wrote a prayer for my family.  I wrote "Psalm 67" on my paper.  And then I tucked it into the wall and closed my eyes and prayed the Psalm as best I could.  As I opened y eyes I was next to an old, old, old man who was praying.  His face was pressed onto the wall.  He was repeating Hebrew phrases.  That was to one side.  To the other was a young soldier.  Praying at the wall. Praying with one hand on the wall and with the other hand on his gun.

I turned around.  Very little boys were running around.  A huge crowd of boys on a bar mitzah trip came pouring in.  And over the wall which separates men and women into two groups at the Western Wall, a young couple held hands over the top of the seperation wall for as long as they dared.

Holy Chaos.

From there to lunch outside of the Old City, and back into the Old City area through the Damascus Gate.

It would not have looked like this in Jesus' time.  2,000 years is a long time.  And most of these walls are 15th and 16th century.  Hadrian (yep, that Hadrian) once built an arch here spanning the bridge and gate that was long ago torn down.

Inside the Damascus gate is an explosion of sight, sound, smell, color, and commerce.  But that is how you get to the Via Dolorosa.  

And the great stations of the cross.

When walking the way and walking the roads and streets, elevations are always changing.  Layer upon layer of the city needs to be unpealed to understand.  There are times when it is hard to tell if you are above ground or underground or under a building.  

Up many ramps and flights of stairs sits the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (place of crucifxion and the tomb of Christ) at the end of the journey.

I cannot begin to explain the history here.  But six different churches have claimed parts of it.  This is so contested that it is actually a Muslim family which keeps the key - the six churches couldn't agree on which one should have the key -- and this has been the case for (I think) at least 1,000 years.

I could write 5,000 words about my feelings being there.  It is a crusaders church in every sense.  It is simultaneously wonderful to be there -- because there are legends and archaeologists who believe that the hill of crucifixion and the tomb of resurrection are located about 30 yards from each other right here  in what now is this massive, ancient, and incredible church.

If you want to be amazed at complexity, do some internet research on the administration of this church.  

It is medieval and dark and stuck through agreements to be exactly as it is.  

I wish I could give you a clear picture of Calvary hill, but it is covered by the church.  

It was probably in or near a rock quarry.   

It was on the outside of the walls at the time of Jesus' death.  

I was very near a set of 1st Century Jewish tombs. 

It was 40 or 50 feet high, though it is hard to tell.  The church is built up here upon layers and layers of buildings and levels and levels of city and streets.  So when one enters you are already "ascending" the small hill of rock.  And then, as you climb the steps of the church you are "ascending" Calvary, or at least the rocks of Calvary.  

Imaging building a giant church level by level over a small rocky hill.  That is the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the church which the sanctuaries are built around the hill itself.  And what is not built around the hill is built around the tomb.

Remember, it is medieval archtiecture.  

So it is dark and very Eastern in style and form.

I found myself saying like many before me, "I am baptized.  I am baptized," thanking God for the many promises which keep us.

I found myself praying thanksgivings for the courage of Jesus and for his resurrection.

But I was easily distracted.  I think the entire Russian Orthodox Church was there with us.  The noise is non stop.  So loud it is like a hum.  Some are people praying and singing.  But a lot is people jockeying in line.  Calling on cell phones.  Priests trying unsuccessfully to get people to be quiet.

There is a lot of veneration going on.

But it is hard to tell how much sacred is happening.

All around is Holy chaos.

These are the most sacred places of faith.  And yet I prayed to God to remind me of Jesus' deepest lessons even in the vicinity of Jesus' greatest acts.  Even in the midst of venerated and miraculous sites, I strained to remember his teachings and his words.  I tried to remember his lessons.  Lessons like the church Jesus loved most was not any one building, but people doing his will, making peace on the earth, proclaiming love, forgiveness, salvation in his name.  Lessons like welcoming children, feeding the hungry, and singing joyfully from the heart.  The church he loved most is the one which talks about, and prays about, and gives witness to the kingdom of God.  

Please don't hear this wrong.  These sites and this place is as special as any I can imagine.  I tremble when I think of the site of Christ's death.  I am awestruck each time I consider resurrection and the promise that knows no end.  And to be so close is a rare blessing!

It is just hard to get to the heart of the matter, to the rocks and the word and the words beneath the rocks, to the core of what is most essential here -- it is hard to get to it through all the things that history, squabbles, tradition, have added onto it.  Jesus came to build a church in our hearts, and one has to peel back the layers of the ones we see to remember this.  Or, if you'll allow, the way this has been built and handed on century after century after century -- it can be difficult more difficult than necessary to see Jesus, the living stone, because of the stones of the church building itself.

As I write at the end of a long day, I think back to Bible school at the Episcopal Church, the Baptist Church, and sometimes with friends, at other churches.  It seemed we always sang, "I am the church, you are the church, we are the church together," no matter where we were.  Good reminder that God seems to care a great deal about the living stones of faith.  A great deal indeed.  I left wondering about the church I will leave behind one day to my family and community.  I left wondering about my ministry. In light of the power of resurrection promise, and in light of the call of Jesus to follow, how am contributing to the building up of the living stones in my midst?

Again, Peter put a good end to the day of Holy chaos.  "No matter what else, good, bad, easy, hard -- all of this happened because of Jesus and what he gave to the world."

Should you come here, remember this.  This city is disorienting for a simple guy like me.  There are traditions and mysteries here older than any memory.  Every inch of the dirt unlocks secrets.  Level upon level.  The interwoven nature of Bible, tradition, history, liturgy, practice, and politics is knotted and tight.  It is impossible to seperate one from another.

(Look at this photo.  I know 1% of what I am looking at.  But look at it.  In the background are all the Jewish graves facing the "golden gate" of Jerusalem - graves on the Mount of Olives.  Before us is a compound that runs parallel to the southern wall of the Old City.  This whole compound is a dig and discovery site.  Once the 15th / 16th century walls stop to the left - the high ones - do you see how other walls keep going just on the ground in front of it and perpendicular to it?  Notice that they are deeper.  Now imagine those partial walls and all that you see there as being under streets, under ground, under buildings.  Can you see those two arches in the left third of the picture, under the gray dome?  Those would have been tunnels, or breezeways, or something, but they would have been understreet, underfoot, underground at some point as well.  And then to the right another wall, built by who or when, I have no idea.  And this is just one site.  So in this city, levels beget levels.  Maps beget maps.  It is the archaeological puzzle of lifetimes!  And many of the sites we visit go up and down, all through these levels to reach the level where things were 2,000 years ago.  It is like Holy archaeological chaos.  I have always appreciated archaeologists.  My respect for them has exponentially increased on this trip.)

But in the midst of the chaos and the crowding, a good reminder sets the heart and the mind and the soul on a good path.

A path that leads to a cross.  The real one, yes, but also the ones we carry with us.

And a path which leads to empty tombs.  The real ones, yes, but so too the ones we carry with us.

Destinations count.  So do journeys.  This trip has been a fine reminder of as much.    

Are their answers to be found here?  Of course.  But one doesn't have to come here to find them.  Find the answers -- find them somewhere between the difficulty of sacrifice and the loveliness of grace, between the paradox of suffering and the power of hope.  

Jerusalem, it seems, for all its permanence, exists in this liminal space.

Like each day since we arrived, it is hard to know what to write about.  Each day SO many things happen.  Each day we see SO many biblical and historical keystones.

I want to share some quieter moments with you.  A Korean Youth choir sang Amazing Graces at St. Anne's church, sitting next to the pool of Bethesda (John 5).  A WMPC choir member actually joined in and sang with them.  It was amazing and simple and lovely.  Best acoustics in the Holy Land we were told.  They didn't disappoint.  

We worshipped at the Church of Scotland today.  St. Andrew's.  Lovely old church and lovely people.  Pretty sanctuary to boot.

Then at 5 PM (our time) we worshipped again.  With a very familiar congregation!

And there you have it.

Sunday in Jerusalem.  It began with bells ringing all over the city.  Old fashioned church bells.

Holy chaos and divinely inspired calm...


Saturday, March 22, 2014

Jerusalem, Day 1, Part 2

If you have not read part 1 yet, please go back and read it.  Scroll down.  Up.  Whichever way it is on yoru computer or browser.  

At least read the introduction to part 1 so this part 2 of the blog will make sense.

Did you ever get a problem you just couldn't solve?  Even though you know you are smart, and everybody in the world is trying to help?  Even though everyone is praying and hoping that it can be solved?
Such is the reality of the living stones of this region, the Palestinians and Jews of Jerusalem.

I hope that if you have never read any history of this region, you will take the time to do so.  There is nothing like it, no place like it on earth.  

I'll leave it at that.

I am not educated, informed, or learned enough to make suggestions.  But I did make some observations.  

This is how the Jericho road comes to a screeching halt in East Jerusalem.  I did not know until we drove it.  I am such a novice -- so naive as to how and why things like this are built.  But the walls are here.  And they are seeking to divide people.  How can that be good?

I don't find a single verse in the mouth of Jesus saying to divide ourselves from our neighbors.  Or our enemies for that matter.

This is the irony of Jerusalem.  So many stories intersect here.  And one wonders - if the walls keep going up, will the stories intersect anymore?  The wall has stopped the ancient road to Jericho (the most important road in Jesus's life?  Just maybe).  How can that be good?  How can that be a way to make peace?

This ancient and modern beautiful intersection of so much of the world - past, present, and future, has those walls stopping the Jericho road just miles away.  Only unlike the walls in this picture (which is near the Jaffa gate in historic Jerusalem) which have gates, the walls in East Jerusalem along the Jericho Road have no gates at all.

We met with two young women today who shared their work and passion for a peaceful future for Israel.  I have not shared their names as I did not get their permssion to do so.  I'll say they both described themsleves as activitsts.  We met with them because, quite frankly, they were willing to meet with us.  And available.  We don't meet with many activists.  I don't really know very many - a few in North Carolina, but not that many.  We all did wonder how the story would be different if we spoke to and Israeli army officer.  But they don't say much on street corners, at check points, or when they board the bus. 

I will say the women were fair.  They did not condemn the army, they understood the threat Israel faced, and they were sympathetic to check point officers.  I think they want a future for Israel which is different than the one in which they were raised.  One with less fear.  And I think that they think that the walls and the settlement movement only increase the fear in their country.  

I should note they were both Israeli citizens.

As we overlooked Jerusalem, this huge fire burned to the South.  It was late in the afternoon and it made this eerie effect.

The smoke sort of covered the sun.

I don't go looking for metaphors or signs.  But what of this?

Can Jerusalem survive?  Will its future drift away like smoke on the breeze?  What of the living stones here?  The people who live and work side by side each day but who rarely say one another's names or know one another's children?  What of the future?  Will it be as conflict prone as the past?

There are more players, interests, and politics here than I have time to write about.  That is for sure.

What is equally sure is this question - call it the connundrum of this place.  Will the people who live here care as much about the living stones who are their neighbors as they do about the ancient stones which undergird their faith?

"Almighty God:  Jesus wept for this city.  Does he still weep today?  Hear the cries of your people Lord:  peace, peace, peace.  In the Savior's name we pray.  Amen."

Jerusalem, Day 1 Part 1

I am going to write two different blogs today.  Because we had two different days, even though it was technically the same day.

This is part 1.

Let me say this:  there are lots of ways to come to Jerusalem, to the Holy Land, to Israel and Palestine.  Some come and see only biblical sites.  Some come and see biblical sites and new testament era sites.  Some come and see biblical sites, new testmanent era sites, and shrines.  And some come and see biblical sites, new testament era sites, shrines, and try to meet people living in the current reality of this place which is complicated at best.  

Our trip was designed in this final category.  The way Dan (the fellow who organized the trip) and I describe it as we want to see the ancient and biblical stones of this place, and we want to meet and hear from the living stones of this place too.

So the first part of the morning was spent on the Mount of Olives.  And the afternoon and evening were spent with two young women working for peace in this place who showed us many places and many things that made the conversations about walls and check points very, very real.  

So today was a day for making things real.  The valleys and hills of biblical Jerusalem -- they are real.  The 24 foot walls dividing villages -- they are real.

This first blog is about biblical Jerusalem and what we saw on our way around it. About the first day we had here.

This is the route that Jesus likely took down the Mount of Olives on Palm Sunday.  Our group is in the background on the road.  Behind me are the acres of graves, Jewish and Muslim, seeking to be near the temple mound and the now sealed "golden gate."  If I was a more apolocalyptic theologian or pastor, I would write a great deal about this.  But instead I'll talk about what was there today.  

Here on the slopes of the Mount of Olives - the ground is crazy steep.  Like Blowing Rock or Boone steep.  Down, down, down it goes until it ends at the Garden of Gethsemane at the base of the Kidron Valley.  There to my left is a somewhat sacred Jewish site.  Notice the fence and the wire to prevent vandalism.  Irony:  Jerusalem is called the "city of peace," and yet there is security everywhere.  Checkpoints.  Young men with guns.  Young soldiers with guns.  Cameras, cameras, everywhere.  That is one just over my left shoulder on a thin white pole.  Cameras dot the whole way down the Mount of Olives.  And I get that. 

I understand their necessity.  

They just break my heart.

To my right is a beggar.  He was loud and desperate.  You should know I rarerly, if ever, give money to beggars.  This is for many reasons -- and all of them intellectually interesting and acute.

If you read the gospels Jesus goes us to Jerusalem from Jericho.  In Jericho Jesus meets Zacchaeus and Bartimaeus.  Batimaeus is a blind man who gets louder and louder and louder.  Jesus stops.

So here we were on the Mt. of Olives, and a beggar shouted louder and louder as we appraoched him.    We are on the same route Jesus took.  We are on the same Mount of Olives where the road to Jercho in Jesus' time both began and ended.  The city was before me.  The words of Jesus to "do to the least" of these echoed in my ear.

So I broke all my neat intellectual rules and I gave the man all the money in my pocket.  Don't know how much (I think about 5 dollars).  And it really doesn't matter.  There were too many synergies to deny the man a brief success.  If even for a moment, I hope he saw in it the top-pence I offered him the  mercy I intended.

(There are 1.000.000 pictures of the Garden of Gethsemane on the internet.  This is my contribution to the library of the photographs.  It really is as cool and wonderful as I hoped it would be.  It looks like the kind of place where one could get lost in prayer.  Is there a more tragic and/or sacred place for the intesction of the human drama that at Gethsemane?)

At Gethsemane and the Church of All Nations, or the Church of the Rock of Agony, people stream in from all over the globe.  Africa.  Asia.  Europe.  And us.  It is wonderful.

Here is the inside of the church.  It is the most visually elegant of the churches we have visited.  As I listened to the catholic mass and prayed for my family in this space, I tried to imagine the many who have come before me praying and praying for those they love and for the world.  

Again, I find myself looking at these ancient stones.  From the walk down the Mount of Olives, to the survey of the great city, to the place of Jesus' final prayer and arrest.

I find myself staring at the ancient stones and wondering what they remember. 

Jesus weeping over Jerusalem?

His long walk from Gethsemane to the home of the high priests, to the Romans, to Herod.  Do they remember that?  What secrets do they hold in the unalterable past?

And then I hear the voice of a beggar growing louder.

I hear the song of what sounded like 1000 Nigerians singing as they march down the hill.

I see the Ethiopians dressed in costumes which make them look like kings as they march the way to Jersusalem proper.

I see all that and I realize that these dormant stones yet support a living faith.

And I am glad for our part in it.

Friends, the city, at a distance really is as wonderful as you have imagined.  Its scope and place in world history is simply unmatched.

But the Nigerians singing, the people crowding, and the small group of North Carolinians who gathered together tightly to pray the Lord's Prayer this morning?  

Well, they are beautiful too.  And for each of these, I am, as I am for this city, prooundly grateful.